Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sins against nature

"Given the sin of impiety through which they [the Romans] sinned against the divine nature [by idolatry], the punishment that led them to sin against their own nature followed.... I say, therefore, that since they changed into lies [by idolatry] the truth about God, He brought them to ignominious passions, that is, to sins against nature; not that God led them to evil, but only that he abandoned them to evil....

"If all the sins of the flesh are worthy of condemnation because by them man allows himself to be dominated by that which he has of the animal nature, much more deserving of condemnation are the sins against nature by which man degrades his own animal nature....

"Man can sin against nature in two ways. First, when he sins against his specific rational nature, acting contrary to reason. In this sense, we can say that every sin is a sin against man’s nature, because it is against man’s right reason....

"Secondly, man sins against nature when he goes against his generic nature, that is to say, his animal nature. Now, it is evident that, in accord with natural order, the union of the sexes among animals is ordered towards conception. From this it follows that every sexual intercourse that cannot lead to conception is opposed to man’s animal nature."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: Super Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, Cap. 1, Lec. 8.
(trans. by TFP Student Action)

Rommen: “There is no law without morality"

“THERE is no law without morality. An immoral law is a contradiction in terms or simply a statement of fact, namely, that this positive legal norm conflicts with the moral law and hence can impose no obligation, though the state may have the physical power to enforce it. The will to achieve an ever greater approximation of the positive law to the norms of morality is so deeply rooted in man that even the positive law is always referring to morality. Often enough the judge, as was already the case among the Romans with their doctrine of aequitas, is not content with a mechanical subsuming of particular instances under the general norm but allows equity to play its part. In extreme cases, however, he goes back to the will of the lawmaker, who is assumed to will only what is moral; or, if the literal meaning of the law is impossible, he puts forward an independent interpretation of the meaning of the law, on the ground that the lawgiver could not have willed anything unjust.”

~Heinrich A. Rommen: Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, p. 188.

Some Aquinas humor!

Thomas Aquinas ("Venus" by Bananarama)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Natural Law

By Walter Farrell, O.P., Companion to the Summa
Chapter XVIII, The Compass of Happiness (Q. 90-94)

If we could borrow several pairs of eyes from small boys in New York and through them look at a police officer patrolling his beat, we would be as surprised as would a primitive man if he could look through a microscope at a drop of water. Both policemen and water are taken for granted. Policemen are just another part of our lives; we hardly consider them for months at a time and then only superficially. But children have a knack of plunging deeper. To some of these children the policeman is a bogey man whose job is to spoil as much fun as he can, a person to be watched out for and to be fled as the supreme evil of a child’s life. To others the policeman is nearly a god. He carries a gun, looks fine and brave in his uniform, is the master of the child’s little world; the boy hopes that some day he too can find a place among the gods and be a "cop". Still others look on the policeman with that frank, easy familiarity which children give co freely to those who can walk sympathetically on their level. The "cop" is a big, good-natured, easy-going chap whom a boy can approach without fear of condescension or babytalk.

Of course we have outgrown all this. To us a policeman is just a policeman and we are rather smug about having discovered this great truth. As a matter of fact we have not grown up so very much. We have merely transferred the point of view from the policeman to the law he enforces. To some of us law is a spoil-sport, a barrier limiting our activities, an expression of tyranny to be evaded whenever possible. To others, law is a kind of god; the supreme remedy for every evil is more legislation. To others, law is a friend directing men through the hazards of the traffic of life, a reasonable, human, friendly help to happiness.

Law and life: Motion and its direction

We must have some such view of law because law enters too intimately into human life to be overlooked. We must think about life because we must live life; that means that we must think about law. Just what we think of law will depend to a great extent on what we think of life. From our study of human life in this volume, we can picture it as a fairly brief walk toward some goal. The steps by which we approach that goal are our own human actions. More importantly, life is a walk to or away from the right goal, to or away from happiness; it is a motion that sweeps towards a goal of our choosing, a motion, in a word, that is going somewhere.

The goal and the path to the goal

Putting it briefly, we can say that human life is directed motion which reaches its goal at the moment of death. Saying that, we have stated the nature and work of law. The direction of the motion which is life is precisely the work of law. Law, then, is a friendly thing anxious that we keep to the right road. Its directions are not the impersonal information of the sign-post, nor the uninterested information of the complete stranger, but the friendly direction of one whose interest is great enough to include severity, of one who realizes our feelings of the moment are not nearly so important as the avoidance of personal disaster.

Sources of confusion on law: Fact of confusion

Yet this is not at all the view of our age on law. The output of our legislatures and the content of their laws are vivid testimony of our almost ridiculous faith in law. Our complete surrender of every department and activity of human life to the laboratory gives an inkling of our wholehearted worship of recently enthroned physical or scientific laws. Yet at the same time we thoroughly resent law, are not adverse to flouting it, demand the release of the individual from the clutches of law, and, as a final absurd touch, we insist upon tossing aside the only foundation upon which law can rest.

