Top Banner Image

A New Center for Natural Law

Perhaps it was not quite right to do this in the season of Halloween, to hold the launching seminar for a new Center for Natural Law. Natural Law has found its base traditionally in Catholic circles. In fact, the Church has been the main sanctuary for the moral reasoning of the natural law at a time when the currents of relativism have swept along many departments of philosophy in the colleges.

And yet, in our own time, we have found among some Catholic jurists, and even Catholic professors of law, a dubiety bordering on contempt for the natural law. Perhaps, as I say, it was indelicate of us to bring forth the specter of natural law during this season, when people have been primed to see ghosts in the land.

But bring it forth we did, this past weekend, with the support of the Claremont Institute. The Chairman of the Institute, Thomas Klingenstein, had fallen into the innocent vice of giving, as gifts to friends, books written by the author of First Things and Beyond the Constitution. He and the president of the institute, Brian Kennedy, invited me to launch a new program, based in Washington, and concentrating on the renewal of the teaching on natural law.

We would begin by working with a cluster of rather accomplished judges who take seriously the natural law and would like to find a way of doing it better – doing it with a firmer ground and doing it in such a way as to make it persuasive and summoning for their colleagues.  We would also have meetings with practicing lawyers, who have reason to think that something was missing in the tutoring they received in the law. But students still in law school may be interested as well, along with staffers on Capitol Hill and even undergraduates.

In any case, we had our beginning this past weekend. We had with us three stars of the federal bench: Diarmuid O’Scannlain, Robert Conrad, and Michael Mosman. And joining me also were some of the most gifted teachers on law and philosophy: Daniel Robinson, Michael Uhlmann, David Forte, Robert Destro, Michael Pakaluk, Helen Alvare, Frank Beckwith, J. Budziszewksi, along with the incomparable Simone Mele Katsas.

             Hadley Arkes: Natural law finds its ground in principles of right and wrong
that were there before the laws.

And what was achieved was the kind of meeting that the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to shape – the most serious conversation, even argument, among accomplished friends, with no issue ducked, and no time squandered on questions not at the core.  

Aquinas famously taught that the divine law we know through revelation, but the natural law we know through that reason that is natural to human beings. In his recent speech to the Bundestag, Pope Benedict XVI echoed John Paul II in pointing up the critical connection between the teachings of the Church and Greek philosophy. It was the discipline of philosophy, said John Paul II, that kept the Church from drifting into superstition. The writers in The Catholic Thing have sought to remind people that the Church’s position on abortion does not depend on appeals to revelation. It depends rather on weaving the evidence of embryology with the force of principled, moral reasoning.

What has been strangely lost among certain Catholic jurists and lawyers is that the natural law finds its ground in “the laws of reason,” not in appeals to faith or “belief” or woolly sentiment. Anyone tutored in those laws of reason may be able to explain then that, from a person’s height or weight or color, or from his disabilities, such as deafness, we cannot draw any moral inferences as to whether we are dealing with a good or a bad man, who should be welcomed or shunned.

One may be able then to explain why it could never be right to withdraw medical care from a patient afflicted with deafness or Down’s syndrome on the grounds that he has a diminished life “not worth living.” Judges often find themselves leaning on the canons of reason in this way, but with little awareness that they are “doing” natural law.

At the time of the American Founding, Alexander Hamilton thought it critical to reject the argument of Thomas Hobbes that all morality is conventional; that until laws are made, there can be no clear sense of right and wrong. What Hobbes rejected, said Hamilton, was the existence of that “superintending principle,” that God who is the source of “an eternal and immutable law, which is. . .obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.” Even when governments break down, there is no “right” to rape or murder or commit any other wrongs, as though there was no right and wrong without the law.

It becomes a nice question then as to why Catholic lawyers, of all people, should have trouble in seeing that the natural law finds its ground in those principles of right and wrong that were there before the laws – in fact, the principles that tell us why we are justified in having laws in the first place. As we come to see every day, moral reasoning has not vanished from lawyers as they reason strenuously about the statutes before them. It may be a matter, then, recovering an older language, along with the awareness that they are engaging the canons of reason and natural law that have ever been there. [For more about the Center for Natural Law, visit the Claremont Review of Books.]

Hadley Arkes

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.