Natural Law and Moral Relativism

Kenneth Cauthen

The essay that was originally on this page was published as part of a chapter in my The Ethics of Belief: A Bio-Historical Approach, 2 vols. (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 2001). Any permission to use this material must come from CSS Publishing Co.

The natural law tradition has a long and distinguished history. Its main virtue lies in the quest for objectivity and universality in ethical theory. Its primary limitation is that any statement of natural law is relative to the time, place, culture, and outlook of its formulators. Hence, the quest for objectivity and universality is called into question. Despite this, merit attaches to the effort to seek agreement about moral norms based on principles that are potentially available to all rational inquirers. The appeal to reason rather than to traditions peculiar to particular cultures or religions is the basis of its enduring appeal. Yet reason is not the impartial "spectator of all time and existence" (Plato) but the instrument of finite reasoners whose insights are shaped by the specific intellectual resources available to them in their culture and their own inventory of rational tools. No supreme court is available to adjudicate contrary interpretations, since any arbiter to whom appeal might be made or who claims superior wisdom is subject to the same limitations as the original disputants. All reason is historical -- the instrument of time- and culture-bound communities and individuals.
The liabilities of natural law theory are well-known. First of all, natural law has been claimed in the past as the justification for practices that nearly everyone now recognizes as evil. Slavery and the denial of the right to vote to women are obvious examples. In the second place, competent interpreters in the past and present have disagreed about what natural law mandates. A century and a half ago slaveholders and abolitionists alike claimed natural law as the basis of their contrary claims. Today a dispute rages about whether same-sex love is morally offensive because it is "unnatural." If the content of natural law changes as previous claims are abandoned in favor of new ones and if competent interpreters of natural law then and now are in disagreement about what it obligates us to approve, then what becomes of the objectivity and universality that are alleged to be its principle strengths? If we recognize that great minds have been egregiously wrong about the principles of natural law in the past, what gives us confidence that our present readings that seem so convincing to us are right? Serious moralists, of course, have some limited ability to recognize their own bias and self-interest. Honest seekers of truth can to some extent transcend their own parochialism in quest of a more impartial outlook but not in such a way as to overcome the fundamental relativity that makes it impossible to rise above the resources available to us at a given time and cultural location.
Natural law has no advantage that is not obtained by the simple claim that we affirm and commit ourselves to act upon the best we know up to now from all sources. Moreover, we seek the agreement of other morally-serious agents in support of the principles and norms that command our allegiance. We remain in conversation with those who oppose us and stay open to further insight as a consequence of this engagement. The content of belief and the agreement that can be secured with others is the crucial point. It is not essential to get agreement that our convictions are reports of discoveries we have made by examining reality itself. It is useful, however, for all parties to state the reasons for believing what they do and to recite the history and the experience that led to these convictions and to the inescapable and undeniable status they now have in their minds and hearts -- at least for now. We can engage each other as historical beings whose beliefs are relative to our time and place and confess to each other how and why we came to believe as we do while being open to learn and to change as the consequence of our encounters. But we add nothing to content or to commitment by arguing over whether we ought to base our convictions on natural law.
It is, of course, legitimate and helpful for proponents of natural law to explain how they go about the task of reasoning about morality. But should we all do our ethics that way? Suppose two people agree that a principle of social ethics is that society ought to maximize liberty, equality, and the common good consistent with the constraint each of these mandates puts on the others. [1] One party declares this to be a principle of natural law known to reason. The other party thinks reason is too infected with finitude and sin to be a reliable guide but affirms the stated principle to be an implication of biblical revelation. For explanatory, confessional, and comparative purposes, each might usefully elucidate the rationale for preferring reason or revelation as the source of moral truth. But the fact that they agree on the principle is the crucial point, not how they arrive at it. They would do well to work together to achieve the ideal in some actual society and to spend little time arguing over whether natural law is a legitimate basis for it or only divine self-disclosure. And will they not jointly oppose those with contrary views whether their opponents claim revelation or reason or both as their authorization?
I do not doubt the universality and objectivity of moral truth. That is part of the inventory of my own moral perspective, which in part and in whole is acknowledged to be thoroughly relative to my own ways of discovering and testing convictions. In my moral reasoning the intent is to discover patterns of obligation in the structure of things. The problem is that I can never be sure that there is such a structure or that I have rightly defined it. My skepticism about the natural law tradition rests on the lack of certainty about the content of moral truth. At least I am skeptical of any alleged certainty. Do I know for sure that my skepticism is warranted? Well, I am skeptical about that too. The point is that all these questions are unresolvable except in somebody's mind. Absoluteness of subjective confidence in a belief is, of course, no guarantee that it corresponds to reality. This inability to cross the line between subjective belief and objective knowledge defines the human predicament in relation to morality and religion. The best we can say about our beliefs is that we are presently unavoidably convinced of them and will act upon them and oppose contrary views and actions in every way that is appropriate and proportional to the seriousness of the issue at hand. I have argued elsewhere that this kind of skepticism, relativism, and pragmatism does not undermine strength of commitment or the courage and capacity to act passionately in accordance with our convictions. See Relativism and Ethics .
