Recently Jerry Brown has requested that the California Supreme Court overturn the outcome of the election in California denying the right of homosexuals to marry. As justification he uses natural law and natural justice, two subjects about which, I suspect, he knows almost nothing. At the foundation of his philosophy of natural law is law based on force and power--which is, unfortunately, the understanding of natural law that has predominated the discussion from earliest times and in most countries.
But our forefathers in this country had a very different concept of natural law. For them, natural law was based on scripture. The reason is clear. If there is such a thing as natural law, to us as mere mortals, it is unknowable. We generally recognize the existence of laws of physics such as Newton’s laws of motion and the laws of electromagnetism described by Maxwell’s equations, but even when we move up to chemistry we find that we are in areas that are best described as empirical relationships rather than laws. We can use our knowledge of these relationships to predict the outcome of certain reactions when the elements or compounds are fairly simple and there are only a few of them and environmental conditions are right, but these are hardly laws. When we move into the realm of biology, to speak of laws is pure conceit. A believer in Natural law cannot even tell you the "law" that informs you what you should eat for breakfast. Even when the number of variables is held to two, the results are imperfect and unpredictable. Would anyone seriously describe Linus Pauling’s relationship between vitamin C and the common cold as a law? And yet here is a biological relationship reduced to two variables with empirical data from dozens of well designed experiments performed on hundreds--possibly thousands--of subjects. If it is impossible to arrive at a set of laws governing biological behavior, what can be said of psychological, sociological, and political behavior--all much more complex than simple biology.
And yet laws governing behavior in these areas we must have. For our forefathers the answer was, either those who have power to enforce their wills on others or a voluntary submission to law based on scripture. They chose the latter. The basis of that natural law is the scriptural edict that "God is no respecter of persons." Jesus summarized the entire scriptural law with the statement we know as the "Golden Rule". Of course, a summary is just that. It leaves many details unexplained, many of which are not immediately derivable from the summary. Part of the law, for example, is the Ten Commandments. It would be difficult to derive the first five of those commandments from the Golden Rule. The second five are easily derived from it in our dealings as individuals with others with the exception I will explain below. But if we accept the Rule, then the law against murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and even coveting follow because we do not want those things done against us. Most men, for example, are not very happy at the prospect of discovering that their wives are sleeping with the neighbors or the men at work, and, therefore, if they accept the Rule, they don’t sleep with other men’s wives.
Of course, later in his ministry, Jesus gave a more expanded summary of the "law and the prophets" known as the Two Great Commandments--love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The latter, of course, is derivable from the Golden Rule; the former leads us to accept the first five of the ten commandments. These commandments were accepted as natural law transcending the laws made by man as king, parliament, oligarchy, dictator or whatever. The Golden rule or 2nd Great Commandment is essentially adopted into our political heritage in our founding document as the statement, "all men are created equal". It is the incorporation of this natural law into our political structure that sets us apart, but those who wish to live at the expense of others using political force are always in every way possible turning from this natural law, often while giving it lip service. For example, we have the Two Great Commandments given us in scripture from two sources, one Jesus himself, but the other, from a Jewish lawyer. It is the in response to this lawyer that Jesus gives us the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
This remarkable parable illustrates the difficulty we face interpreting natural law in the light of political and social pressures. Mercantilists at the time of Adam Smith, and many to this day, considered themselves religious people but they simply refused to acknowledge that God is no respecter of persons. Pat Buchanan, a modern mercantilist, has never, and, in my opinion, it is unlikely that he ever will, understand this parable. Undoubtedly, he would say that it teaches us that we should help someone in trouble or in need if we happen to come across such a person. Jesus, of course, taught this idea by precept and example in numerous ways using numerous illustrations, but that is not the main point of this parable. This parable came in response to the question, "who is my neighbor whom I should love and whom I should treat as I would have him treat me?" One of the greatest books in Western Civilization, "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith, was written to amplify Jesus’s response. Many great minds, starting with Alexander Hamilton and including such men as Marx and Keynes, were impressed with the techniques that Adam Smith developed in making his amplification, but they didn’t like his conclusions.
This sort of desire to believe in the natural law on a very narrow basis, but deny it’s validity in broader application is most common in political setting. The man who pays much less than he originally contracted to pay for his house, for example, because the government has diluted the value of the currency through inflation, seldom, if ever thinks of himself as violating the 8th commandment, anymore than does the politician who kept himself in office by supporting the dilution. The man who collects Social Security hardly thinks of himself as being party to a fraud, nor again, does the politician who was able to originally sell him on the idea by telling him he was buying into an annuity program. These, and almost everyone else in our society, shares Pat Buchanan’s problem. They simply refuse to see the violation of natural law in their actions because they are politically popular or personally profitable, or, in too many instances, both.
Although the belief in the force and efficacy of natural law (as contrasted with man-made law) has become greatly diluted as we have left our scriptural bearings, the belief in the basis is still there. Few people openly espouse stealing, or lying, or murder. But there is with the 7th commandment--that against committing adultery a special problem, which we will discuss in a later essay.