Neighbor Love, Natural Law, and Universal Moral Norms

Last Thursday, Barack Obama spoke at the Annual Prayer Breakfast about his faith and what he sees as the role of religion in public life. Judging from the fact that President Obama referred to unbelievers as “humanists,” it is pretty clear what Obama thinks religion is there to do: help us love one another.

“Whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’

” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.

“It is, of course, the Golden Rule -– the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

The interesting thing about this claim our president is making is that it rests on anthropological and metaphysical principles that we all do not actually agree on. Conservative Christians, for example, lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of President Obama’s insistence that there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being when he has one of the most consistent pro-choice records of any politician around today. This is because Barack Obama does not think that the fetus is a full human being with full moral rights; Conservative Christians do.

Turns out, in the history of humanity, we have never been all that clear about what it means to be human or what counts as a full human being. Metaphysically, the question is “what is the essence of humanity?” Some people think we can resolve this question through practical reasoning and consensus. Jacques Maritain, for example, thought that natural law reasoning could provide the philosophical foundations for an anthropology that would support the drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought we could get all nations together and agree on such rights even if we did not agree on their metaphysical presuppositions. But as post-1948 history has illustrated, we might like the rights when they apply to ourselves, but it still isn’t all that clear who counts as human and gets to benefit from them. Our progressive-minded president draws a line in the womb somewhere. Peter Singer draws the line at infants. Aristotle drew the line at barbarians, women, and natural slaves.

A lot of people, many of them Catholic but not all, think that natural law can provide a fixed understanding of human nature. The idea is basically that human beings can rationally derive what it means to be a human, and what is normative for human nature, based on rational discernment about what is “natural.” Some have described this as an unwritten law on the human heart, and it is normally not thought of a religious way of thinking about humanity and morality. The Founding Fathers in the United States were deists, and were very influenced by natural law reasoning from the Enlightenment that led them to the American Proposition that “all men are created equal.” Because of its characteristic “unreligious” nature, natural law reasoning has been dismissed by many Protestants like Karl Barth who claim that God’s will, not human reason, is up to the task of figuring out what human beings are and what they are supposed to do.

Natural law, as defined by Aquinas (though Aquinas’ definition in no way exhausts all the different ways natural law has been conceived from the time of the pre-Socratics to the present) is the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law (I-II, Q. 91, art. 2). The natural law is a capacity to distinguish between good and evil that rational creatures are endowed with. This capacity is expressed through moral precepts like the Golden Rule. The natural law can yield more specific precepts and includes a fundamental capacity for moral judgment, but there is considerably less certainty on the level of particular norms. Basically, the Golden Rule might be absolute and universal, but how to apply it is not. Rather than thinking of the natural law as a series of universal norms, it is better to think of it a rational principle of discernment–a built-in mechanism human beings have to discern between good and evil.

What the natural law does not give us, despite what some people think, is a fixed understanding of human nature. Natural law does not allow us to grasp absolute, fundamental, and universal aspects of human nature. Rational discernment gives us an idea of what is fundamental to human nature, but our ability both to know these elements and to express them is limited, not only by our inability as finite creatures to grasp the absolute and the universal, but also due to sin which clouds our intellect and veils the truth. Moreover, human nature is not something that exists in a fixed way prior to becoming embedded in a culture, but is rather a political or social thing. God may know the essence of human nature, and what should be normative for human beings to do in any given situation, but human beings do not have access to such knowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the one absolute is that human beings do not know the absolute.

What we get from natural law reasoning are a lot of different norms and a lot of different ideas about human nature. Aristotle, Aquinas, Peter Singer, and Barack Obama are all using the natural law to make judgments about what is good and what is evil, and I am betting that none of my readers agree with all of them. Although modern natural law theorists have attempted to provide a universal moral code based purely on practical reasoning, I think this is an impossibility. Natural law reasoning, rather, is always embedded in a particular belief system and a particular metaphysical conception of the good. You cannot separate the work of practical reasoning from the political, social, and religious environs in which such reasoning occurs, nor can you present a definition of human that is detached from such an environs. At least, not an absolute or universal definition.

So what are we to do in this global environment where we are desperate, as President Obama illustrates, to find commonalities, or the universal among all the particularities? Does natural law provide us with any way of generating universal norms or a universal definition of what it means to be human? Jean Porter has argued convincingly that people like Thomas Aquinas thought of natural law as a Scriptural concept, that his understanding of human nature was guided by scriptural and theological principles of interpretation. Consequently, Aquinas’ idea of human nature was not grounded in the conclusions of pure practical reasoning, but rather in the image of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For thinkers like Aquinas, natural law reasoning occurred at the locus where reason and revelation occurred, and this allowed him to construct an elaborate, virtue-based ethic delineating not only what was possible but also what was desirable for human nature under the aid of grace. What is normative for the human being under such specifically Christian natural law reasoning is not just the Decalogue and the two-fold command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but also the call to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, and that ever-tricky love of enemy.

The consequence of this idea of natural law is that Barack Obama cannot just say that everybody across the globe knows to “love their neighbors as their selves.” I’m sure the Hutus bought into that as they were slaughtering the Tutsis. Good thing the Tutsis weren’t neighbors. The British probably bought into as well as they were legislating apartheid in South Africa to keep the non-neighbor Africans in their place. The German National Socialists, many of them good Lutherans in their free time, undoubtedly thought love of neighbor was important, but Jews and Communists and homosexuals were fair game. And Barack Obama can cite the universality of the command in front on the National Prayer Breakfast with a clear conscience, even though he thinks that partial birth abortion is okay, and has done all he can to make sure it stays legal in this country.

For Christians, who counts as the neighbor cannot be separated from what revelation through Scripture tells us. For the hard-core biologist, the neighbor will be defined differently, probably based on some scientific standard for who counts and who does not. For the philosophical humanist, we will get another definition. Barack Obama is right to point out the universal nature of the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule tells us practically nothing. As the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 indicates, the juicy part of that question is “who is my neighbor.”

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