Is “Natural Law” Anti-Nature?

Noah Millman has a sensible post up at the American Conservative criticizing natural law.  He begins with the definition:

“If I understand the way natural law is supposed to work, it’s supposed to be an instance of deriving social “oughts” from a natural “is.” Human beings have to some degree immutable natures, natures we can comprehend with reason, and these natures determine, to a considerable degree, what social arrangements will “work” and what arrangements won’t – in the sense of contributing to human flourishing.”

And then goes on to criticize how an understanding of natural law is implemented.  (Rod Dreher tries to argue that natural law is necessary for morality, which Razib Khan criticizes.) What both Millman and Dreher miss, I think, is how ambiguous the question “What is Human Nature?” is. (Millman has the right instinct but doesn’t take his analysis to its logical end.) Let me explain.

The entire natural law tradition, although it is supposed to based on some Aristotelian understanding of man, is a massive structure of centuries of Thomistic scaffolding upon scaffolding, where the original structure is no longer recognizable.  (It’s like this rendition compared to the original Mona Lisa.)

Back to the source. Aristotle was primarily a biologist, whose understanding of biology influenced the rest of his philosophy.  His writings on ethics and politics are secondary to his writings on natural science.  Like Charles Darwin, Aristotle examined the natural world and drew empirical conclusions.  For instance, in politics Aristotle takes a rather relativistic stance that different forms of government are better suited for different groups of people. If Aristotle were alive today, he most certainly would be influenced by evolutionary theory.  Who knows, his views on ethics and politics might dovetail E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  (I know, I know, I unfairly summarize Aristotle in three sentences what a book could be written on.)  But this is not the case with natural law theory, which which now survives in some a priori stratosphere wholly removed  from any biological understanding of men. (There I go again…)

Look at almost any modern natural law theory and you will find a theory either wholly ignorant of or implicitly hostile toward evolutionary theory.  And on what are these natural law theories based? What is their view of “human nature” upon which this law is supposed to rest?  A bunch of a priori assumptions that probably have little resemblance to reality.

As those of us who are part of the “Dark Enlightenment / Anti-Enlightenment” already know, there really isn’t a “human nature.”  It’s an oversimplification.  As  Johan Bolhuis, Peter Frost, Cochran & Harpending and others have recently noted, humans have undergone more selection in the past 10,000 years than in the previous 40,000 years.  In short, there are “human natures” (plural), and these “natures” largely correspond to what we think of as continental races – discrete groups of people who underwent natural and sexual selection to adapt to particular circumstances.  (Heck, we’re now learning that different races aren’t even completely the same species.)

Thus, natural law theory is, in many respects, anti-nature in that it doesn’t wholly incorporate a realistic understanding of human biodiversity.  If there is a true “natural law,” it’s the recognition of HBD.


Here are two clear-cut examples to demonstrate that natural law theory does not have a natural appreciation of human nature.

Monogamy: Usually within the context of the gay marriage debate, natural law theorists tend to argue that the “natural” order of things is monogamy among a man and a woman. While “gay marriage” might be a new invention, the scope of monogamy is limited. Throughout human history, the norm has been polygyny (which actually accelerates selection). Most of human history has been a history of hunter-gatherers and among hunter-gatherers polygyny is the norm. In fact, the fragile institution of monogamy seems to only be strong among Europeans and North Asians (and even there it has its limits — e.g. Chinese emperors taking multiple concubines, 1/4 of the Irish descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, etc.) who switched over to agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago. So, while monogamy might be the natural current norm of North Asians and Europeans, is it for everyone?

The Abortion Debate: There’s a tendency of many natural law theorists to be obsessed with a “right to life,” which somehow is supposed to be grounded in nature. A quick survey of human history, however, shows otherwise. While the popularization of abortion might be fairly recent, the exposure of defective or unwanted infants has been the norm throughout human history — continuing even up until the 19th century. This practice was so widespread that it baffles the modern mind. While pro-life advocates today cite “high” numbers of abortions, these numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of infants routinely exposed throughout history.

While I’m not advocating a return to infant exposure or polygamy for Westerners (there are other reasons to reject these institutions), my point is that “natural law” seems to have no basis in a nature.  Again, many natural law theorists seem wholly ignorant of any naturalistic understanding of human nature.


