Before the time of Jesus, the Greeks developed concepts about how the world worked and human beings behaved. Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C., was an Athenian philosopher who wrote about science, ethics, politics, and almost every other realm of knowledge.
Throughout his writings, Aristotle did not teach that the Greek gods or religion controlled the world and its people. Instead, his observations led him to conclude that nature was purposeful and driven by natural laws that human reason could discover. These natural laws provided a way to explain the world and the place of humans within it.
Augustine was born in A.D. 354 in North Africa, then a province of Rome. As a youth, he studied the concepts of natural law and human reason from the writings of classic Greek and Roman thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero. Augustine converted to Christianity when he was 33.
The master principle of natural law, wrote Aquinas, was that \"good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided.\" Aquinas stated that reason reveals particular natural laws that are good for humans such as self-preservation, marriage and family, and the desire to know God. Reason, he taught, also enables humans to understand things that are evil such as adultery, suicide, and lying.
While natural law applied to all humans and was unchanging, human law could vary with time, place, and circumstance. Aquinas defined this last type of law as \"an ordinance of reason for the common good\" made and enforced by a ruler or government. He warned, however, that people were not bound to obey laws made by humans that conflicted with natural law.
Aquinas addressed the problem of unjust rulers who might be a king, the few rich, or the many poor. Aquinas noted that when rulers make laws that violate natural law, they become \"tyrants.\" Aquinas went on to conclude, \"A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says.\"
The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas combining reason and faith became the basis for official Roman Catholic doctrine (known as \"Thomism\"). In addition, his forward-looking political ideas regarding natural law, unjust rulers, and rebellion influenced European Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and even Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King.
There is widespread consensus among natural law theorists about many of the things that belong on the list of basic goods.Footnote 3 The following list is representative of mainstream natural law thought, and it is the one I will adopt throughout this article:
The basic human goods are objective, prudential, perfectionist goods: their value is independent of human opinion and is not determined by subjective mental states like pleasure and desire; they are good for individuals rather than morally good or good simpliciter; and they are good because they perfect human nature by fulfilling human capacities and realizing natural human ends.Footnote 4
There are two main varieties of natural law ethics in contemporary philosophy: Classical Natural Law Theory and New Natural Law Theory.Footnote 5 Both approaches share all of the central features of NLT sketched in this section, but there are several major differences between them. The one that concerns us is their opposing views on the structure of the human good, specifically whether there is any kind of hierarchy or order of value among basic goods. I will explain this debate in the next section and situate my argument within it.
All natural law theorists agree that basic goods are incommensurable in the sense defined above. They also agree that all the basic goods are intrinsic or non-instrumental values, all of them are distinct and irreducible to one another or to some more fundamental good, all of them generate fundamental and non-derivative reasons for action, each of them fulfills human nature in a unique way, and none of them possesses a greater quantity of goodness than the others.
In this section, I will defend value comparability: the position that we can make evaluative comparisons among basic human goods, and that some goods are more valuable than others in certain ways. Two initial disclaimers are in order. First, the arguments are meant to support the conclusion that basic goods are comparable on a natural law approach to ethics. But for readers with normative ethical views that are similar enough to NLT in the relevant respects, the arguments can be read as supporting the conclusion that basic goods are comparable full stop. Second, I will not use metaphysical or theological arguments, which are the kinds typically put forward by Classical Natural Law theorists.Footnote 18 Although I find some of these arguments compelling, I leave them aside because New Natural Law theorists tend to reject their relevance to philosophical ethics (as opposed to theological ethics), and they are ruled out by certain features of the New Natural Law conception of practical reason, which prohibits drawing normative conclusions from facts about human nature.Footnote 19 In the interest of arguing from neutral ground that all natural law theorists share, my case will stay within the normative domain. I will offer two arguments for the comparability of basic goods: an intuitive argument and an explanatory argument.
At a more general level, most of us think that, all else being equal, the basic goods that correspond primarily to our psychological capacities (e.g., friendship and knowledge) are more valuable than the basic goods that correspond primarily to our physical capacities (e.g., health and play), and it would be better to lose bodily functioning than mental functioning. Imagine that you have been captured by a sadistic villain who has seen too many horror movies. He tells you that he will eventually let you go free, but only after inflicting a serious injury on you. To make the dark deed more interesting, he lets you decide your own fate by giving you a choice between two different types of suffering: a traumatic brain injury that will deprive you of significant mental functioning, like the ability to form new memories, use language, carry out simple reasoning processes, or interact meaningfully with other people; or a severe bodily injury that will take away significant physical functioning, such as the ability to walk or see. Which option would you choose I suspect that in this twisted scenario, most of us would choose bodily injury. The reason is that we recognize that psychological flourishing is more important than physical flourishing, at least in normal circumstances.
The second ground for denying the intuitions is skepticism about the validity, epistemic justification, evidential value, or reliability of moral intuitions in general. Now, if one believes (as I do) that intuition is ineliminable in ethics and that at least some of our intuitions are reliable and are evidence for moral claims, then this objection will be misguided. But whatever the merits of the skeptical position, it is not a viable option for natural law theorists. NLT is supposed to be consistent with the ordinary moral judgments of ordinary human beings. NLT in large part consists of systematic philosophical reflection on common moral knowledge and experience. Unlike more revisionist moral theories, it cannot stray too far from commonsense morality. The intuitions I am appealing to plausibly fall into this category. They are neither highly controversial nor based on artificial scenarios that are far removed from ordinary experience, like many of the thought experiments cooked up by moral philosophers. Instead, with the possible exception of some pandemic-related decisions, they are widely shared and relatively uncontroversial intuitions about ordinary human life.
The second problem is that this strategy provides an unsatisfying explanation because it leaves unanswered the question of why the priorities among basic goods obtain. It is true that some of our judgments about the relative priority of basic goods can be explained in terms of morality; but this explanation is insufficient on its own. For the religion rules approach, the question is why the good of religion possesses a special kind of rational and moral superiority. The most plausible answer is that religion is more important than other basic goods (when it is more important) because it makes a greater contribution to human flourishing. Here we must remember that natural law theory is a value-based theory, which means that all practical and moral reasons ultimately bottom out in considerations about goods. The strategy under examination reverses this order of explanation by saying that moral and practical reasons determine the priority of goods. A more natural story about the rational superiority of religion, and one that is more in line with the natural law approach, is that rational comparability tracks axiological comparability.
I have presented two arguments for the comparability of basic goods: an intuitive argument and an explanatory argument. If these arguments are sound, then in the debate among natural law theorists over the structure of the human good, Classical Natural Law theorists are correct to hold that basic goods are comparable and New Natural Law theorists are incorrect to hold that they are incomparable. I have not attempted to answer the questions of whether there is a single greatest good or a general hierarchy of basic goods that exists above and beyond the specific comparability judgments invoked in the arguments. If the position I have defended is correct, then these questions do have answers, ones that are important for natural law theorists to discover.
\"There is a need for a book like this because much of what is now being published on the natural law deals with particular debates within natural law ethics and is intended primarily for academic audiences. Berquist writes for the non-specialist and provides a crystal clear and concise overview of Thomistic natural law, along with a sense of how the natural law can be applied to perennial and contemporary issues in applied ethics. He writes beautifully, with exemplary philosophical prose.\" 153554b96e