Natural Law
Jim Blair

"Natural Law" is an idea often cited by Libertarians and Conservatives to support their world view. I call myself a Green Libertarian (explained on my web page), but I have not bought into the "Natural Law" idea. For the reasons given, and then some.

In Europe, and in the US during the 1950's, Natural Law was a widely accepted idea. There is a constant, unchanging Human Nature. And certain behaviors that "we" all agree are natural (that is, in accordance with our Human Nature). And other behaviors that are "un-natural". The Natural Law concept surfaced during the Senate confirmation hearing on Clarence Thomas, before Anita Hill entered the picture.

The basic problem here is that people get their ideas about what is "natural" from the society they grow up in. If you see everyone around you doing X, you accept that X is natural. And when the US was a common "Melting Pot" culture with many shared values, a Natural Law sounded reasonable. But with the rise of "multi-culturalism" it has fallen out of favor.

Look at the "Prediction of Beryl Crowe" file on my web page politics section (under Immigration) for more on this.

The reasonableness of Natural Law reflects an ignorance of history and anthropology, I think.

Consider some of the things that are or were taken to be natural in other societies (past and present):

Slavery was natural for most of human history. Human sacrifice was natural for socities all over the world.

For the Cannintes, being religious meant having sex with a priestess. Hey, now there is a religion that I could really get devoted to :-)

The Etruscans were so open about sex that it shocked the Romans, and the Romans invented the toga party and the orgy!

For the ancient Egyptians (and also during the Kingdom of Hawaii) it was natural for a man to marry his sister. Especially a Leader.

To the Shuar people of the Amazon, it was natural to kill people of other tribes and cut off their heads, to shrink the heads and keep them as trophies. (I mean what could be more natural than that?)

The Spartans considered it normal to kill a child that had a disability.

For the Aztecs, it was perfectly natural to wage a war to capture thousands of people and kill them by cutting out their heart. Let me quote you on the Aztecs:

To answer your question, let me quote a bit from a book on the Aztecs: "If ever there was a people dedicated to martial prowess, it was the warring Aztecs. Nothing was more honorable in their eyes than a manly death in combat, or as a captive offered up to the gods on the sacrificial stone. Warriors who died in battle or as human sacrifices and women who died in childbirth were deemed worthy of an afterlife [...] Aztec orators praised, in particular, the glorious end of men on the battlefield. Indeed, the records tell of one thanking his creator for allowing him "to see these many deaths of my brother and nephews." Their poets sang of such a passing. One wrote: "There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so precious to him who gives life. Far off I see it: My heart yearns for it!" [...] When a baby boy came into the world, the midwife held onto him, as though he were her captive, and let out war cries. She then exhorted the child to heed her words. "Thy home is not here," she intoned, "for thou art an eagle or a jaguar" -- a lone predator. "Here is only the place of thy nest," she told the infant. "War is thy task. Thou shalt give drink, nourishment, food to the sun." She was referring, of course, to blood. The battlefield was viewed as a sacred place, and the midwife went on to speak of the honor of dying on it as a warrior or as a captive on the sacrificial stone: "Perhaps thou wilt merit death by the obsidian knife." Poets elaborated on the nobility of such a death. "May his heart not falter," goes one incantation to a god on behalf of a warrior. "May he desire, may he long for the flowery death by the obsidian knife. May he savor the scent, savor the sweetness of the darkness."

If there were a constant Human Nature and a Natural Law that comes from it, how could so many people have missed it for so long? Millions of people for thousands of years got human nature all wrong?

And ideas can change during a single lifetime.

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri during the 1950's and the natural attitudes in the "white" community towards blacks was, well some of you would be offended if were to tell you. I have seen a big change here, but I can't say that all of it was in "society": I also moved from a working class environment in Missouri to an academic community in Wisconsin.

What next?

Trying to predict what will be considered "natural" in the future is also an interesting game. For example, during the "oil crisis" days of the 1970's, there was much concern about both saving oil/energy and of promoting the "natural". If asked what would be considered "proper/politically correct" in 1990, I never would have expected that polyester or cotton coats would be considered "better" than natural animal fur. Polyester is made from petroleum, and cotton is one of the most environmentally destructive crops.

I would not have believed a time traveler who came back to say that in 1998 "animal rights" would be seen by many as being as important as human rights, and people would be protesting the use of experiments on mice and monkeys to develop treatments for people.

Also:

While I can accept the idea there is (out there in the Universe somewhere) a system of moral values that are fixed features of the universe, independent of the human race, this idea has no consequence for either me or humanity unless these values (and the behaviors they imply) can be known.

The further claim is that they can be known, and by "human reason". Indeed that all humanity can discover them through reason. That should include the Aztecs, Shuar, animal rights activists, and others with strange values.

So how is it that some whole cultures (and millions of people) missed "we ought not murder"? And so many more missed "we ought to be sociable"?

And if some entire cultures so misunderstood the Natural Laws of the Universe for so long (thousands of years), how can anyone be certain that what you or me anyone else SAYS are the Natural Laws, "really" are?

Or, how can I know that what I might reason them to be is not as far off the mark as, say an Aztec priest? Or (even worse) know that the Aztec priest was not right and me all wrong? I mean just maybe, the whole point of human existance is to catch other people and cut out their heart and hold it up to the sun while it is still beating. Ever consider that?

And I would expect (reason?) that there would be a different set of moral values (if such things exist at all) for humans than for dolphins, or for the six eyed qxotizal of Vega II, since they have 3 sexes and must eat most of their children to survive.

Essays on related topics...

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Utilitarianism Thomas Ash
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Natural Law and Moral Relativism Kenneth Cauthen
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The Origins Of Biblical Morality Steve Kangas [off site]


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