Its sources: errors on fundamentals of human life

All this is another of those modern paradoxes that come from the attempt to deny the humanity. of human life and at the same time to live that human life. The strange part of this modern attitude is that we have any regard for law. What we think of life determines what we think of law; and our notion of human life is a sorry thing indeed. Our confusion about the goal or end of human life, or our denial of such a goal, thoroughly robs that motion which is human life of its meaning. Denial of intellect and will robs our actions of their personal character and so effectively freezes that motion which is human life, for the steps by which life moves to its goal are exactly our personal, our human actions, proceeding under the control of reason and will. We do not know where we are going, or indeed if we are going at all. We are sure in any case that we cannot move. Of course we will have fantastic ideas about the direction of human life.

Our work in this chapter is fairly easy because of what we have already accomplished. In the beginning of this volume we established the fundamentals of human activity, the meaning of human life. We are moving towards a goal by our action; law’s work is effectively to direct that action in view of the goal. Of course we are not talking here of law as it is filed away for reference in a code nor as it is in the subject whom it obliges, but rather of law as it is in the lawmaker. In that strict sense we can accurately place law by remembering that law is a command, it is a rule of human action.

Essence of law: A command of reason

Law as a command indicates immediately that law in the legislator is an act of the practical reason, for command, as we have seen, is that act of reason which takes charge of the difficult work of making our decisions materialize in spite of the difficulties offered by passing from the internal to the external order. In fact this notion of command clearly shows the elements of will and reason that go into law. It will be remembered that in command there is an element of ordination or direction, of intimation or declaration, and of movement. It is not merely movement, not merely direction, not merely directive movement to which no one pays attention; but effective directive movement. So law as command presupposes movement of the will, direction of that movement by the intellect, and the passing on of that directive movement to the subjects who are being directed. Directing or ordaining and the intimation of that direction are the work of reason; movement comes from the will.

This essential notion of law shows us the movement of the will flowing through the intellect to the subjects of law; the immediate, the eliciting faculty from, which law springs is the intellect. This is no mere academic point. Rather it is absolutely fundamental for an understanding of the limitations of government and the protection of human rights. The will of the superior, his whims and caprices, cannot be imposed on a community simply because he is the superior. His subjects are to be directed, not played with. His orders, to be law at all, must be reasonable, must be directions of reason to the goal of reason or they have no binding force.

This truth is tremendously important. Yet, like so many important truths, it is obvious. Take law as a rule of human action — and certainly no one will question that — immediately we remember that the rule of human action is reason and so of course law is a thing of reason. Our actions are human in so far as they are reasonable, reason is the rule by which we judge of their humanity; the form that gives them humanity, that breathes the breath of human life into their cold clay is our reason controlling, directing them along paths we have chosen. We can put this even more concretely by saying that law is an act of prudence, of that intellectual virtue whose work is to stamp the brand of reason on the actions that proceed from man. Like prudence, law does not select the goal or give orders concerning its establishment, it must take the goal as it finds it, for the material of prudence is the steps to that goal, the actions which are called forth by the attractiveness of that goal.

To the common good

Law, then, is not the produce of a legislator’s indigestion or the nagging of his wife. It is a product of reason. Laws do not pop out of the legislature because the congress is in the mood for legislation or because there is nothing more exciting to do. Like all acts of reason they are themselves for a goal or they are not laws at all, not reasonable at all, not human at all. And the goal at which all law aims is usually called “the common good”.

The phrase “common good” may sound a bit vague. Certainly it has been tossed back and forth carelessly enough to have the life shaken out of it. But quite simply it means the attainment of the end for which a society exists. If the society itself and the rule or law of that society do not go steadily in that direction, that society is an impostor in the social order. Let us take that phrase “common good” more concretely, in the sense of the common good of the state. The immediate common good of the state might be summed up in the one word “peace”, or in the phrase “the preservation of unity”. It is an end constituted by the assurance of the necessities of life to the subjects, by the establishment of internal harmony through just distribution of rewards and penalties and by giving security against external enemies. The ultimate common good of the state has been summed up by Thomas and Aristotle as “the life of virtue” or the life of reason for the whole community. In plain language it means no more than the assurance to all the subjects of the opportunity to follow the law of reason to individual perfection, the opportunity to live a successful human life.

Turning to the little kingdom which is the individual, we find the immediate end of the individual precisely the living of that human life, the steady progress to the goal for which he was made. The ultimate end for each individual is the attainment of that goal, the full perfection of human nature, the peak of human hopes realized in the eternal vision of God. Let us put it frankly and say the measure of the extent of civil government is the need of the individual. The state exists for the individual as a man; the subject, as subject, is a part of the state and as such exists for the state. But he is a subject only in so far as he needs help, and the very ends of the state for which, as a subject he must work, are ordained to his life as an individual.

