The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Following Natural Law September 26, 2002
The observation of human behavior can often render natural law arguments so difficult as to be moot, particularly when divorced from the notion of sin. What the natural law argument does not adequately account for in this case is the "natural" propensity of human beings to take things from their found contexts and transform them in myriad ways, which from any purely rational perspective can make the line between "creative" and "perverse" exceedingly fuzzy. How do you determine the "proper" ends of human action so that such lines can be drawn? For instance, we might agree that there is an evident natural end to sex outside the realm of human invention called procreation, and that this is necessary for the continuance of human beings. But what is there in that natural end that persuades any given individual to follow it since it is equally evident that most people are not sexually motivated by thoughts of procreation per se, and in fact may make every attempt to avoid it and often succeed? In other words, where is the moral imperative in this natural law, and what is its source?

Hannah Arendt remarked on Jefferson's response to this dilemma when the US constitution was being drafted:

For the trouble with natural law was precisely that it had no author, that it could only be understood as a law of nature in the sense of a non-personal, superhuman force which would compel men anyhow, no matter what they did or intended to do or omitted to do. In order to be a source of authority and bestow validity upon man-made laws, one had to add to the 'law of nature', as Jefferson did, 'and nature's God', whereby it is of no great relevance if, in the mood of the time, this god addressed his creatures through the voice of conscience or enlightened them through the light of reason rather than through the revelation of the Bible. The point of the matter has always been that natural law itself needed divine sanction to become binding for men.(1)

In this arena as in so many others it comes down to the inner war between revealed religion and socialized man. The socialized man continually lives according the mores of his time and place but also suspended between his conscience and his lusts, either of which may run afoul of his social world. In this morally ambiguous mish-mash today's pariah may easily become tomorrow's hero. This being the case, how are we to make use of principles such as the commonly heard 'sexual mores principle,' that is, "anything goes so long as no harm is done?" Particularly if your idea of harm differs from mine, or if the entity harmed is a collective one such as our culture or society, and we do not agree on how that society ought to be constituted. What usually happens here is that when in doubt, we err on the side of our personal prejudices and call it good.


Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, p. 90

Related Web Links: Natural Law  
Natural Law (Wikipedia)
Natural Law and Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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