"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, December 02, 2005

Well, duh...

In addition to limbo, which will get nearly all the media attention, the current meeting of the International Theological Commission is discussing the natural law. Pope Benedict wants to see Catholic thought about that topic developed further. And for good reason.
Among the topics on the Commission's agenda for discussion this year, the Pope singled out the natural law, saying that the topic is "particularly important for understanding the foundation" of human rights. Without a clear recognition of the natural law-- which is "prior to any positive law emanated by states"--- it is impossible to construct a solid basis for the recognition of human rights, the Pope said. He explained that "human rights cannot be understood without presupposing that man, in his very being, is the bearer of values and norms that must be rediscovered and reaffirmed, not invented and imposed in a subjective and arbitrary manner." When world leaders attempt to justify human rights apart from natural law, they slip into a positivist framework, the Pope warned, "rendering law an instrument of power, rather than subordinating power to the law."
I am reminded of what happened when, as a freshly minted PhD., I was interviewing for a teaching post I coveted. After I gave the expected seven-minute spiel about my dissertation, which had been less a research exercise than a metaphysical treatise, one of the committee members, a prominent Jesuit theologian, piped up: "But that's obvious!" I shot back: "If it's so obvious, Father, why hasn't anybody ever said it?" I didn't get the job. Only later did his remark's germ of truth occur to me: my thesis ought to have been obvious; yet precisely the occasion for it was that it wasn't obvious. The same goes with the Pope's natural-law spiel.

It ought to be obvious that, without acknowledgement of the natural law for the reasons given, human positive law is merely the expression of will-to-power. But alas, that is not obvious to many—even scarier, some of those to whom it is obvious see nothing wrong with law as mere will-to-power. Heck, if you've got the numbers and the guns, you might as well use to them to good effect. And all governments do. But if you think that law is backed just by them, then you have no argument against other governments who do things with them that you don't like. You don't even have arguments, beyond naked appeals to self-interest, against other people who don't acknowledge your moral standards. And even those appeals tend to work only with people who don't need to hear them.

Appeals to natural-law are not very popular in academia today for the same reason they weren't terribly popular in the ancient world either: it is always said that one man's natural law is another's mere custom. It does take some time to sort out the difference, certainly; but humanity has had that time, as the UN's original Universal Declaration on Human Rights makes rather clear. Indeed, it is virtually undeniable that there is a difference, even if some dissent is inevitable about what falls on which side of the line. Undeniable, that is, unless one wants to argue that human nature is much more of a product than a given. There are some who do argue that. But that's because, hating the natural law, they are motivated to deny that its basis is something discoverable in ourselves rather than invented by people we dislike.

In my experience, their deeper motivation is usually about sex. Even when it's more than that, we're dealing with the deliberate dulling of conscience. But conscience, in the end, will have its revenge. It's a law of nature, after all.
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