Robby George’s Primer on Natural Law: Let’s Break It Down

God, Law (Basquiat, 1981)

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis, 1:28)

In 2007, Professor Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, delivered the John Dewey Lecture in Philosophy at Harvard Law School. George himself received his legal education at Harvard, and was there introduced to ideas about the relationship between law and morality, the study of which, as he happily tells us, became his life’s vocation.

George’s 2007 lecture, entitled “Natural Law” (and subsequently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy), for our purposes serves beautifully as a primer on the intellectual foundations of philosophies of natural law. The lecture is broad and basic enough to initiate the unwashed, yet sufficiently subtle and nuanced to entice those already fluent with natural law and other Western moral philosophical traditions (specifically, utilitarianism and deontology).

I hope to further distill from this natural law primer the ideas on which the logical coherence of natural law philosophy depends. From that foundation, I’ll launch an exploration of the political and moral challenges presented to us in the 21st century by natural law philosophy’s subordination, itself, to the precepts of revealed religion.

George’s language in this lecture/essay is probably more turgid and formal than it needs to be, even for an august institution such as Harvard, but as we shall see, this pontifical style conforms to the vaulted sense of purpose that generally characterizes Catholic moral philosophy (for other examples, read pretty much anything from First Things, the Catholic-inspired journal of religion and public affairs). One of the challenges in addressing this elaborate, high-sounding (almost Counter-Reformation Baroque) language is to avoid its seductions and attend to how easily its curlicues can blandish us into a kind of nodding, soporific submission that muffles some of the philosophy’s underlying nastiness. Anyway, let’s get into it.

[Note: Those who wish to probe a bit further into the political and legal meaning of natural law philosophy should review the article entitled “Natural Law Theories,” authored by Robby George’s Oxford University dissertation adviser, John Finnis, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The two essays track each other closely.]

Key Terms

Natural Law philosophy both absorbs (from revelation and scripture) and communicates (into public discourse and legal practice) a quite specific understanding of the human individual as the summit of God’s creation, shaped in the image of God himself. The vocabulary of natural law philosophy organizes itself around this concept of the imago Dei. Here are some key terms, all of which we’ll consider throughout this series of essays: Revelation, Creator, Creation, Nature, Imago Dei, Individuality, Reason, Freedom, Human Dignity, Character, Virtue, Self-Evidence.

Natural Law Defined

Human Flourishing. George associates rights and justice with an account of human flourishing that encompasses intrinsically (and presumably exclusively – an important point to which we shall later return) human goods. George’s stipulations affirm a concept of humanity – the flourishing – as a noble end in itself, to which both individualism and collectivism risk becoming dangerous subjunctives that reduce human individuals and human associations to merely instrumental currencies of value or exchange. In this balance between our inner life and individual fulfillment and our external relationships and social happiness, George locates an Aristotelian golden mean toward which we must constantly strive, with natural law the carpenter level that trues our behavior in relation to this moral constant.

Practical Reason. George emphasizes, repeatedly, that reason is the means by which humans can identify and pursue the goods that support the flourishing of the species (with the exercise of one’s rational faculties itself one of the highest types of flourishing). George specifically emphasizes the singular gift to humans of “practical reason”, the quality of mind that allows us to discern the goods humans all seek, as well as the virtues attached to this seeking, and the flexibility to accommodate and adapt to the diverse circumstances of our existence in order to pursue these goods. Fair enough. But natural law philosophy here pivots momentously, by conflating reason and nature.

Nature and Reason. The background to this conflation of reason and nature is the crazy-complicated intramural philosophical conversation about the naturalistic fallacy. For our purposes, we need only emphasize that within the tradition of natural law philosophy (following Aquinas), nature refers to the intrinsic essence of a living creature, generally associated with its capacities. In this sense, human nature refers to the rational capacities that we use to locate and pursue “intelligible, intrinsic” goods. So the term natural law itself might more accurately mean “the laws of reason”, or “the laws that direct and secure our pursuit, via reason, of intelligible, intrinsic human goods.” And the idea of natural rights (a concept that flows in and out of the conversation about natural law) refers to “the rights of reason”, or “our rights to the intelligible, intrinsic human goods toward which reason directs us.”