This is a harsh saying indeed for the ears of the modern world. But why should it sound so harsh? Why should the insistence that law aims always at the goal of presenting the individual with a chance to live a full human life sound like an insult to constituted authority and the majesty of the state? Who, after all, has the right to make these laws, who has the right to order this man or that man about, to tell him what he can or cannot do? Certainly no other individual has that right. A dictator may be strong enough to enforce his will or a politician corrupt enough to turn the state to his own ends and subtle enough to fool the people into following him. In either case the regulations made are not law but tyranny; these men are giving not government but injustice; it is not a state they are heading but a group of men and women beaten by force or intrigue into slavery.

By authority

“Stick to your last” is more than a proverb. We do not call in a psychoanalyst to care for a broken leg, nor do we expect the broad muscles of the back to decide a delicate question of political policy. Direction to an end belongs to the one for whom that end is a goal, to whom that end belongs; and the end of the state is not the property of any individual but of the community. The making of laws is the work of the community or of someone to whom that community power has been delegated, to someone who has care of that community. But whether the community is acting directly or through an individual, the goal of law must always be the same — the common good.


There is one more point to be considered for the essential notion of law, namely its promulgation. Promulgation is not a part of the essence of law, it is merely law’s application. If a law is to be obeyed it must at the very least be so published that the citizens or subjects can know the direction their actions are expected to take. The classic definition of law, then, a definition containing just the four elements we have explained thus far, is: law is an ordination of reason for the common good by him who has care of the community — and an ordination promulgated.

Varieties of law in general: Eternal law

For some reason or other, humanity often misses the obvious. We do not see the wood for the trees; it is a common human experience to overlook love because of its steady stream of unobtrusive thoughtfulness. Somewhat the same thing is happening today: the multitude of human and scientific laws are the trees that hide the forest, the bustling expressions of profounder government that itself goes unnoticed or is denied. The variety of law is not summed up in these two. The universe is very carefully governed (as we saw in the first volume of this work) and government or direction to an end is the effect of law. The universe is governed by a divine Governor, ordered by the dictate of the reason of God, ordered for the common good, the ultimate end of that universe, and that direction, that ordering, like everything in the mind of God, is eternal. Putting it in another way, the world is governed by God and a detailed plan of that government, which we call providence, exists in the mind of God; the root of that providence and government, the universal principles from which providence proceeds to its detailed conclusions and to the execution of those conclusions, we call the Eternal Law.

Natural law

In God that law is the Eternal Law; the same law as it is found in creatures is called the Natural Law. Natural Law is, then, nothing more than a participation of the Eternal Law by creatures. We find a purely passive participation common to all creatures in the form of natural inclinations to proper goals; or, again as passive but proper to men alone, in the light of reason naturally, intuitively knowing first principles; and, finally, in its only active form, we find this participation in the natural dictate of human reason by which man regulates both himself and other creatures.

What this really means is simply that this law is natural, that God, having established nature, respected His own creation. For this means that every single thing in the universe is governed or directed by God but each single thing according to its nature. The truth is so obvious that we take it for granted but still overlook it. We would be totally astonished to see a squirrel developing like a tree or shrinking under spring rains like a cheap suit of clothes; and our astonishment would have this profound truth as its basis. Man, like every other creature, is a part of nature and, like every other creature, is governed according to his nature; that nature is a moral or free nature, master of its own acts. As far as he has animal and vegetable nature we find man subject to the same necessary physical laws, or passive participations of Eternal Law, which govern the rest of creation; but in so far as he is man, he cannot be other than his own director, he must somehow direct himself, he cannot be necessarily pushed this way and that and still remain free. His natural law must be a moral not a physical law.

Only in that active participation of the Eternal Law in man do we find Natural Law in the strict sense, i.e., as an active principle, a dictate of reason in the legislator. In every other case we are dealing with law not as it is in the legislator but as it is in the subject of that law. But man is in a sense a legislator for himself. For the complete statement of natural law in man, then, we must include his natural inclinations, the recognition of those inclinations by reason and the dictate of reason which follows naturally from this recognition. We shall look into all of these later on in this chapter. It is worth pointing out from just this silhouette of the Natural Moral Law that it is neither imposed from the outside upon man nor does it depend on the will but rather on the reason of almighty God.

