Natural Law, Natural Allies

From time to time, I mention in these writings that I am non-religious. This has always been true of me; I am not a “converted” or “lapsed” or “apostate” anything. But many of my fellow conservatives are indeed deeply religious, and sometimes express disbelief or even disdain that a non-theist could support American conservative beliefs.

I have written elsewhere about the separation of church and state; to me, this should not be a large bone of contention. The point that seems to come up frequently involves the phrase “inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence and how it is to be understood.

Natural Law

A key element of the difference has to do with this famous line in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

To a non-theist, there is another passage nearby that helps clarify:

“… the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them …”

This line suggests that, at least to the writers (mostly Thomas Jefferson) and acceptably enough to the signers, “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” is blended together in a way that makes the resulting laws arguably a single body. This concept has been referred to by religious and non-religious alike as “Natural Law,” which addresses both moral and legal concepts.

The “scientific laws of nature,” those properties discoverable by scientific experimentation, are usually excluded from the rest and from “natural law” in this sort of discussion.  But the founders were referring here to moral principles that undergird human interactions. In this case, they urged that natural law provided guidance even to nations, which are entitled to “separate and equal station” if they follow those just principles.

Two Paths

But what is natural law, exactly? How do you know what moral and legal laws are included in natural law and what is not? First, the concept has a presumption that the answer can be known, discovered, or reasoned out by thinking persons and keen observers, much like the scientific laws of nature. The theological approach through religion relies upon sacred revelations for clues, and the secular approach from observing man’s interactions and deducing what laws must be evidenced thereby. But these approaches often overlap, with secularists making reference to religious notions and theologists incorporating the enlightenment understandings and observations of secularists into their treatises on natural law.

The founders of the United States, and specifically the framers of the US Constitution, followed both methods. Most of them were religious, but they also had a keen and insightful understanding of the Enlightenment’s secular writings as well. It is clear that the founding of the United States was a triumph with roots in the Bible, the Enlightenment, and the thinking of classical Greek philosophers and Roman jurists. Natural law figured into this heavily..

Combining the Paths

The religious approach by Thomas Aquinas, an amazingly, astoundingly prolific intellect, was to reason out the natural laws that he envisioned that God had imprinted in his creation, including the minds of humans. He worked out the natural rights humans must have in order to operate within these laws. In so doing, he also relied upon the work of Aristotle, who long predated Christianity and who had recently been brought out of obscurity to Western view. Aquinas almost single-handedly made Aristotle “trendy” again in the West.

Aristotle_criticismThrough reason and study and logic, Aquinas incorporated Aristotelian ethics into Christian religious principles, and to this day is considered a founder of Catholic thought. In this process, Aquinas developed and Westernized Aristotle’s views of natural law, forming a new baseline for Enlightenment thinkers including Locke and Rousseau, though these two thinkers would go in very different directions, ultimately inspiring very different revolutions.

Aristotle reasoned that Man must act virtuously according to natural law, and laid out a structure of what he determined those virtues to be. In each case, one could have too much or too little virtue in each category. And Aristotle deduced that man must have certain rights, else he could not act with virtue of his own volition. His arguments against slavery, for example, were mixed; a human could not be a “natural” slave but could be made a slave by law. Aquinas reconstructed these virtues and rights, placed them within a Christian structure, and wrote many tens of thousands of words on the subject, but the essence remains.

What Happens without Natural Rights?

There were many other thinkers involved, before and after Aquinas, and they are worthy of other dissertations. They’ve been covered at length by others, including folks like Burke who thought them non-existent and merely the grants of a government under the social contract, and Bentham who called natural rights “nonsense on stilts.” Our Constitution was built for the purpose of creating a government that reflects natural law and protects natural rights, and it does so for believers and nonbelievers alike. But this was a bold new experiment in government, the first time a government was created from such a noble ideal, and such a farsighted and philosophical idea.

Not everyone picked up on this idea, as was demonstrated a few years later:

The views of those who disdained or downplayed natural rights (Burke, Bentham, Rousseau and others) were incorporated into the French Revolution, a decade or so after the American one. But without the concept of natural rights, they placed the good of the state, not its individual citizens, as the highest priority. The result: They killed off anyone who disagreed with them, outlawed religion, did all sorts of silly things to cut ties to any religious trappings of the past (including making up their own calendar and timekeeping) and then wound up slaughtering each other. Thus ended the Reign of Terror, and the object demonstration of what government is like without the concept of natural (i.e., independent of government) rights.

It is disappointing to me that progressives tend to feature the French Revolution as being essentially the same thing as the American Revolution — and in a course on democracy I audited years ago, the French Revolution was touted as being the founding of modern democracies. The same group featured Karl Marx as being the most important thinker of the 19th century, so this attitude should not have been surprising.

Non-theists, Too!

So most religious thinkers get to natural rights through the works of thinkers like Aquinas, and secular thinkers through Aristotle and Locke and Francis Hutcheson, all of whom were the seeds of those lines in the Declaration of Independence.