Historical Reality: Infanticide vs Abortion

14 thoughts on “Is “Natural Law” Anti-Nature?

  1. Interesting deconstruction of the ideological nature of natural law. Don’t expect any natural law scholars to take heed. They’ll keep drumming along arguing over minutiae.

  2. It seems to me that somewhere in the back of every portrayal of natural law or natural right is someone – often enough an academic – muttering, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice?” or “Gee, isn’t it so awful?” and then pretending that their wish fufillment fantasies arise to the level of law. I admit of the possibility that there could be others, but for myself I can only think of two natural laws / natural rights. One is the ability to enter into a contract, which is natural because naturally enforcing. The other is the ability to employ violence. And that’s it. Somewhat reluctantly, I offer this: as a first step in deconstructing such groundless intellectual pretensions.

    • Tom Kratman wrote: ** One is the ability to enter into a contract, which is natural because naturally enforcing. **

      You’re forgetting a third one, which is that certain actions have certain consequences. Human beings could certainly theoretically choose to create a society in which there was, say, no right to life. But it would be a rather unpleasant society, and I doubt if most people would care to live there. No doubt a great many people would LIKE to have the benefits of living in a society where there was a ‘right to life’, while personally going around killing anyone they please, but either they generally realise that such a thing is not realistic, so don’t act on that wish, or if they are foolish enough to act on it, they are generally killed by other members of the society.

      The validity of a social contract or code of ethics, can usually be determined in a mathematical sense. Social contracts that give some people multiple sets of rights, and other people no rights at all, are mathematically invalid. As are social contracts that have two classes of people, one class behaves in a moral and productive way, however the benefits (under the actions have consequences) of their moral and productive behavior are given (either in part or entirely) to a second class of people, who do not behave in a moral or productive way. This is also mathematically invalid (basically because it gives some people multiple sets of rights, and other people fractional or nonexistent rights. Either way, the society will eventually collapse.

      • Biology, evolution, and human psychology are also not infinitely flexible. There are certain social agreements that people are unlikely to enter into voluntarily, and if they do enter into them, either through brainwashing or force, either they will leave no descendants, or their descendants will eventually be different (and most likely inferior) to the rest of the human race.

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  4. Natural law may be fallacious when its mixed with Christian, leftist or democratic universalism. But with a moral framework closer to Taoists – the correct law is not a subjective personal choice and is predestined, but nonetheless the correct way of effortless action is different for individuals. Such a version of Natural Law is compatible with the role of heredity in individual and population differences.

  5. I don’t think your critique applies to natural law as conceived by e.g. Catholic moral philosophers. Natural law is not known by induction from observed human behavior, but is known a priori by all humans. Because of free will, however, and passions that may influence them against the law, people can choose to ignore the natural law that they already know, and so you have the phenomenon of humans behaving contrary to it.

    The real question is: what is the evidence for or against the idea that all people have innate knowledge of this law? This is not an easy question. Since people are capable of acting against their own conscience, you can’t use the fact of infanticide, for example, to prove that the people committing it had no knowledge that infanticide was wrong. If you could show that there was no evidence for any moral qualms about infanticide in such cultures, rather than the mere fact that infanticide was prevalent, that might go some way towards supporting the case against natural law.

  6. Pingback: Historical Reality: Infanticide vs Abortion | Occam's Razor

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  9. I have thought about your comment:

    “Monogamy: Usually within the context of the gay marriage debate, natural law theorists tend to argue that the “natural” order of things is monogamy among a man and a woman.”

    Maybe the monogamy part is not always the human norm, but the union of men and women is pure a distillation of natural law as any that can be found.

    The biological reality of procreation is the actual scientific definition of life itself. While success the gay marriage debate as a matter of law seems inevitable, in actual practice, traction is very limited. We are talking maybe 2-3 out of every 1000 legal marriages (not evidence of limited available since people have been able to shop around for a long time). This after 20 years of non-stop, wall-to-wall programming, to the point that in many of those years a search of the word ‘marriage’ in a search engine would have those as the majority of hits.

    That is strong evidence that there is a natural law floating around in there somewhere.

  10. “While success the gay marriage debate”

    should read “While success [of the ‘pro’ side of] the gay marriage debate”

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