Human law

Eternal Law is the universal principle from which providence proceeds to the detailed plan of world government. Natural Law is, in its own way, a declaration of universal principles from which men proceed to the government of human life. Of course these in themselves are not sufficient; universal principles never are. It was all very well for St. Paul to say that “charity fulfils the law”; theologians and confessors have been kept busy ever since trying to point out to men and women what here and now answers the description of charity. These universal principles not only need application, they need further determination. We know the pedestrian’s life must be protected and there are several ways of protecting that life: we might destroy all automobiles, drive at five miles an hour or follow a system of traffic lights. Which shall be adopted? That is the work of human law and its reason for existence, namely further to determine the universal principles of Natural Moral Law. Human law was not meant to supplant Natural Moral Law or to change it but to supplement it by more definite determinations.

Divine positive law

In fact even these three are not sufficient for the important work of guiding man to his end. Over and above Eternal Law, Natural Moral Law and human law, a divine positive law is absolutely essential to fill in the gaps left by the others. Natural Moral Law does very well as the universal principle of guidance for man’s natural life; but he has a supernatural life to lead. Even in the natural order, as we get further from the universal principles and closer to particular actions more and more mistakes creep in; and this guidance of man in successful living allows of no mistakes, since every error takes on the tragic aspect of personal calamity. As far as human law is concerned — well, even if detectives had the intellectual acumen of the highest of angels, they could not uncover a man’s infernal actions, the precise actions that are virtuous or sinful, the actions that determine the success or failure in human life. Human law deals only with externals and not too successfully as a glance around any large city in America will amply prove. Certainly law should punish evil; human law can take care of only a very little of the external evil that men commit.

Effects of law: Making men good

When human law does try to punish all evil the result is confusion and often comedy. We have had a prohibition law, a law closing an international bridge at an early hour to prevent Americans from gambling in a foreign country, and a law banning sweepstakes tickets from the mails. These go beyond the prohibition or punishment of evil. Many other laws go further in the same direction; so far, in fact, as to reach a point of hilarious absurdity and furnish the material for a regular cartoon feature in one of our monthly magazines. Behind all this is, perhaps, the notion that since law’s purpose is to guide men rightly the purpose of law is to make men good. That notion is true enough as far as it goes; but not a step farther. Certainly every law tends to make men good citizens; but just as certainly no law which stops at the outer walls of man’s citadel, which cannot reach in to guide the intellect and will of man, can hope to make men good in the full and absolute sense of the term. A good man is distinguished from a bad man precisely because the will of the first is straining eagerly to the goal of human life, while the will of the other is slinking away from that goal.

Integral acts of law: precept, prohibition, permission and punishment

Within its own field law aims at the limited goodness its guidance can confer. Sometimes it works to this end by stern command, again by frowning prohibition, at another time by suave permission or, frequently enough, by a punishment calculated to bring the offender to his senses, to teach a salutary lesson to others or to restore the upset balance of justice. Not that every law must do all four of these things; but there is no law that does not place one or another of these integral acts of law. In mentioning these integral acts of law St. Thomas makes no mention of obligation. He takes that for granted because obligation flows from the essential notion of law as an effective dictate of practical reason. The very nature of man which makes moral not physical guidance a necessity indicates that the force of such guidance cannot be physical force but rather the moral force which we call obligation. We shall see more of obligation later on in this chapter but this will suffice to close our general examination of law and its varieties.

Eternal Law: Its nature

Plunging into an examination of the Eternal Law means no less than fixing our attention on an act of the mind of God Himself. And we go at it rather nonchalantly, as a boy back from college wanders unconcernedly through the house with the complete assurance of one at home. Our attitude is a part of that “slavery of dogma” which sets us free to wander through all eternity and even to plunge into infinity itself. We belong there, we are at home. So we do not hesitate to apply strictly our essential notion of law to the eternal act of the reason of God which is the foundation of the orderly direction of the universe. Like all law this is an act of the practical reason of the Governor of the community which is the universe. Like all law, it directs that community to its common good which is God Himself. Like all law, it deals only with the means to that goal. And like all law, it is promulgated — on the part of God from all eternity, on the part of the subjects, in time. All this St. Thomas has packed into his concise definition of the Eternal Law: “the type of divine wisdom which directs all actions and motions.”

In itself the Eternal Law is one of the secrets of divinity to be unfolded to us when we see God face to face. Just now that law is known directly only by the angels and saints in heaven; only God Himself will ever fully comprehend it, for only the infinite can grasp the infinite and everything in God is without limit. We can know it only through its effects. As a matter of fact every man does know something of the Eternal Law.

