The Advantages of Natural Law Over Ideological Fantasies

Last month I noted that Catholics, along with presenting the Faith, should try vigorously to make natural law more visible in public discussion.

But how? The very idea of natural law provokes incomprehension today. It favors principles that aren’t engineered or controlled, so they don’t fit into a technological understanding of rationality. Even worse, it means discrimination, since it recognizes functional distinctions and arrangements—like the natural family, with its acceptance of parental authority and sexual complementarity—that seem at odds with the principle of equal freedom. To the extent it includes subsidiarity, it even promotes what is now considered exclusion and xenophobia, since it tells us we have greater obligations to the members of smaller and closer communities, to whom we are bound by a denser and more stable network of connections.

How can such principles be taken seriously by our contemporaries, especially when loss of social support has made them less functional? Why wouldn’t they want to get rid of them, so social policy can start with a clean slate and build something truly just and rational from scratch?

To add to the difficulty, supporters of natural law aren’t especially combative. Their views are basically a matter of common sense, of noticing patterns and connections that have generally been obvious to everybody, so they are not normally inclined toward ideological battles. On the whole, they just want life to go on sensibly, and if other people deny something as obvious as sex differences or the value of functional local communities and the boundaries that make them possible, they’re not sure how to continue the discussion.

In spite of such difficulties, however, reality has decisive advantages over ideological fantasy, even when the fantasy advances basic interests of bureaucratic and commercial elites by entrenching their control over social relations. But how can we make those advantages tell in the face of the principled incomprehension and even contempt of educated, respectable, and well-placed people?

Our best weapon in the struggle, which I hope to discuss in a future column, is to live better with the aid of our beliefs. We must fight on all fronts, though, so other means are also necessary. Man is a rational and social animal, so the ideas available in his environment have a powerful cumulative effect on how he lives. The entire absence of natural law conceptions from public life has led, for example, to the Supreme Court’s insistence that everyone treat “gay marriage” as marriage, on the grounds that the only possible reason for doing otherwise is to injure people.

We must change that state of affairs. One way to start is by pointing to the consensus gentium, or the universality of natural law conceptions. If there’s something everyone always approved of until very recently, such as sex roles or a sense of greater obligation to people to whom we are more closely connected, how does it suddenly become a dreadful abuse that must be eradicated instantly? Has everyone always been crazy, or have we become crazy ourselves? The question shouldn’t be ignored.

Another way is to debunk the technocratic outlook, the attempt to rationalize human affairs on industrial lines. Living systems, such as men and societies, function in ways that are far too complicated to analyze fully. They’re adaptive, so their functioning varies according to circumstances, but not without limit. People can do without eating this food or that, but they must eat some food or other, and they do better when it’s more nutritious and varied than a pure diet of beer and potato chips.

Social relations and other intangible aspects of human life are still more subtle and complex than diet, and our ability to predict them or make them do what we want is quite limited. For confirmation look at history. There are always people who are good and bad, smart and stupid, and they are mostly good, bad, smart, and stupid in similar ways, but even so some periods display much greater crimes or achievements than others. Nobody is quite sure why that is or what to do about it. It’s not simply random, but attempts to bring about a new Golden Age, or even minimize crime and vice, have routinely failed, often catastrophically.

In a setting with so many imponderables the technocratic approach, however effective for manufacturing plastics, is useless. The best we can do humanly is rely on experience, good judgment, and general principles derived from long reflection on man’s nature and good—in other words, tradition, practical wisdom, and natural law. And if that approach sometimes includes “stereotypical thinking”—thinking based on cooperating with the normal patterns of human life rather than engineering them out of existence—it should be noted that the general reliability of stereotypes is one of the most solid findings of the social sciences.

Another way to promote natural law is to draw attention to the alternative now being forced down our throats. If human nature and natural law go, no purpose or pattern of living can have a value essentially superior to any other. It’s all a matter of what particular people want, how to get it, and how to divide it up. The result is that family becomes a private arrangement we each define for ourselves, and the human body and even human life become resources without intrinsic value, to be used for whatever purposes people want. All that remains of authority are institutions like global markets and transnational bureaucracies based on universal content-free principles like equality, preference satisfaction, and technology, and on simple and apparently reliable motives like money, envy, power-seeking, and fear of penalties.

Can such a stripped-down public sphere be enough for a social being to live by? We are told it is, because it leaves each of us free to choose his own values and decide on his own way of life. If you like your traditional family or religion you can keep it. But that’s absurd. We are rational beings who want what’s real, and need to be able to say that who we are and how we live is in line with the way things are. For that reason a family, religion, or way of life needs a basis in the nature of things and in social and institutional reality to become something more than play-acting. Otherwise I could make myself a Druid, Jedi knight, or Assyrian nobleman by choosing the role and acting on my choice.

Liberalism cannot possibly mean free to be you and me. Any society as complex, hierarchical, and functionally integrated as our own is going to promote and often enforce a particular set of values and way of life. To say that way of life is based on freedom and equality is avoiding the issue. Freedom to do what? Equality in what direction? How can we be forced to be free and equal, and by whom? And are the people who do the forcing our equals?

The freedom liberalism offers is necessarily limited by the requirements of the efficiency, stability, and coherence of the liberal system, and the equal freedom of other choices. We can choose only what fits those demands, and they become continually more stringent: current examples include the indoctrination of students against “microaggressions,” the cyber-lynchings of offenders against PC, the re-education programs known as “sensitivity training,” and severe penalties for Christian florists and bakers who decline to collaborate with “gay weddings.” So it’s evident that liberalism defines its own absolutes, and when normal human reactions and aspirations get in their way, the absolute takes precedence and the word “normal” has to be done away with as hateful.

To understand what is going on, then, people need to forget the rhetoric of freedom and equality and look instead at the way of life they are being herded into and the goods that motivate that way of life. Once we look, the question becomes whether we should want to be primarily employees, consumers, clients, and hobbyists, continually supervised and re-educated by our betters to keep us out of each others’ way in accordance with ever more demanding standards—since that’s what current tendencies have to offer us—or whether a different direction would mean a better life. And it is that question—whether liberalism gives people the best life or even a tolerable life—that we should insist on in public discussion.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 2, 2016 in the Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above, titled “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer,” was painted by Rembrandt in 1653.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).