Natural Law vs The Moral Argument: A Response

Today the topic of discussion is natural law theory and morality. Can the two be combined? Specifically, I will be responding to Roland’s excellent post on the topic which claims they are incompatible. Please go check out his blog first and then head on back here. To make clear from the very beginning, my response is not historical in nature. I am not trying to argue that any particular figure in philosophy or theology has argued as I have (nor am I saying the view here is novel). Instead, my mere contention is that a genuine form of natural law can coexist with a genuine form of the moral argument. So, onwards!

A Matter of Definitions

First comes the matter of definitions. What is natural law, the moral argument, and what does it mean for them to coexist? Below I offer some preliminary descriptions.

A) Natural law is a system where:

  1. A thing’s good is dependent on its nature.

This is distinct from divine command (e.g. what is good and moral for man is based on God’s decrees), and a more platonic view morality (i.e. where goodness and morality exist independently of the actual natures of things).

B) According to the moral argument, morality does exist, but cannot exist apart from God. In this will use the syllogism endorsed by Roland in his blog (a Craigean style argument?).

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Now, it is critical to note that we are not discussing a strictly cosmological argument. Cosmological arguments state that given the current state-of-affairs of the universe God must exist. Further, if God does not exist the alternative state-of-affairs is the non-existence of the universe. Here we are discussing only morality itself. Hence, according to the above argument, given the absence of God (for thought experiment purposes) the world could continue to exist largely unchanged, except that morality would cease to exist. Roland provides a quote from Craig which endorses this view and discusses it farther in the comments section.

C) Possible coexistence will be achieved if A and B (specifically 2) are shown to be compatible.

The Problem

Now the logicians out there are going to look at this and note there isn’t a formal contradiction yet. So, I will make one. According to A) above, morality stems from natures. According to the discussion of B) it can be seen that natures continue to exist even if morality does not (the whole discussion assumes that hard nominalism is false). If no natures exist, certainly humans would not exist, and presumably nothing else would (particularly for a Thomist where existence is given [speaking loosely] to a nature/essence to make an actually existing substance/supposit). But if natures persist, and morality comes from natures, how can morality cease to exist? This contradiction can be made explicit.

For the moral argument (B) if we rephrase premise 2, we arrive at 2′ (granting for concision’s sake that morality = objective morality).

    2′ No morality exists independently of God

For natural law (A) we provide the following syllogism.

  1. All morality stems from natures.
  2. All natures exist independently from God.
  3. All morality exists independently from God.

This provides the contradictory (or more precisely, contrary) propositions 2′ and 7. Point 5 is Roland’s contention for and description of natural law. Point 6 is granted for arguments sake or else we lapse into a cosmological argument.

In order to show the consistency of natural law and the moral argument I will need to defeat the above syllogism. While in its current form, one could argue that there is equivocation in the middle term, this can be easily removed (All tw comes from natures exists independently from God. This should follow because if we are willing to grant that natures can exist independently from God we can grant that which stems from natures also exists independently from God.). Therefore, we must deny one of the premises. To deny 2′ is to deny the moral argument. To deny 6 seems to deny the thought experiment and collapse everything to a cosmological argument. Therefore, we must deny 5. But is this not simply natural law itself?

The Defense

I do not think it is, and to see this we can look back at my original description. I stated that the core of natural law is the assertion that a thing’s good is determined by its nature, not a thing’s morality. But what is the ground of this distinction? Well we know it is possible for goods and evils to exist independently of morality (this is assuming a basic Aristotelian / Augustianian / Scholastic view of good and evil). Hence it is good for me to be born with two legs and evil to be born with none—but not immoral. Further, we consider it immoral for men to decapitate human children, but we don’t consider lions immoral if they decapitate lion cubs. Even if we feel repulsed by the practice of much of what happens in the animal kingdom, we don’t consider them moral agents like humans are–we don’t throw the lion in jail for his ‘heartless’ action.

