Natural Law Errors: Emotivist Natural Law

It's unfortunate that many natural lawyers seem totally devoid of eros.

This series of posts explores dangers associated with natural law today. The first post explored the errors of overly objectivized natural law. The second post explored empiricism and natural law rhetoric. The third post explored these ideas in the context of “virtue signaling.” The fourth post considered Nietzschean uses of natural law. The fifth post considered natural law divorced from human affectivity. This post will explore natural law and emotivism.

The dangers outlined in the previous posts, in many ways, are the frequent tendencies of natural law in the present culture. But before I justify this statement, I’ll ask the reader to consider how natural law in America today is largely of interest to those involved in civil law and political discourse. It flourishes in law, academic philosophy and theology, and activism, the professions today that cut and conquer, whether intellectually or socially. As a lawyer myself, I know that civil law is a blunt tool and will never be able to articulate premises and syllogisms (positive laws) from which would flow perfect justice in our fallen world. And yet the primary focus of natural lawyers today seems to be on civil law. It’s telling that those pushing natural law are rarely in fields such as literature or psychology. Even more striking, I know of no natural lawyers today who, like Aquinas, are accomplished poets. Nor do I know any, like Aristotle, who write authoritatively on poetics.

Discourse Today

In examining whether natural law today really does have a tendency to lose itself, we should consider seriously the relationship between the life of virtue and the ability to articulate the meaning of virtuousness. If the mode of discourse in modernity is largely emotivist and Nietzschean, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, then of course emotivist and Nietzschean modes of discourse will utilize “natural law” to achieve egotistical aims. Even given the great importance of tradition, we must recognize that appeals to tradition can often be a mask for ego. We are all in the modern world, and modernity’s ability to influence and ground itself in us can be extremely hard to see. In his discussion of contemporary abortion debates, for example, MacIntyre does not identify pro-choice advocates as emotivists while labeling pro-life advocates otherwise because of stated appeals to Thomistic morality.  Rather, MacIntyre says that the debaters on all sides are effective emotivists, whatever may be their moral claims about themselves. MacIntyre writes, “[I]n moral argument [in the present culture] the apparent assertion of principles functions as a mask for expressions of personal preference.”

The extent to which natural law’s apathy about whether its claims are compelling (or even interesting) to its detractors can reveal whether it is a mask. Natural lawyers fail as moral theorists when they engage those with whom they disagree by trying to destroy, rather than convince or attract, them. Indeed, a natural lawyer will be unveiled as an emotivist as soon as he responds to a moral question or disagreement by saying, “because natural law says so.”

Natural lawyers would do just as well to be silent towards those with whom they seem to have total disagreement, especially those identified as emotivists. As soon as we engage emotivists, we tend to become emotivists. For creatures struggling with concupiscence’s drive towards power and control, the desire to win is often more appealing than the desire to convince or even listen. And so our moral discourse becomes itself a moral failure. We all struggle with pride and should not underestimate the vice’s ability to form our intellectual lives, regardless of our stated principles.

Of course, at times emotivist claims are necessary. “Because I said so” is at times the appropriate response, such as when parents are requiring or prohibiting behavior from a child closed off to or unprepared for moral discourse. We ought to recognize, however, when we are making these sorts of claims and the authoritarian foundations for them. In using them, we bring in condescension, establishing a morality built on power dynamics and a presumption of unequal moral understanding. As soon as these claims are made, moral reasoning has vanished and the tyrant begins his reign. 


Indeed, virtuousness will be prevented by tyrannical natural law. There may be times when instilling virtuousness in others involves preventing them from acting in certain ways or forcing them (by appropriate means) to act in other ways. This is certainly the case at times when parents are raising their children. And the law exists in part for those whose rational capacities and vicious tendencies hinder right judgment and action. However, we must recognize that acts resulting from coercion are not truly virtuous acts, and that to expect a society only to act virtuously through coercion is to infantilize its members and prevent true growth into virtue.

Parents committed to maintaining moral tyranny as a means of avoiding the ambiguities and struggles of a child with their own ideas will hinder the ability of the child to become an adult. In contrast, parents cognizant of the inability of tyrants to form fully free persons (“free” here understood as the ability to distinguish between perceived goods and independently choose the truly good) will work to raise children who can enter the world of moral reasoning. Good parents want their children to eventually not rely on them. The articulated precepts of natural law and their establishment in human law should act similarly, as a guidepost for the young but which will in many ways pass away as growth into maturity enables transcending them. 

Of course, one need not have coercive power in order for moral discourse to act as a mask for the ego. Sometimes, one need only a stage. I think back to a conversation with a friend who would regularly debate with a natural law advocate before college audiences. My friend (a critic of natural law) would happily let the natural lawyer speak well beyond his allotted time, because he would observe the audience’s dismay and disinterest the longer the natural lawyer spoke. My friend said, “He would basically do my job for me. The audience would walk away less convinced of natural law, just from what he said.”

The natural lawyer’s unawareness of, or disinterest towards, the audience’s reactions suggested that his monologues were exercises of ego, oriented towards putting forward one’s position, rather than seeking mutual understanding. The audience simply functioned as a platform for speaking, rather than an opportunity for learning and dialogue. Learning and dialogue are erotic exercises. It’s unfortunate that many natural lawyers seem totally devoid of eros. Indeed, it’s tragic. Without eros, the natural law dies as soon as it comes out of their mouths.

In my next and final post, I will close out this exploration with some thoughts on how natural law rhetoric is occasionally used in Catholic circles.

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: Emotivist Natural Law

  1. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: In Catholicism – Chris Damian

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

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