What do the proponents of natural law do when confronted with other competent and honest seekers of the law of nature who stubbornly and radically disagree with them? So far as I can tell no satisfactory resolution of this problem is available that does not weaken the claims made about natural law. What are the options? (1) One can pronounce opponents to be just plain wrong. The spectacle of two absolutists declaring each other to be in error is not edifying. What is the practical point of maintaining the objectivity and universality of natural law known by reason if we are all the time arguing with each other about its content? One might reply that we do so in order to come to a better understanding of it. But how do we know when we have? The best we can say is that once we believed A but now we believe B. The premises of natural law theory lead us to expect that it yields true belief, but it offers no way for us to know for sure that we have achieved it. (2) One can relativise all claims about the content of natural law. But to the extent that one does, the claims to universality and objectivity are vitiated. In either case the disputants can engage each other with indeterminate possibilities that one will convert the other or that both will undergo a change of mind. This is well and good, and such debates ought to occur with mutual respect and openness to genuine conversion. But the agreement that is or is not achieved is the decisive practical point, not the claim that the norms we espouse are grounded in natural law.
This approach is not centered in the outright, unqualified denial either (1) of the reality of natural law as such or (2) of the correctness of claims about its content in particular instances but in skepticism about the capacity of reason to possess such knowledge with certainty. Hence, the problem lies not so much in the fact that reason can never grasp universal, objective principles embedded in the structure of reality itself but in knowing for sure whether it can and when it has done so. Since we cannot have indisputable knowledge either that reason has the general capacity to discern the law of nature or that we have correctly read its features in particular cases, we are left in the predicament of not knowing for sure whether we are dealing with knowledge or with belief. Our alternatives are to absolutize one interpretation (usually our own) or to relativise them all. In either case in practical terms we have a plurality of contending parties who must decide what they will do with each other. The worthwhile task is to seek agreement where possible and to forego definitive resolution of the theoretical impasse between the absolutists and the relativists. This dilemma calls for a different approach to the whole problem. My suggestion is that we simply set forth our own beliefs and the justification for them as confessions of belief regarding how it seems to us from where we stand.
I can affirm my sincere belief that mechanical or chemical means of birth control are morally permissible. What I cannot do is to say for sure that this belief corresponds with a pattern existing in the structure of reality itself. The line between belief and knowledge cannot be crossed with certainty on such matters. Perhaps it is actually true that natural law permits any means of birth control that are safe and effective. My point is that we cannot know for sure whether it does or not. Debates between orthodox Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants are resolvable only in the minds of the respective interpreters making use of the principles that for them justify such assertions. We can and must act as if our beliefs were true when important issues are at stake. We can do so in humility with all appropriate fervor and with effective actions proportional to the importance of the question in dispute.
Hence, my skepticism and relativism lead me to forego correspondence theories of truth. I prefer a pragmatism that claims only that my views are in conformity with the best available interpretations of morality available to me. They are useful in guiding my choices toward satisfactory outcomes as I judge them. Moreover, I am ever open to changes dictated by future experimental testing and further reflection. Theoretical debates about natural law are not resolvable in ways that command universal assent. Centuries of experience should teach us this. Hence, I seek theories and practices that deal practically with the fact of agreement and disagreement among moralists. Let each party confess as historical beings whose views are relative to time and place how they came to believe as they do. Let them offer justification of their convictions from within their own reasoning stance. Let them engage in critical dialogue with mutual respect and openness to being converted by the other. Beyond that let the contending factions form alliances with those who agree with them and engage in the good fight for justice. Let them oppose their enemies in all appropriate ways, respecting their humanity while resisting their beliefs and their practices in the every relevant arena of human activity, including politics. It is of very little practical use to engage in theoretical arguments over which views, if any, are in harmony with the law of nature, the will of God, or the structure of reality. As a confessional stance, natural law is a legitimate way to interpret the foundation and content of moral ideals and obligations. This tradition is needed to counter the kind of relativism, skepticism, and pragmatism I espouse. But its claims to universality and objectivity flounder on the rocks of historical relativity. It exists as one of a plurality of paths to truth, goodness, and beauty. The fact of unconquerable diversity in moral belief and practice leaves us with the urgent and inescapable practical problem of believing what we cannot deny while loving and yet opposing those think us to be in error and a threat to the common good. At the same time we can rejoice in the agreement that does exist and join with those who carry the same banners in the arduous task of making real our shared vision of justice and the good life for all.

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This essay is one of a series of essays on theological and ethical topics. A complete list of topics can be found on my Home Page:
Theological Essays

Presently, the following additional essays are available:

About the Author
A List of my Books
What I Believe
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Ways of Acquiring Moral Truth
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God
Hints Toward a Doctrine of God
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

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Created: Tuesday, August 25, 1998, 11:14 AM.