Its universal recognition as truth and law

An industrial captain who could so efficiently organize his industry that the mark of efficient organization was apparent in every least employee would be a bit of a genius. If the office boy’s attack on his lunch or the stenographer’s stroke in powdering her nose reflected something of that organization and character, we would readily grant that the industrialist had extraordinary genius and extraordinary power. That is something like what we are stumbling over in the universe all the time. Every smallest particle of truth uncovered is an unveiling of the beauty of the Eternal Law; a lover of truth is a lover of law and the searcher for truth is constantly discovering the beauties of the Eternal Law. Putting it more simply, the universe has somewhat the same relation to the mind of God that a house has to the architect’s plan of that house. The intellect of God is the measure of the perfection of things, as the architect’s plan is the measure of the perfection of the house; to us as onlookers, the house and the universe are the measures of the perfection of our knowledge of them. The mind of God measures the truth of things, and things measure the truth of our minds; and reason, as the rule or measure of things, is law. Every truth has its origin in the Eternal Law of God; every defect of truth is a falling away from that infinite measure of things as they are. Every man knows something of the Eternal Law, for even the humblest of us knows something of truth — at the very least, the first principles of thought and action which come to us naturally with the use of reason.

This is not, it is true, a knowledge of the Eternal Law as law. But even under this formal aspect of law as law, the Eternal Law is known in its effects by every man. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that there is someone who is ignorant of the smooth order of the universe or some part of that order, some physical law, some relation of cause and effect, there is no man or woman who does not know the Eternal Law in its effect within themselves, ruling them, directing them. That is a statement which will be seriously challenged today. But it can be questioned only at the price of denying to men a knowledge of those first practical principles of human action, “do good, avoid evil “; or, putting it in another way, only by denying that men know they must act for a goal if their actions are to be human. Such a denial must proceed against all the evidence, as we have seen in the first chapter of this book. Even more simply, we can say that the denial of a knowledge of the Eternal Law as moral law operating within ourselves is a denial of the Natural Moral Law, for the Eternal Law as participated by men is the Natural Moral Law. Such a denial not only violates all the evidence, it goes to the absurd extreme of making man the freak of the universe, the only creature without a proper natural law. As a brief summary of all this, we can say that in man there is a double participation of the Eternal Law, one under the aspect of truth, the other under the aspect of law; and under both aspects the Eternal Law is universally known by all men.

Source of all law

If we refer back to our essential notion of law as an effective directive motion and apply that notion to the Eternal Law we are brought face to face with a profound and significant truth. Eternal Law is not only an effective directive motion, it is the first of such motions, the beginnings of all government; consequently it is the source of all other such movements, of all other laws. This is clear when we stop to realize that every other directive movement will do no more than carry out some detail of that government of actions and motions which is the field of the Eternal Law.

We can rigidly prove the primacy of Eternal Law by St. Thomas’ first argument for the existence of God, the argument of the first mover upon whom all notion depends. All other laws are linked to this first law like railroad coaches to the locomotive; no matter how far down the train we may go, each coach depends for its movement on the motion of the engine. In the concrete this is evident. No human law can violate the Natural Moral Law and still claim to be a law, because it cannot still pretend to aim at the ends of nature, the common good of the state and the individual. So every human law is a law only in so far as it is in harmony with Natural Moral Law, and Natural Moral Law is nothing more than Eternal Law from the side of man. The truth is so obvious that we find it difficult to see it clearly. Every law is an ordination of reason; and every operation of reason is derived from that which is according to nature, from the first principles naturally known, which of course are mercy[merely(?)] another bit of the Eternal Law as it is in man.

Subjects of the Eternal Law

The sweep of Eternal Law has the magnificence of infinity about it. It rules over the kingdom of the universe and embraces as its subjects absolutely every created thing, action and motion. Its magnificence is deeper than we ordinarily realize, for it not only includes the extent of the universe, it includes the depths of every created thing. Contingency, necessity, and freedom are products of this divine guidance which, unlike the guidance of human law, does not rest content with a subject’s knowledge of its ordinations but imprints those ordinations in the depths of every created nature. Just as necessity in the physical order finds its explanation in the Eternal Law, so freedom in the moral order is not an exception to but rather an indication of the all-including embrace of God’s eternal guidance of His creatures to Himself.

Natural Law: Its nature

There seems to be no serious difficulty about the de facto ordering of the physical universe. The difficulty for our times comes in the ordering of the moral universe or, more technically, in the participation of the Eternal Law by the rational creature that is man. What is this Natural Moral Law which we insist is the guiding principle of man’s human activity? Nature has the right to feel a very much insulted old lady for all the actions of man that have been blamed on her lately, for all the unflattering descriptions, for the out-and-out favouritism she has been accused of showing to the physical universe.

Acquaintance with her is not at all difficult. She attempts no superior or inferior airs when she steps into the higher world of rational life. She is her old, plain, dependable self. Of course man is guided by natural law — he is an integral part of nature. Of course he is guided by natural law in accordance with, not in violation of, his nature. He is then guided to his end by a Natural Moral Law, for his nature is moral, free, rational, gifted with the ability to control his own actions, to pick his own path, to go to his end or away from it.