The Origin of Morality

So where does morality for humans come from? In another post, Roland (who is not alone in his positions) points to the distinctive rational nature of man as the ground of morality,

Now, this ability to understand universal concepts means we have the ability to understand the natural goodness and evil, that we were talking about earlier, both for ourselves and for others, as well as the ability to choose to pursue or avoid this goodness. This additional understanding about our actions results in us being held more responsible for them, and this additional layer or responsibility is what we mean by “moral” responsibility. At the end of the day, we say that an action is morally good or evil to the extent that the end or means willed in that action are naturally good or evil.

This is where Roland and I part ways. I hold that while rationality is a necessary condition for morality, it is not a sufficient condition for morality. It is necessary, because one must be able to grasp the nature of good and evil in order to be responsible for one acting morally. To the degree one is not rationally capable, one is not morally culpable. However, simply because it is logically possible for one to know that something is naturally good does not necessitate that one is morally obligated to act accordingly. There is no necessary entailment there. One can know that eating a 5 pound box of chocolates is evil, without necessitating that there is moral culpability for eating it. I think that Craig would agree with me here. If this is true then 5 above can be denied because something more than the rational nature of man is needed for morality to exist.

Human Morality

Unfortunately, even if there is no necessary entailment between rationality and morality, it seems (to many at any rate) that there is an entailment between a human knowing the good and being morally responsible for it (James 4:17 comes to mind, “So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.”). If this is true, even if it needs further nuancing, where does this leave us? Even if rationality is not sufficient for morality, if humanity is sufficient then it seems that 5 above could still be true and the inconsistency remains.

My response stems from what I believe the nature of humanity is. And, to prevent this from ballooning to gigantic proportions my description will have to be cursory (me paenitet). To take our lead from the imago Dei in Genesis, the sine qua non of humanity is not rationality (although it is a necessary part). It is being the royal representative of God on earth. This is the almost unanimous view of OT scholars and, I think, the best philosophical and theological understanding as well. My contention then, is that our moral responsibilities stem from our divine representative (to use an unfortunately shallow word) telos rather than our rational capabilities (again, not saying rationality is irrelevant, just not sufficient).

If this is true, then we have a very strong natural law commitment. Morality stems from man’s nature and cannot be separated from it. Further, it seems that we have a very strong moral argument as morality points us directly back to God via our representative telos (rather than to rationality). But how is this possible given our previous argument? We would have to deny proposition 6, all natures do not exist independently from God. However, this does not collapse into a cosmological argument because it is not saying that no natures can be considered independently of God. While, of course, all natures depend on God and exist for his glory, one can still grasp the basic nature of dragonflies, dogs, or diamonds without direct reference to God and consider them independently of God. However, given that man is a unique animal, alone in being the image of God, he cannot be grasped without reference to his divine final end. Hence 6 would have to be changed to 6′ “Some natures exist independently from God” from which nothing follows (due to an undistributed middle).

Hence, I conclude that natural law and the moral argument are compatible and, given the right metaphysics, mutually reinforcing. Without God we could still know and have natural goods but not supernatural goods. Since morality is in effect a supernatural good (being directed toward and dependent on God), people could be evil but not necessarily immoral. Given that we know people are not only evil but immoral, there must be the supernatural. What I find most striking about this line of thought comes from final causality. Since a substance’s final cause stems from (or is) its formal cause, to change a thing’s final cause it to change what it is. To try and consider mankind apart from God is basically to change his final cause, it is to consider mankind inhumanely. Hence, if God is removed there is no morality and if God leaves then what’s left isn’t human. While this is not the conclusion of a typical moral argument, it does not condemn natural law and moral arguments to inconsistency but rather provides mutual support.

Post Script

For the Thomists out there, parts of this will sound reminiscent of Thomas’ doctrine of the beatific vision being man’s last end. I suspect that one could create an argument very similar to the above with rationality being constitutive of morality, the imago Dei being rationality, rationality having the vision of God as the last end, and thereby concluding that morality both stems from man’s nature and necessarily points to God. This would accord with Roland’s previous intuitions about Aquinas’ fifth way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: