Natural and Revealed Law (and Faith + Reason)

A reader raised some great questions on Mark Shea’s blog last week about the interplay between Faith and Reason, and Revealed Law and Natural Law. He was trying to rectify two seemingly disconcordant facts:

  1. Mark Shea had argued that “all men are created equal” is a proposition rooted in Judeo-Christianity, and not something observable simply from Nature.
  2. Robert George continually presents the case that same sex marriage is against Natural Law, not simply Revealed Law.

I. What We know Through Natural Law – And What We Don’t

Both Shea and George are right. For #1, any man-made standard (one’s earning potential, race, sex, disabilities, and usually intelligence) is going to have comparative winners and losers. This isn’t just theoretical, it’s demonstrable. George’s colleague at Princeton, Peter Singer, has argued for the “personhood” of animals, while simultaneously arguing that we should let handicapped infants die. Joe Carter at First Things responds to this notion of “personhood” well:

So a child in the womb is a “non-person human” and has less moral standing than an animal, yet a dolphin in captivity is a “non-human person” and should have the moral standing of an adult human? If that reasoning makes sense to you, congratulations: Your inability to think morally qualifies you to be a professional ethicist.

Singer’s position is totally consistent, though. For him, a “person” is defined functionally: a person is anyone who can do, think, or feel x. This functionalist notion is great for smart animals, but terrible for unborn babies, the severely retarded, the handicapped, the comatose, and mindless Princeton ethicists with no sense of the results of this sort of inhuman philosophy. The only alternative to this is a notion that personhood is intrinsic. This is the explicit position of the Founders of this Country, and it’s a position that’s indefensible outside of religion. This is another example, by the way, of “Post-Christians” wanting to cling to these distinctively Judeo-Christian value structures, even though they make no sense without revealed Truth undergirding them.

For #2, George presents his case better than I ever could. The case is incredibly sound that all forms of marriage outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to basic societal notions found even in the least religious and least moral of cultures. He also succinctly addresses this notion of “personhood,” a commendable feat. Clearly, in the absence of a religion telling them that marriage was between a man and a woman, innumerable societies have practiced marriage in precisely this form. Certainly, there were exceptions, although the usual exception – polygamy – is just an abuse of monogamy. It’s usually the empowered party (men) saying, “it’s not ok for you to have multiple husbands (because that’s intrinsically wrong), but I want to have multiple wives.”

II. An Underlying Error

But that brings us to Mark’s reader’s question. How to rectify #1 and #2. How can we expect societies, absent religion, to know what marriage is, but not something as basic as what human equality is? The reader poses three possible solutions:

(1) the equality of men can be derived only from revelation, but other doctrines of morality are not (but that would tend to undermine the force of the argument that atheists have nothing on which to ground any morality)

(2) it is possible to reach the conclusion that all men are created equal through reason and without divine revelation, but today’s atheists take such an extreme materialist position that there’s no room even for reason to derive moral truths in their system (but that would suggest that human equality is not really derived from a purely mystical doctrine).

(3) reason and the natural law rely, at least at some level, on an acknowledgement of the transcendent, even if they don’t require acceptance of the specific revelation of Jesus Christ (but that would undermine George’s claim that reason alone is sufficient to support his moral claims).

I think that there’s a mistake which leads the reader into this confusion. Natural Law doesn’t mean “atheism” or even “reason divorced from faith.” It means only, “those things observable through reason without specific divine revelation.” In other words, what could a reasonable person deduce from the world, if they’d never heard the Gospel proclaimed?

Romans 1, particularly Rom. 1:18-20 makes it really clear that Natural Law includes theism, as well as knowledge of God’s “eternal power and divine nature.” That is, you don’t need a burning bush or the Son of God to tell you that there’s a God. In fact, there are all sorts of people in the West today who have some foggy notion that there’s a God out there while they disbelieve every existent religious system. These people often mis-identify themselves as agnostics or atheists, which is why we discover crazy things like: “Another finding almost defies explanation: 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with 8 percent “absolutely certain” of it.” That subset of the population, without (apparent) reliance upon any Sacred Text or organized religion is able to determine things like “matter can’t have been created by matter, and this necessitates some sort of God,” “Creation is beautiful – and more fundamentally, there is such a thing as beauty – and this tells us something about the Creator.” Of course, others in this group are people aware of the existence of God, but closing their minds to it, because they want to sin. They can take comfortable that there’s a steady Hand at the wheel, but don’t have to follow those pesky bans against fornication and such. These are the ones who St. Paul refers to in Romans 1:18 as “men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”

People in this group, who hold to some view of Natural Law, while rejecting Divine Law (or at least Divine Revelation as provided by the Church) are capable of understanding why homosexual marriage isn’t really productive for society, and runs contrary to the nature and purpose of marriage itself. This is #3 on the reader’s list, and I think it’s right. The conclusion he draws, however, is wrong. He claims that this “would undermine George’s claim that reason alone is sufficient to support his moral claims,” but that’s not true. Reason alone leads you to the doorstep of Faith, and wholly supports the notion of the transcendent.

