Natural Law Errors: Nietzschean Natural Law

Today’s forms of natural law can become Nietzschean insofar as they seek to overcome another’s will by replacing his reason.

This series of posts explores various errors in “natural law” today. The first post explored dangers associated with treating natural law in an overly objectivized way. The second post explored dangers associated with allowing empiricism to drive natural law inquiries. The third applied these ideas to the question of “virtue signaling.” This post will explore relationships between natural law and the Nietzschean will to power. 

Today’s forms of natural law can become Nietzschean insofar as they seek to overcome another’s will by replacing his reason. Under some approaches to natural law, the frameworks for seeing and operating in the world which differ from those it utilizes need not be explored and considered with an eye towards raising up what is already within oneself. Rather, the differing frameworks need merely be done away with and replaced. Conversion to this natural law involves a trashing, rather than a perfecting, of the old self. This natural law cares little how much of the old self comes with the new self, and it need not work to bring as much of the old self along as possible. It need simply replace that old self with itself. Once one memorizes and subjects oneself to the right formulas, salvation can be found, or so it says.

Consider one example: A gay rights activist believes in the fundamental equality of persons, in the need to address historic and present injustices and prejudices against gay persons, and in the necessity of gay marriage to respond to the longings for intimacy and commitment among gay persons. That person is converted by his friend, a natural law advocate, to the natural law tradition and, as part of that tradition, a “traditional sexual ethic.” The former gay rights activist becomes a natural law activist, rejecting everything about his old life and modes of thinking. He sees his old advocacy, and the motives behind it, as evil. And when he shares his story, he talks about how he abandoned everything about his old life, sought to become a tabula rosa, and started fresh as a believer in natural law. His entire sexual ethic becomes now conditioned by what Aquinas and his commentators have written, with constant reference to treatises and handbooks or moral theology. This all he has done at the advice of his friend, the natural law advocate.

This form of natural law is a version of the Ubermensch. It does not enter into dialogue with one’s existing perspectives and draw upon mutualities and intersections as a way of bridging gaps and building channels between the seemingly divergent frameworks of belief and perspectives. Rather, it seeks to bulldoze what exists within the person so that what was once a person’s framework for prudential decision-making is replaced with a mass-produced decision tree. All personal decisions are then made according to a pseudo-Thomistic flowchart, such that one need make one’s own choices as infrequently as possible (and, when making one’s own choices, doing so with as much insecurity and as many attempts to utilize the decision tree as possible). Moral decision-making thus becomes impersonal and mechanistic. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the areas of Catholic culture carrying obsessions about the regulation of sexuality. While Catholicism has established some clear expectations regarding the use of genitalia, much is left unsaid and thus falls under the order of prudence. But still, many Catholics wish for another to dictate, in the most explicit and comprehensive terms, what is “allowed” and “not allowed” in relationships involving mutual attraction. Other Catholics, in a similar move, wish to ban anything that is not explicitly accounted for and permitted in doctrine and theological treatises. They are essentially asking to do away with prudential judgment. And Catholic leaders and advisors who indulge such requests diminish the deliberative faculties, replacing the reason of the other with the will of the flowchart-maker. 

The Inescapable Law

Augustine and Newman might make a different move. They do not begin by bulldozing past frameworks and doing a simple surgical replacement. If, as Augustine has argued, evil really is the absence of goodness, then a move towards the good which natural law seeks will involve a shift away from the absences of one’s life and a move towards the appearances of fullness. It will be grounded in a host of affirmations. 

Some might be tempted to believe that the affirmation of the tenets of natural law, in a way, creates the conscience, because the notional affirmation of natural law supposedly allows one to see starkly the difference between right and wrong for the first time. Natural law is believed to have the “correct” idealizations and formulas for moral judgment and so to totally remakes a life as soon as one assents to it. However, Newman focuses on the conscience within each person as an “aboriginal vicar of Christ,” which, while needing development, can never be done away with and always touches upon each man’s moral life. He calls conscience the natural law, “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” It exists within and motivates every person, even the depraved or ignorant. The natural law, according to Aquinas, even exists within the damned (ST I-II q. 94, a. 1). Possession of the natural law does not indicate whether you are saved.

According to more classical visions of the law of nature, conscience and the natural law have been there all along. It is always there. Natural law is, as Aquinas says, “the law written in the hearts of men” (ST I-II q. 94, a. 6). And rather than arguing that conscience in fallen man is malformed or mistaken, Newman uses the image of refraction. Newman argues that natural law, as a Divine Light, “may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each,” but even then it still has its “character of being the Divine Law.” The conscience in Newman is also opposed to decision-tree decision making. Newman cites Aquinas in calling conscience “the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.” To the extent that we limit the role of practical judgment in a life and replace it with a flowchart, we limit the life of conscience.

To Each Heart

Classical natural law affirms what has always lived and moved within each person. It must be recognized and loved. The natural law, so Aquinas argues, is inscribed upon the heart of every man. But the heart of each man is unique to each man, and so each one will have his own inscription to discover in the context of a life lived. He will have to discover the effects of his own refraction. Access to this cannot be learned merely from a book or trying to substitute a list of rules for one’s current relationship to reality, even if books and lists may be of assistance. 

The aboriginal vicar has always moved within the heart of every man and propelled him towards truth, goodness, and beauty, even before man’s explicit assent to the notion of natural law. Even if one’s pursuits have been confused or inhumane, the humane continues to exist. So even as one fails to see the entirety of truth, the seed of truth exists within each person. Rather than throwing away the baby (the aboriginal vicar living within all along) with the bathwater (the ways in which the vicar has not always been recognized as it is) and replacing them with new formulae, as tends some forms of natural law, Newman and Aquinas rely on the infusion of grace to enter into the already-existing heart and mind of man. They do not demand a replacement of reason, but the elevation of it. Likewise, the Summa Theologica does not aim at the destruction of the praeterea but the perfection of them.

Indeed, John Bowlin argues that, for Aquinas, any human action will implicate the precepts of natural law. Aquinas argues, “The precepts of the natural law are to the practical reason, what the first principles of demonstrations are to the speculative reason.” Explaining this, Bowlin writes, “Consistent failure to reason and judge in accord with the principle of noncontradiction yields, not false belief, but something more fundamental: basic alienation from the ordinary human capacity to reason and judge, to believe and know. In the same way, consistent failure to act knowingly for the sake of the human good, for the sake of one of the ends specified by the primary precepts of natural law, yields, not unjust action, but something more fundamental: nothing that can be recognized as human action. It would be unintelligible as action, more akin to madness than to rational agency.”

Bowlin argues that the natural law is always implicated when one pursues a perceived good. Any person who so perceives and pursues is a natural lawyer, even if one in need of development. They are not in need of conquering but, rather, maturation. This is true for anyone who makes arguments concerning perceived goods, whether that person be an abortionist, a Black Lives Matter activist, or a Catholic priest. Some may be better natural lawyers than others. But so long as they have reasons for actions and act in accord with reasoning, they are on the way.

Wednesday’s post will explore dehumanizing natural law.

More posts in this series:

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

6 comments on “Natural Law Errors: Nietzschean Natural Law

  1. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: Dehumanizing Natural Law – Chris Damian

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  5. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: Empiricizing Natural Law – Chris Damian

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