Secular conservatives, like me, completely accept the idea that humans have rights that are not to be taken away by governments. As the Declaration of Independence says that:

“… to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

So the distinction between “endowed by their Creator” or “endowed by natural law” is not a crucial one, so long as conservatives both religious and secular agree that it is not a “just power” of a government to take those rights away.

American conservatives are of many religions or none. There are topics upon which disputes can be found, from abortion to evolution to global warming to same-sex marriage, but where they all come together is in the notion of a limited government, specifically constrained so as to be unable to abridge such natural rights. And that the US Constitution is a nearly ideal “how” of implementing such a government, just as the Declaration of Independence is the “why.”

And One Other Area

The second area that is of near-universal agreement among American conservatives is a belief in the free market as the most powerful force for lifting people out of misery and poverty. Adam Smith’s two works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, are thought of highly by conservatives as guides to the proper interaction of the free market with a just governmental system.

The basic concept is that the billions of transactions that take place in the nation every day, each voluntarily and aiming to satisfy personal needs and desires, form a tremendous, guiding influence (Smith’s phrase is “an invisible hand”) that produces excellent results for the society as a whole. It is self-correcting, and by allowing poor ideas and poor performance to fail, it naturally produces better ideas and higher performance.

The free market does not guarantee equal outcomes; after all, allowing failure is a key element. But that invisible hand is subtle indeed, and it caused the rise of charities to help those unable to act within the marketplace, which made the United States the world’s most generous and charitable society.

So Where’s the Problem?

Why isn’t the US today an excellent example of the free market? What became of it? In short, statism. This is a notion that goes under various names: socialism, communism, fascism, theocracy, and dictatorships of all stripes. Statism is the idea that a small group of masterminds can command the operation of an economy, and dictate those billions of daily transactions.

If those masterminds like an idea, it will be implemented despite not being popular; health insurance now must be purchased or you will be punished. If the masterminds don’t like something, no one can have it; the most recent example as of this writing is the new ban on trans-fats. In so doing, these masterminds attempt to “pick winners” (generally influenced by crony corporatists) and, by exclusion, create losers despite the preferences of a free people in a free market.

One of the outcomes of such an approach is poor ideas, and poor performance of those ideas the masterminds find palatable. Government agencies and offices are notorious for their horrific work ethics and attitudes; for the years that I taught technology to the Social Security Administration,  this lesson was brought home incessantly.

But government replacing private activity is not just in commercial transactions; the government has also largely put charities out of business. At the end of the 19th century, there were hundreds of thousands of charities, and countless more dedicated individuals and informal groups, who set about to help those in need. Most of these have been ended now, replaced with charities who sometimes have superficially similar goals but who operate largely on political levels. A new crop of charities, for political and advocacy and social engineering purposes, have arisen in their stead. Now, of course, the highest density of charity headquarters per square mile is Washington, DC.

Secular and religious conservatives alike oppose these expansions of government beyond Constitutional limits, and resulting exorbitant spending and punitive taxation that results from it, forcing us to support millions of faceless and highly paid bureaucrats to rule over us through regulatory powers that were denied to them by the Constitution.

Allies, right?

So if American secular and religious conservatives agree that the nation’s founding documents are deserving of tremendous respect and deference, and that the free market is the key to our past and future success, then we are natural allies. The Tea Party is an example of such a natural alliance; this rather informal group was focused on limiting government spending and regulatory excesses, and restoring adherence to the Constitution.

And yet, in conservative political forums, I frequently see hostility between secular and religious conservatives. Some secular conservatives refer to their religious compatriots as backwards zealots, and some religious conservatives declare that if conservatives do not submit to Jesus, they cannot be part of the solution — and often imply that secular conservatives are part of the problem.

To that last point, I would gently note that the huge majority of progressives that we oppose in common have professed to be religious. President Obama is touted as Christian (let’s ignore other evidence for the moment), and his religious advisor Jim Wallis is both an open communist and Christian pastor. Countless more examples can be pointed out, but the upshot is that religious profession is no guarantee of conservative values, nor is a non-religious outlook synonymous with an anti-American outlook.

Even in social areas, where religious and non-religious conservatives tend to differ, there is broad consensus from both (as they are guided by the Constitution) to leave such issues for states to decide.

The Contest

I would encourage all of us, secular conservatives and religious conservatives alike, to recognize that we are all on the same side in the great contest that now faces us, which is how to go about restoring and preserving the system of government that served us so well for so long. We are of good heart and good conscience; let us fight that battle together, not waste our energies and efforts sniping at each other.

The battle before us looms large, the forces that have created the government as it is are relentless, and we will need all of our skills and our perseverance to win that contest. And we face opponents that leap upon any internal divisions as opportunities to weaken us, and preserve their imagined place as the masterminds born booted and spurred to ride us at their leisure.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Stephen Ferry

    Looks like someone quoted Aristotle recklessly. “…[U]nless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately….Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.”

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  • JeffR

    Great article, Keith. I hope this gets reblogged far and wide. I will do so in a moment.
    – Jeff