III. Conclusion

Natural Law, properly understood, gets you to an understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman. It’s pretty simple, actually. There are massive societal benefits in ensuring a stable environment for child-rearing, which is the just about the only compelling reason for society to give two wits about whether a couple stays together or breaks up. For the same reason, there’s no particular cultural benefit in legally privileging romantic or sexual relationships physically incapable of producing new life. Even cultures which valued some non-reproductive sexual relationships (say, the ancient Greeks, with man-boy sexuality) never thought of them as worth enshrining in marriage. After all, what’s the point?

Heterosexual marriage is worth promoting and protecting legally, not because we really care if “Bennifer” stays together, but because we know for the good of any kids that it’s important to favor stability and disfavor adultery. That conclusion was so blinkin’ obvious to everyone around the world that we see marriage practiced globally in the ancient world, and with surprisingly few variations: regardless of that culture’s views on God.

In contrast, there’s very little evidence that, absent God, reason leads you to conclusions about the intrinsic equality of every human person. By any human scale, some people do better than others: some people are smarter than other people, or taller, or lighter- or -darker skinned, or more masculine or feminine, or more capable of anticipating the future, or healthier, etc. There’s only one scale upon which every human being shares the same worth: we all have souls, and we know that God (as Love) loves each of us wholly. So all of us have souls worth dying for, even death upon a Cross. And since God is “no respecter of persons,” and doesn’t show favoritism to some souls over other souls (Rom. 2: 11), but treats everyone fairly and individually (Luke 12:48), we can conclude that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

But this is a truth “self-evident” only to a Judeo-Christian (or at least, someone from a Judeo-Christian culture); a Hindu, for example, would come to a very different conclusion about the equal worth of all humans, as that religion considers certain humans (Brahmins) worth more than others (Shudras). The Declaration of Independence, unwittingly perhaps, reflects the religious mores of the culture in which it was produced, just as the creation of the Dalit (“untouchable”) class reflects the religious views of the culture which birthed it.


  1. When people argue personhood from a functional standpoint — they tend to fall apart entirely if you point out that sleeping person is an oxymoron by their terms. Some go into ghastly denial. (One, indeed, projected his confusion on me by asserting that my argument was so obviously wrong that I had to know it was wrong.)

  2. I think it’s just about impossible to design a functional definition of “life” or “personhood” which excludes unborn children, but includes the sleeping and the comatose.

    And frankly, any definition which succeeds would be one specifically drawn for that purpose (I don’t doubt that someone clever can figure out a way to halve Solomon’s baby on this one). That is, it isn’t that someone articulated some reasonable objective standard of “life” or “personhood” which just happened to permit abortion and yet not murdering the sleeping: it’s that they devised a definition to make their goal look palatable and less obviously immoral.

  3. “Singer’s position is totally consistent, though.”

    I think you give too much credit to Singer here in order to make your point. Certainly, he isn’t “totally” so. Forgive me for splitting hairs, but we must not legitimize Singer’s sensational cries for attention.

    What about arguing for functional personhood from the standpoint that term “personhood” exists? We could not have come up with the term were it not for the distinct existence of people. Thus, personhood is not an apt term to wholly describe entities outside of humans. Thus, Singer’s argument is nonsensical. Animals and humans do share some attributes, but they also have distinct attributes; they are not the same entities. If a certain dignity is conferred to humans, it doesn’t follow that it should be conferred to animals, because animals are not humans. Singer might say, “Why shouldn’t it?” We would say, “Why should it? Animals are not humans. They’re similar, but not the same.”

  4. Adam,

    That’s a reasonable response, but it seems easily remedied: simply include “member of homo sapiens” as part of the definition of “person-hood.” Then any human capable of certain things (feeling pain, etc.) becomes a “human person,” while any human who can’t (the first-trimester unborn, the comatose, etc.) are “human non-persons.” That’s no less scary, from where I’m sitting.

    But Singer just says, “membership in homo sapiens is arbitrary from an ethical standpoint.” That may be (and is) a dumb thing to say, but it doesn’t contradict the rest of what he says. This seems to be true even if epistemologically, we know of person-hood only as humans in relation with other humans. I mean, epistemologically, our knowledge of “nation” was frequently an evolution from theories of tribal or racial superiority, yet we’ve preserved the notion of “nation” as a helpful tool of classification, long after we ceased believing the old stories of racial superiority.

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