Imago Dei. Why does this conflation of nature and reason matter? Because for philosophers of natural law, reason is a highest-order capacity specific and unique to humans, one not possessed by other creatures, a capacity that we alone share with the God that created us. Robby George adds to our rational faculties an additional, distinctly human, attribute: the capacity for “freedom,” by which he means free will, freely choosing. Together, reason and freedom constitute our nature as humans. They grant to us capacities for deliberation, judgment, and choice. Both ontologically and epistemologically, we can imagine the operation of these capacities as pure mind apprehending itself and the world. And for George, this unique human potential to step outside of ourselves is what allows us to escape from the dependent status of other creatures enmeshed in the web of causation and to become ourselves, like God, uncaused causers. “These capacities are God-like [and] constitute a certain sharing – limited, to be sure, but real – in divine power. This is what is meant, I believe, by the otherwise extraordinarily puzzling Biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God.” (NL, 176)

Creator. George takes pains to emphasize that the logic of natural law philosophy does not require a belief in a Creator God, but his own belief in such a God suffuses the Natural Law essay and, truly, imparts to this essay its most intellectually radical and significant moments, when George identifies the creative potential of practical reason and free will as a God-like, “awesome” power (a term he uses more than once, inadvertently summoning, in my mind, concepts of power associated with the Bush “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003).

Human Dignity. Consistent with Catholic theology, natural law moral philosophy cleaves mind from body, spirit from flesh, attaching mind/spirit to the Creator God and body/flesh to God’s Creation. The ultimate value emerging from this dichotomy is the Catholic trope of human dignity, most clearly enunciated during the Second Vatican Council, and at the heart of the New Natural Law postulated by Catholic philosophers in the aftermath of Vatican II. For Robby George, human dignity derives from the human capacity for rationally motivated action (based on deliberation, judgment, and choice) free from the influence of external forces (reasons) or internal emotions. The Catholic concept of human dignity specifically refers to “religious liberty” as free exercise of one’s conscience with regard to spiritual matters. From legal and political perspectives, however, just laws and virtuous behaviors generally acknowledge and support the objective reality and intrinsic dignity and value of each human person, and this more general sense of the term is mostly how George discusses human dignity in the Natural Law essay.

Character and Virtue. With free choice, we not only constitute/create a “reality” in the external world, we constitute/create ourselves as possessing a distinct, unique “character” we own and for which are responsible with reference to our words and deeds. As Robby George states, “morally significant choosing leads to a focus on virtues as habits born of upright choosing.” (NL, 186) The culminating evidence of human dignity and human flourishing, then, is the upright behavior of rational individuals, according to a catalog of virtues, freely understood and freely chosen. Everything else is a falling away.

Promethean Individuality. Robby George’s primer on natural law absorbs and reinforces conventional Western ideas about individuality that probably owe more to the Enlightenment project (and less to Aquinas and the teachings of the Catholic Church) than he would like to admit. By anchoring these ideas to the Biblical concept of Imago Dei, however, he apotheosizes the individual human as a freely choosing, creative, God-like power. An uncaused Causer. The promethean echoes here are notable, but for our purposes, the most important implication concerns how natural law sets humans, who alone share reason with God, in opposition to the natural world, which does not reason or possess consciousness as we ordinarily think about these ideas.

Creation. Three important points regarding Creation (or what we might otherwise call Nature), as distinct from Creator.

Capacities. The idea of capacities as the source of a creature’s nature (as in, it is the nature of a human to reason or a wildebeest to run in a herd) helps us to think about how we can imagine the created world itself, taking it in its own terms (without any reference to a Creator God), as the tablature for the inscription of the laws of nature.

Civil Society and Positive Law. Natural law, loosened from a necessary dependence on revealed religion in the past 500 years, may have provided the Christian West with an emergent flexibility that opened a space for civil society and positive law that still (despite the influence on Western thought of Averroes), remains unavailable to Islamic cultures.

Revelation and Common Goods. When framed in the context of a revelation-dependent philosophy of natural law, which in Genesis radically separates the Creator from the Creation, we can see how the natural world provides the stage on which God-like humans act to fulfill the mandate to subdue the earth. It is far less clear, indeed doubtful, that the concept of a common good, as Robby George describes it, entails the goods of natural world itself.

Self-Evidence and Causation

Robby George does not use the term self-evident in his Natural Law lecture. But the idea of self-evidence is central to natural law philosophy as conceived by Aquinas (and as expressed as a way of thinking about fundamental truths in the American Declaration of Independence).

If one thinks about natural law as the laws of nature inscribed upon the Creation, generally, without reference to the rational, free will of a Creator, one might be able to deduce quite a bit of existential truth from these inscriptions. But Robby George and other natural law philosophers remain Scripture-dependent for the ways in which they constitute self-evidence, and this entirely handicaps their enterprise.

The problem, ultimately, is the need to establish a ground of being, the Uncaused Cause, to which self-evident truths can appeal, and Scripture (along with the idea of a Creator God in whose image humans have been created, in opposition to the rest of Creation) is preposterously inadequate to provide this existential foundation. Not least because in a world governed by complexity (morally and biologically and otherwise), the idea of causation itself begins to break down.

Next: Thomist Antecedents of Natural Law Philosophy

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