Natural Law – and Neuroscience

Because we are made in the image of God, the Church teaches that by our very nature, we can govern ourselves and understand what is true and good. The Catechism defines this as the Natural Law, which “expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice has called natural law “a set of manufacturer’s directions written into our nature so that we can discover through reason how we ought to act.”

The standard formulation of natural law is this: do good and avoid evil. From culture to culture and from person to person, variations may occur in what is meant by “good,” but there will be utter consistency in the imperative to seek the good. In the common way of understanding natural law, there are five basic, natural inclinations that we may know by the use of reason: to seek the good; to preserve oneself in existence; to preserve the species; to live in community; and to use intellect and will. From these basic inclinations, man applies natural law by means of further elaboration and prudence.

The natural moral law is not an exclusively Catholic thing. The ancient Greeks (Heraclitus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle), the Romans (Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus), and the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides among others throughout history, all agreed that eternal norms are “written in our hearts,” universal laws that establish order for man.

Alongside this long philosophical tradition, there have also been scores of secular ideologies that have rejected the divine nature of man and have tried to refute or deny that moral absolutes exist. Materialism in particular assumes that we are born amoral and are nothing more than beasts governed by instincts, impulses, or the environment because we are biologically or psychologically or economically determined. Hence, beliefs in a transcendent order, absolute truths, metaphysics, common law, and other customs and prescriptions must be replaced with concepts that are allegedly workable and efficient, i.e., materialistic.

This position, for example, permitted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to conclude that “truth was a majority vote of the nation that could lick all others.” In other words, only superior forces make everything work; a majority’s feelings determine truth, morals, and law. Public policy varies with the tastes of electorates and those in power.

It now appears, however, that those who subscribe to anti-natural law positions and worship at the altar of what they think is science-based rationality have a problem on their hands. Modern medical technology has demonstrated that an unborn child is indeed a human person. And now there is evidence in the new cognitive sciences that confirms what natural law proponents have been arguing for thousands of years: human beings exhibit a moral sense from birth.

Psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center recently wrote in a New York Times magazine article that “with the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment, and moral feelings even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bones.”

Sound familiar? Dr. Bloom’s discovery appears to be similar to St. Paul’s, who taught that natural law resides in the hearts of all. Better yet, how about St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote in the Summa Theologiae, “The first principle in the practical reason is one founded on the nature of good, that good is that which all things seek after. . . . Hence this is the first principle of [natural] law, that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.”

Bloom’s studies conclude that, from day one, babies begin to learn and that they “not only distinguish morally good acts from morally bad ones: they also grasp the demands of justice – that a good act should meet with a positive response and a bad act with a negative one.”

Experiments revealed that six- to ten- month-old babies favor helpful people to hindering people. They prefer nice people over mean people. Babies watching one-act morality puppet shows preferred the good guy to the bad guy.

The results of a battery of tests performed on infants support the existence of baby morality. According to Bloom, they “respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges – they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events.”

Bloom concedes that a moral system must have a starting point and that it might very well begin in babies. He’s right, there is a starting point – at creation – which Aquinas described as “nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid.”

Good moral philosophy and, now, good neuroscience, too.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.