There has been a tremendous amount of vagueness attached to the notion of Natural Moral Law, a kind of dense fog clinging to it to give it an air of mystery, eeriness, unreality. It should not be at all mysterious. Like all other animals, man has natural inclinations; unlike all others he has the faculty of reason which recognizes these natural inclinations naturally; and the result of these two is a natural dictate or command of reason. There is no more to Natural Moral Law than just this: a passive participation of Eternal Law in common with all creatures; a passive participation proper to his nature; and an active participation of Eternal Law again proper to his rational nature.

In this last, the dictate or proposition of practical reason, precisely consists the essence of the Natural Moral Law, answering to all the essential notions of law we have exposed in the beginning of this chapter. But this dictate of reason is unintelligible as natural law without the preceding inclinations and light of reason. Put it this way. Separately the inclinations of man or the light of reason do not at all answer to the description of law; separately the dictate of reason does not answer to the qualifications of the natural, for it is not born in us. With the three elements taken together all difficulties about the Natural Moral Law vanish. This dictate is natural, necessary as flowing immediately and inevitably from the two preceding elements, dependent upon them.

Its precepts

Stated plainly, this dictate of reason robs the Natural Moral Law of all its vagueness. This first necessary and natural dictate of practical reason is: do good, avoid evil. The “good” here is that which is according to natural inclinations, the “evil” that which is against those inclinations; for the whole purpose of man’s natural inclinations, as natural, is to indicate what nature needs for its perfection.

Let us compare the practical reason, which produces law, to the speculative reason of man. After all, they are not two faculties, but one; so the speculative and practical operations will proceed in the same manner. In the speculative order, dealing with truth for its own sake, the first principle is founded on “being” — the object of the intellect — and is: “what is, is”, the principle of identity. In the practical order, which deals with actions, the first principle is founded on the object of appetite, the root of desire and action — on “good” — and is: “good is to be done, evil is to be avoided”. In other words the goal or end, the object of desire, is at the root of all action, is indeed the sole explanation of intelligent action; this first principle demands that man act for his end.

But what is good? That is easy. Good is what is in accordance with the natural inclinations of man. The natural inclinations guide the practical reason to good; then the practical reason guides the appetites of man and their inclinations to the attainment of that good. Nor is this a vicious circle. The inclinations of man’s appetite are his guide to truth relative to the end or goal; for the means by which that end is to be attained, reason takes the lead and points out the path. This is only to say again that law does not establish an end, or point it out, but rather, as an act of the virtue of prudence, guides our steps to that end.

This is the first and fundamental command of the Natural Moral Law in man. From it, by way of conclusion, immediately follow the secondary precepts of the Natural Moral Law which are restated in the ten commandments, then the more remote but none the less direct conclusions.

The first is known immediately by all men; everyone can easily know the secondary precepts by taking the rational step down from the principle to these immediate conclusions. The remote precepts are known only by the wise and then with difficulty and with a frequent admixture of error. For always as we get further away from the principles we run greater risks of mistakes.

Source of virtue

Another way of classifying these precepts would be by comparison with the rest of nature. Some proceed from the natural inclinations we have in common with all creatures, such as those commanding the conservation of life; others proceed from the natural inclinations we have in common with all the animals, such as the command to generate and educate children; still others proceed from the natural inclinations proper to human nature, such as the precepts to know truth, to live in society, and so on. All of them are moral precepts because the acts they command proceed under the controlled direction of a moral or free agent. We cannot excuse any of our actions by pointing to parallel action in the animals and saying “it is natural”. For us an action is natural only in so far as it harmonizes with the law of reason. This agreement with reason is not only the mark of naturalness, of humanity, it is the stamp of virtue; our actions are virtuous or good exactly in so far as they harmonize with the commands of reason, or, in other words, precisely in so far as they follow the directions of reason and move towards the goal of man. In one sense it is very true that all virtue comes from the Natural Moral Law, that is in the sense that all virtue is in complete harmony with Natural Moral Law; but of course there are many acts of virtue which are not demanded by nature. In fact Natural Moral Law deals primarily with those things which are essential for the living of human life.


On the face of it, Natural Moral Law should be universal. It flows from the very principles of nature itself and human nature does not change, however much we may coddle and embellish it. As a matter of fact the law is universal, the same for all men and in all men. There is no difficulty about the natural inclinations and the light of reason; these innate elements of Natural Moral Law are found in each and every man. As to the dictate of reason, the precise element of Natural Moral Law, we must distinguish very carefully between the different classes of precepts. The first and fundamental precept, "do good and avoid evil", is absolutely universal; always men act for good, every goal of action must wear at least the appearance of goodness. The secondary precepts, or ten commandments, are morally universal, i.e. they are known by the overwhelming majority of men because the overwhelming majority of men can see a conclusion that immediately follows from a first principle. Among the minority, some of these precepts may be unknown by reason of corrupt appetites, bad habits, education, tradition. And this is of considerable importance in view of our materialistic education in America today.

