Two Mistakes on the Human in Nature

The mafia, we are told, brings forth its own version of charity in taking care of the dependents, the widows and children of those who have fallen in the service of “the common good” in their criminal enterprise. But that is not exactly what the rest of us mean by “charity.” In the recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI reminds us that charity cannot be equated simply with benefits, detached from the kind of life that is truly rightful for human beings. And yet, in turn, that understanding of the ends true and rightful for mankind cannot be detached from an understanding of the ends, or purpose, contained in the Creation in which they find their place.

The Creation marks at least the judgment that there should be something rather than nothing. It is not a random happening. The whole thing makes little sense unless there is a telos or purpose in that Creation. Within the orders of Creation living things were higher than the lifeless stars, and among living things the peak would come with those moral beings, who could reason over right and wrong. If Creation has a purpose, life has a purpose, moral beings have a purpose, and a Creation with moral beings must contain a moral purpose.

The lesson is old but the connections may evade us: The human person cannot be understood apart from the Creation, but then neither can Nature be understood apart from the existence of those human creatures. It takes a certain perverse genius then to conceive of Nature in our own day detached from a moral purpose and from the existence of those creatures who alone bear a moral purpose. But in the scheme of environmentalism we are constantly enjoined to save the planet as though human beings were somehow not as much a part of that Nature as trees and rivers.

Benedict takes the occasion of the new encyclical to drive home the gravest point that has eluded them: The environmentalists seem serenely unaware that what they seek to do in the name of saving Nature may actually do damage to the integrity and character of “the human person,” that moral being who is every bit a part of that Nature. And so, as Benedict writes:

In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents. . . These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. . . The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.

In the name of preserving the planet we may disfigure the character of human beings. We can do that, in part, by inducing them to believe that they have a license to manufacture and discard human life to suit their own interests or advance a project in research, as though a human life had no intrinsic importance and a claim to our respect. We seek to extend the span of human life, while we gradually purge from ourselves any sense of reverence for those lives we profess to treasure.

But it is also one of the oddities of the moral life that people on different sides may back themselves into the same premises. This point struck me forcibly last week when I was involved in seminars on natural law and found some of my own allies, on the Catholic and Jewish side, arguing that there was something about marriage that is “pre-political.” It is so grounded in nature that it can exist without the “laws,” the distinct mark of political life. Their own political motive here is to persuade themselves that marriage, in its rightful sense, may be preserved in certain religious enclaves, even as the civil laws are remodeled to encompass same-sex marriage.

But my friends might be backing into another form of that fallacy of which Benedict was warning. The environmentalists remove the human person from the domain of nature, and now some of our allies in the defense of marriage imagine a human nature detached from “laws.” But law springs distinctly from the nature of only one kind of creature, and what if it is the case that marriage, rightly understood, requires the kind of commitment that only law can provide? People can have sex at any time, even when governments break down. And yet if marriage is understood as the framework of a love meant to endure, a love that encompasses the begetting and nurturing of children, it makes the most profound difference that it is a framework of commitment made firm in the law: in the most emphatic way, the husband and wife have foregone their freedom to quit this relation, to each other and their children, as it suits their convenience. Nothing in this universe could be more distinctly human. And no account of Nature without this imprint of the things most distinctly human could be a true account.

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.