Carol Platt Liebau: The "Natural Law" Trap

Monday, August 14, 2006

The "Natural Law" Trap

There's another important aspect of Heather McDonald's piece in The American Conservative that merits discussion. In it, McDonald writes:

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.” It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, “Washington’s God.” Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.

In doing so, she falls into the common trap of misunderstanding what natural law actually is -- and, like liberals, seems to think it's nothing more than some backwoods, bucktoothed species of creationism, political/judicial style. (This may be why Ramesh Ponnuru expresses some skepticism about her definition of natural law.)

The skepticism is justified because McDonald misunderstands what's commonly meant by "natural law." Certainly, one can be a religious believer as well as a proponent of natural law, but one needn't be the former in order to lay claim to the latter. At its core, natural law simply states that by man's very nature (and whether he was divinely created or evolved from monkeys is perfectly irrelevant), he's born equal to all other men insofar as he enjoys the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Whether he has those rights because God gave them to him (along with free will), or simply by virtue of his humanity and his capacity for rational and self-conscious thought (however it came about) is -- again -- irrelevant. And although the fact that the Founding Fathers recognized the existence of this humanity and the rights flowing ineluctably therefrom can cetainly be attributed to the workings of the Almighty, it needn't necessarily be.

In a sense, the distinction between natural law theory and legal positivism can most easily be summed up as follows: Natural law theory would argue that murder is against the law because it is wrong; legal positivism would say that murder is wrong because it's illegal (i.e. because the law proscribes it).

Ultimately, however, what's worth noting is that simply because natural law theory is compatible with religious belief, that doesn't mean that it's dependent on it, or that it's a "mystical precept."


Blogger stackja1945 said...

Natural law means what? What the Left says is wrong is what most people used think was right. Life we told is a privilege for the middle-age not for the unborn, sick or old-age.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Editor said...


It is not that Heather does not understand natural law rather that it would fail. So she resorts to legal positivism.

3:15 AM  
Blogger COPioneer said...

Why would natural law fail? Carol's description of legal positivism looks to me to be whatever man (wishing he were God) wants it to be. So if the law says that grown men can have sex with boys, then that's okay?

And Carol is correct that you can rationalize natural law to an extent without God, but that will indeed ultimately fail, until man realizes that man is not God, but God is God. Man wants the same thing Satan wants...ultimate power.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Editor said...

Once you remove old scriptures and christian thinking, what are you going to argue? That Carol and husband are better parents than say Mary Cheney and her partner. Any proof of this? If you go down this slippery slope, where does it end? Those with advanced degrees and wealth are better parents than thoses without high school degrees and living in poverty. Walmart incomes hurt children? Sould the government remove children form single parents and place them with happily married couple?

If you make an arguement on procreation, who is to say gays will not be able to procreate say in 10 years with stem cell research. And look at China with over-population growth and global warming. Perhaps procreation is not so great for a world overpopulated and with children starving.

So it is much easier to use legal posivitism and say we will create discriminatory and bigoted laws based on consensus and social conventions.

9:48 AM  
Blogger COPioneer said...

Of course, Thomas Sowell here can expound upon it better than I.

ed. you reveal a lot about your left agenda when you post here "let's remove all reference to Judeo-Christian values" is what you really mean isn't it? They've done that in much of Europe, and Europe was we knew it is going down the tubes.

ed. uh-oh, the old slippery-slope. Which is what happens when you allow gay marriage...then you have man-boy marriage, woman-horse marriage, man-man-woman-woman marriage, man*4+dog marriage...

ed. uh-oh, trotted out the tried and true "WalMart is evil" lie.

ed. and hmm, Stem-cell research which is supposed to develop solutions to medical problems is now cloning PERFECT human beings for happy sluts! Better go rent Logan's Run.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Editor said...


You are an idiot! You people are so sick with you self proclaimed superiority. All you can do is insult others and make up BS. You are doing exactly the same as what Carol did. The author did not define her understanding of the theories of natural law rather Carol defined it for her and then attacked her for it. It is pretty obvious Copineer doesn't even know what he is writing about.

I was trying to show how using natural law could be a problem in creating laws. I am refering to natural law based on science and rational thought as the author suggets and not Aquinas. The article does address the skeptical conservative and that is what this topic in about. Not my personal beliefs.

If I had a left wing agenda, this sure would be a stupid place to comment.

12:04 PM  
Blogger COPioneer said...

well ed. thanks for that. I saw what you were doing. Your "proof" of natural law causing problems gave you plenty of nails to hang your hang-ups on.

You called me an idiot, and then went on to say that you are sick of OUR SELF PROCLAIMED SUPERIORITY! Brilliant!

12:26 PM  
Blogger Editor said...

Yes, Copineer you are so full of yourself yet seem very weak on reading comprehension which does not give much hope for undering the Bible. So sad!

2:50 PM  
Blogger Marshall Art said...


The Sowell piece was wonderful. Thanks for that. The bad part was the over 250 comments that I must have read at least 50 of before I tore myself away. Many were as incomrehensible as editor's ("undring" the Bible?).

Actually editor, there's plenty of good cases and arguments for traditional marriages being best for children. This of course assumes that all parties are intending to be good parents, but a mother and a father, particularly if they're the biological parents, are naturally the best situation for the children. It's just too obvious.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Editor said...

It is really difficult not to see that you are all bigots. Now it is gay bashing and 60 years ago, your egos would have needed bashing of blacks or germans.

The problem isn't gays, it is your weak self esteem. Also displayed by your hatred of anyone who does not agree with your views, such as the treasonous liberals.

The conservative right are followers and very sad humans with minimal development.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Orphan in Bama said...

Editor Said:
"The conservative right are followers and very sad humans with minimal development."

Heather McDonald wrote:
"Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others—count me among them—feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?"

I'd say that was a long journey into darkness.

2:02 PM  

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