Actually the universality demanded by St. Thomas for the ten commandments amounts to this: none of these commandments have dropped out of the minds of all men; all nations or groups know the majority of these ten commandments. This type of moral universality seems to be experimentally vouched for by the findings of modern anthropology, as far as these findings allow conclusions to be drawn. The more remote commands of the Natural Moral Law can be, and frequently are, lost sight of for much the same reasons as militate against knowledge of the ten commandments, with the added reason of difficulty in tracing the connection of these remote commands with the first principles of Natural Moral Law.

Incorruptibility and mutability

In other words, the Natural Moral Law is in one sense immutable; in another it is subject to change. Whatever change there is in Natural Moral Law will fall on the secondary and remote commands of that law; and that change can either be a real subjective change in the form of ignorance of those commands, or the apparent objective change involved in the mutation of the material with which a command deals. If a man leaves a knife with me for safe-keeping, I am bound in natural justice to return it to him on demand; but if he returns roaring drunk, not only am I not obliged to return the knife, I am forbidden to do so. The material of the precept has changed.

Its obligation

From what we have said so far, it must be evident that the Natural Moral Law in man is a completely intrinsic law, not a law imposed from the outside. It does not demand a knowledge of a legislator or an external promulgation; the natural inclinations, the light of reason recognizing those inclinations and the resulting natural dictate of reason all flow necessarily, naturally, from nature itself. But what of the obligation of natural Moral Law? How can man oblige himself morally? Or how can the principles of his nature oblige him? Is not obligation after all the imposition of the will of the superior upon an inferior? That is exactly the point. Obligation is no such thing. Law is a thing of reason, not will; and its obligation is established by reason, not by will. God Himself can no more change or dispense from the Natural Moral Law than He can change the essences of things, than He can change the eternal truth within Himself.

The whole difficulty has arisen from our misinterpretation of obligation. Moral obligation is a result of a double necessity: the necessity of an act in relation to a necessary end. It is necessary for me to go to Europe, so I am obliged to take a boat. My goal is necessarily fixed by nature, so I am obliged to place this act of justice which necessarily leads me to this end; I am obliged to refrain from this act of murder which necessarily leads me away from that goal. In other words, this necessary relation of act to end binds the will but does not destroy the liberty of the will, leaving intact the power of acting or not acting. The will is bound in as much as the goal is its object and the intellect proposes both end and necessary means to the will, but there is no question of direct coercion, of physical necessity imposed on the will.

The picture of obligation as a whip wielded by a tyrant according to his whims is altogether wrong. In the natural order, the command of natural reason, “do good and avoid evil”, is no more than the command “act for your end”, for “good” here means conducive to the end and “evil” means that which is leading away from the end. The will of man is a faculty whose object is the rational good, the end of man. Consequently it is essentially ordained to its act, which act is in turn essentially ordained to the determined effect — the rational good of man. So that this rational appetite or will which is capable of willing the goal of man and is, moreover essentially ordained to this act and object, cannot refuse to will this end of man without losing the very reason of its existence, without going contrary to the essential order of things, without losing its conformity to right reason.

Putting it quite simply, the essential order of things, more particularly the rational good of man, is the proximate source of the obligation of the Natural Moral Law. It is a secondary but true cause in the moral order, producing a true effect, a true obligation.

Its relation to religion

The obligation of the Natural Moral Law no more demands a knowledge of God as legislator for its efficacy than do the first principles of the speculative order for their validity. This obligation follows from a first principle, the principle of finality, which like the other first principles has ontological value. The discovery, if it has been made, of a tribe keeping roughly to the ten commandments and at the same time possessed of no knowledge of a supreme legislator is not a contradiction in terms. This law is intrinsic, a natural law, a law that flows from nature; and obligation is an essential part of the notion of law or command. Law, of course, is primarily a rule of order; but it is an effective rule of order which therefore includes in its very notion the idea of obligation.

That the Natural Moral Law does not demand an idea of God for its efficacy does not mean that God is a superfluity in the moral order. I do not need a knowledge of God to fry eggs; but without God there would not only be no frying done, there would be no eggs and no cook. The efficacy of the second cause does not exclude dependence on the first cause. If the first cause should cease to exist, the second cause would lose all causality; it is only in reducing the undoubted causality of the second cause to the first cause that this secondary causality is entirely explicable and intelligible. The proximate source of the obligation of the natural Moral Law is indeed the essential order of things as understood by natural reason and proposed to the will of man; but the supreme and first cause of this obligation is the Eternal Law and its author, God.

