The Meaning(s) of Natural Law - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The Meaning(s) of Natural Law

The IR is pleased to present this excerpt from The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode a new book by R.J. Snell, “one of the young bright lights of natural law thinkers.”

While the natural law itself is universal and invariant, theories about the natural law vary widely. This essay, excerpted from a chapter in The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode by R.J. Snell, attempts to define those differences in an effort to present a new perspective of natural law; one rooted in love. 

In a very helpful essay, J. Budziszewski explains those elements common to all natural law theories. All “share a conviction that the most basic truths of right and wrong . . . are not only right for everyone, but at some level known to everyone by the ordinary exercise of reason. They are an heirloom of the family of man.” Every natural lawyer would agree, he suggests, that basic truths are natural because somehow “embedded into the structure of creation, especially human nature, which includes the structure of the human mind,” and all would agree that this structure obligates or binds. True, known to be true, and right.

Particularly, he differentiates four aspects commonly affirmed by classical accounts, while new natural law demonstrates less commitment to the second and third: (1) a normative structure to practical reason; (2) an evident design to human nature; (3) the particular aspects of this design and the innate purposes and meanings of the designs; (4) natural consequences or discord to violating the good proper to our nature. As Budziszewski indicates, much of the dispute in the natural law literature between classical and contemporary theories pivots around the status of teleology in nature: does nature reveal design, can design be known absent theological commitments, does design entail normativity and obligation, is the Aristotelian paradigm of final causality still meaningful, is metaphysical biology sensible, and does natural law begin with and ground its conclusions upon nature? In short, what is the status of teleology?

As Leo Strauss articulated in his classic Natural Right and History, commitment to natural right seems reminiscent of a world existing no longer, part of a teleological universe “destroyed by modern natural science” and rejected by the social sciences in the name of “History and in the name of the distinction between Facts and Values.”Given the ateleological universe, historicism, and the fact/value distinction, it might appear quite unreasonable to maintain belief in natural law or natural right, for the intellectual substructure is, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, echoed by David Bentley Hart, “unacceptable by the dominant standards of modernity.” Yet the cultural and scientific developments noted by Strauss have not resulted in the withering away of either natural right or natural law but instead contributed to a renewed vitality as some thinkers deepen the commonplaces of the tradition while others develop or stretch the tradition in new directions. This is to be expected, for challenges to a tradition cause crisis, irrational and wooden traditions either capitulating or refusing to engage while more supple and reasonable traditions ask new questions, pose new answers, transpose old answers, and articulate themselves in new and productive directions.

This is not the first time that natural law has developed in response to a crisis presented by some theoretical or social challenge, so we should not be surprised to find it developing previously. And in each of these moments of challenge, I suggest, the crisis has been occasioned by the meaning of “nature.” What is so natural about the natural law; what is nature?

Intentional Differences

In the Introduction [to The Perspective of Love] I claimed that “nature” functioned as a heuristic, which is to say that its meaning comes from what we seek to know, the unknown x, or from what we intend. Since what humans seek to know differs quite radically across cultures, times, places, and tasks, there are consequently many “natures.” This is not an unknowable chaos, however, since paying attention to how our conscious operations work—noetic exegesis—allows us to explain the origin and development of the many “natures” by adverting to the disparate ways or exigences of how humans direct consciousness. Consequently, we can distinguish the multiple meanings of nature, including the historical development of those meanings and the various crises which have emerged in that history, by adverting to the different functions of consciousness.

According to Lonergan, Aristotle expressed something fundamental in the opening lines of the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” When the animal has its physiological needs met, it sleeps, but when the human has met its needs, we do math or theology or go exploring, for our intelligence is essentially dynamic love; so long as we want to know, so long as we care and direct our intelligence towards knowing, our consciousness continues to operate in a cumulative, self-correcting, and indefinite process of accumulating data and acquiring new insights.  This dynamism is for some unknown, and we seek this unknown spontaneously, by some innate tendency, although it “is a conscious tendency . . . we do so intelligently.” Children ask incessant questions, without prompting, according to some inner impetus, although the dull child, the one who does not care to know, can rarely be coaxed or coerced into knowing if he lacks the desire, for knowledge does not just happen because the external data is present but because of the interior condition of inquiry and the interior operations by which we arrive at knowing. The interior condition manifests itself in questions, for we would not ask unless there was an unknown, and we could not ask unless we sought something. Something: what we seek exists as an ideal, but not clearly or explicitly or we would already have what we were seeking.

The transcendental condition of our questions is the dynamic desire to know, and to know what is unknown, an x, and this unknown x functions as a heuristic, as an intended ideal that as yet is not appropriated or known. It is whatever is intended by the question. But what is intended by questions is not empty or abstract. The condition of questioning is transcendental—the “pure question”—but “no one just wonders. We wonder about something.” Of course, we can wonder about many things, in many different ways, and there are different heuristics at different times, in different communities, and so on. The pursuit is intelligent and conscious, but it is not conceptually explicit, and it differs and develops as questions differ and develop, so “how do you proceed methodically . . . to the attainment of something that you do not know, something which, if known, would not have to be pursued?” According to Lonergan, the solution is precisely that metatheory by which we try to catch ourselves in the act of knowing which Budziszewski judged distracting:

The solution . . . to this problem is self-appropriation. . . . The ideal we seek in seeking the unknown, in trying to know, is conceptually implicit. There does not exist naturally, spontaneously, through the whole of history, a set of propositions, conceptions, and definitions that define the ideal of knowledge. But to say that conceptually it is implicit . . . that these statements differ in different places and at different times—they are historically conditioned—is not to say that it is nonexistent. While the conception of the ideal is not by nature, still there is something by nature. The ideal of knowledge is myself as intelligent, as asking questions, as requiring intelligible answers . . . and if we can turn in upon these fundamental tendencies, then we are on the way to getting hold. . . .

Denying any universal set of propositions and definitions may seem surprising for a proponent of natural law, but note as well his affirmation of a basic, universal, and innate tendency—the pure question—to which we pay attention as a clue.

The pure question is innate and universal, but the exigences of the pure question are disparate, with the plurality of “natures” tied to the plurality of patterns in which questions can develop. We should not be surprised to find within the natural law tradition serious differences of articulation and meaning, then; nor should this pose any threat to the coherence of the tradition and its claims of universal legitimacy, for any theory which claims to be inextricably caught up in human reason is thereby inextricably historical. Further, as tied to reason, which has its grounding in the pure question and the dynamic desire to know, we can investigate differences within the tradition as understandable because of the patterns and exigencies of questions.

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R. J. Snell is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University, as well as Research Director for the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God’s-Eye View (2006) and coauthor (with Steven D. Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University (2013).

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