The Natural Moral Law is in the fullest sense a natural law, an intrinsic, efficacious rule by which man partakes actively in his own guidance to the goal of human life. Religion is not a cause of the morality inculcated by the Natural Moral Law; it is rather an effect of that law, one of the commands issued by that law. A primitive people who had no religion but had a morality embracing most of the ten commandments would be a people in whom the Natural Moral Law was operating effectively though not perfectly. Supernatural religion, of course, adds much to the motives and sanctions of the morality established by the natural Moral Law. But it is important that we stress that note of independence: the Natural Moral Law makes no suppositions, presupposes no mysteriously natural goodness or evil, it supposes only the existence of the first cause and then in its own right it establishes morality.

Conclusion: Life and law:

We can sum this up briefly by saying that law is a compass of life. It is much more a part of a man living a human life than the compass is of the navigator sailing the seven seas. We cannot live life without law; we cannot even pretend to go through the motions of living. We must have law and we must have definite notions about the nature of law, because we must live life and we cannot do that without having some notions as to what life is and means.

Life, morality and nature

Life and law are as closely intertwined as motion and its direction to a goal. Stating the nature of life in saying that it is a motion to a goal, we have also stated the nature and purpose of law; for law is exactly the direction of the motion which is life to the goal of life. It deals only with the direction of life; it does not constitute life, nor does it establish the end of life. There are limits to the powers of legislation, even of divine legislation.

The identification of human life and moral life is an immediate indication of the close connection of law and morality. Indeed morality is nothing more than conformity with the rule which regulates human life — the rule of reason or law.

Morality and law

Human life is reasonable life, morality is accord with the rule of reason, and law to establish that morality and rule that reasonable life must be the product of reason. It is not the result of caprice, even of divine caprice; it is not the decree of a superior will. The power of command is a power of the reason and not of the will. It is an ordination, a direction of motion, an effective directive motion; so it is an act proceeding immediately from the intellect on the presupposition of the movement of the will.

It is a foregone conclusion that our view of life will determine our view of law. If life is a motion to a goal and law the direction of that motion, of course our view on the goal of life will determine our view on both life and law. This, then, is the whole explanation of our muddled views on law today, of our absurd faith in law, of our complete surrender of all departments of life to law, and paradoxically of our resentment of and contempt for law: our views on life and the goal of life are hopelessly confused. We have reached the point of seriously doubting or openly denying a goal to human life, a meaning to human action, a personal freedom that would alone make those actions human.

Yet we go on producing laws on a mass-production scale, we go on uncovering details of scientific or physical laws until we have swamped ourselves in detail, we have hidden the forest in a profusion of trees. We have missed the obvious and essential, the law behind all laws, the government at the root of all order, the Eternal Law which is the source of all law and of all truth. It was not hard, then, for us to miss the participation of that Eternal Law in man, the Natural Moral Law; nor to misinterpret the whole purpose of those determinations of the Natural Moral Law which are called human positive law.

In fact we have lost ourselves in a maze of contradictions. While bending down before the power, majesty and order of nature, we have insisted on making man the one exception to that power, majesty and order, the sole freak in the universe, the sole creature escaping the government of natural law. In a way this contradiction was necessary to wipe morality and human responsibility from the minds of men, for it is quite impossible to include man in the natural order, to have him governed, as everything in the universe is governed, by a law that does not violate but perfects his nature, and at the same time to escape morality. Man’s nature is free; his actions cannot be the result of physical force, physical necessity, and be human actions. The only law that can govern this moral nature without violence to it is a moral law.

This Natural Moral Law in man, as natural, is an intrinsic law, a law flowing immediately from man’s nature with all the equipment necessary for the essential notion of law. Like all nature and all law, it depends on the source of nature and law, on God, for its very existence but it does not demand a knowledge of God for its effectiveness or for its binding power. It is not the product of religion but of nature; rather of itself it will immediately produce religion. Like human nature, it is universally found in man proceeding from the principles of that human nature. Like the Eternal Law, it is a thing of reason; as must also be all positive human law which is founded upon it.

Law and liberty

Law is necessary for human life because human life is free life, moral life, and law is the protection of liberty. Its moral character is an open evidence of God’s great respect for the liberty He has given man; its purpose is a plain statement of the high things God expects of that human liberty. Its operation and limitation when it proceeds from human authority is a constant defence of man’s position at the peak of the universe, above things, plants, animals, parties, states, nations.

Law and happiness

As life exists because of the goal of life which is human happiness, as morality is nothing but a statement of man’s progress towards and share in that goal of life, so law is the official guide of man to his final happiness, to his final goal. Law exists for no other reason than that men should find their way home. The enemy of law is an enemy of life, an enemy of morality, an enemy of society, an enemy of God and, to reach the depths of despair, he is an enemy of himself.

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