Dr. John Lawrence Hill is a law professor at Indiana University,
Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, where he teaches
constitutional law, torts, civil procedure and legal philosophy courses.
He is the author of several books, including The Political Centrist (Vanderbilt, 2009) and, most recently, After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Views
(Ignatius Press, 2016). Hill holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law
degree both from Georgetown University. Formerly an atheist, Hill came
into communion with the Catholic Church in 2009. He recently responded
to questions from Catholic World Report about what natural law
is and is not, common objections to natural law, how natural law
developed and how it has been undermined, loss of faith in God in the
West and the decline of natural law, and his journey from atheism into
the Catholic Church.
CWR: What, in a nutshell, is "natural law" and how has it developed from the classical era to today?
Natural law is the idea that the world is ordered in a certain way,
morally and physically, and that we can draw practical conclusions about
how to live based upon what we learn about this order. Natural law
means that there are objective moral truths built right into the fabric
of the natural world. It means that things work in a particular way
because they have been designed with a specific purpose. It means that
there are better and worse ways for human beings, individually and
collectively, to live.
The greatest of all natural law thinkers,
Thomas Aquinas, argued that the natural law is not only “out there” in
the worlda set of binding norms that govern usbut is “in here.” We
human beings have the natural law built right into us. We have within
us, in an inchoate way, a moral template for the development of our
conscienceAquinas called this “synderesis”which, under proper social
conditions, unfolds our moral sense of right and wrong. And even our
natural desires are “ordered to the good.” Aquinas’s natural law theory
holds that, when human beings are properly educated, we naturally
develop into fully-functioning human beings. So, natural law implies
that, by following this order, we achieve fulfillment and happiness.
natural law tradition developed over the course of some two thousand
years. It began with the insights of pre-Christian thinkers including
Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. But it was fashioned into a workable
system by Christian thinkers, especially Thomas Aquinas in the
In some ways, our moral and political system
is still based on the natural law but we have, since about the
eighteenth century, become, as a civilization, intellectually estranged
from the natural law tradition. Some of the reasons for this are
CWR: What are some of the common objections to natural law today?
There are at least two objections that have been continually restated
throughout history by those skeptical of the natural law. They are, in a
sense, contrary objections. The first misunderstands the idea of “law”
while the second misconstrues what we mean by “natural.”
objection is that natural law cannot be true because, when we look
around the world at the moral outlook of different cultures now and
throughout history, we find a dizzying variety of practices and opinions
on such things as abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, etc. This lack
of moral uniformity indicates, according to skeptics, that there cannot
be a natural law “written on the hearts” of men. If there were, and if
it were obvious, there would be much more uniformity of judgment in
What this objection fails to account for is that
human beings were made freefree even to depart from the natural law.
And it fails to understand that we can, individually and collectively,
“lose sight” of the law.
At the heart of this objection is the misconception that what the law
requires will be so patently evident that all moral disagreements will
disappear. But there are several problems with this. First, as Aristotle
noted, ethical judgments (and practices) fall into the realm of
phronesis, not sophia, i.e., practical, not theoretical wisdom. Even
where two people may agree about general principles, there will
frequently be disagreement about how to apply these principles on
particular matters. Does the commandment, “Thout shall not kill”
preclude capital punishment? It depends on whether the principle applies
only to innocent persons or to those convicted of a crime. The point
is, the closer we come to tangible, practical ethical reality, the more
variability we should expect. One reason for this, by the way, is that
the concrete conditions “on the ground” may require different
applications for the same general principle. A culture with limited
material resources may adopt different patterns of property ownership,
for example, than a relatively wealthier society.
Aquinas was well-aware, cultures and peoples frequently “get off the
track.” Individuals can be poorly educated or improperly influenced by
others and cultures can deteriorate morallyespecially when cultures
ignore or are skeptical of the existence of objective moral imperatives,
as we see in western culture today.
In sum, the existence of the natural law does not ensure uniformity of judgment or practice.
second and converse objection is that natural law means that whatever
people do as a matter of course must be “natural.” Since people seem to
“naturally” engage in activities traditionally condemned by the natural
lawe.g. infanticide, homosexuality, drug takingthese activities must
be “natural.” So, the objection goes, natural law ought to permit these
acts, rather than condemn them.
The problem here is that the
skeptic has a very different idea of “nature” and “natural” than that of
followers of classical natural law theory. For the former, the
“natural” is simply what we do. It is “doing what comes naturally,” as
the saying goes. Natural law thinkers, however, hold that the “natural”
is neither a purely static nor a purely descriptive idea. The “natural”
is what we are at our best and most developed and fulfilled: it is what
we do when we have approached achieving our telos. The natural, in sum, is what we ought to do, not what anyone does do.
And this “ought” is at one with the kinds of actions that are best for
usthat conduce to our happiness, well-being and spiritual development.
can see from these two objections that the term “natural law” is almost
an oxymoron for modern thinkers. It is a contradiction in terms because
(to the contemporary mind) “law” is what we have to do while “natural”
is what we want to do. One of the most important assumptions of natural
law theory is that this dichotomy between duty and desire, social
obligation and self-interestthe “is” and the “ought”has been greatly
exaggerated in modern philosophy and culture.
natural law is so closely associated with Christianity, notably with
St. Thomas Aquinas among others, why would or should secular thinkers
embrace or support it?
Dr. Hill: There have
always been non-Christianeven non-theisticnatural law thinkers. Some
of the pre-modern philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, began to
grope their way toward the idea of natural law well before the Christian
era. The Stoics, non-Christian thinkers who flourished between 200 B.C.
and 200 A.D. were the real inventors of natural law. They thought the
world was governed by a certain “Providence” and used the term “Logos,”
i.e., “logic” or order, to describe this pattern or design for the
world. (The term “Logos” later became a description of Christ, through
whom all the world is ordered, in the Gospel of John.)
precludes even agnostics and atheists from holding that there is an
order to the world and that certain values, ways of living and systems
of governing ourselves work better than others. Thus, one can believe in
natural law in a loose sense simply by observing that some things
“work” while others don’t.
For example, think about Soviet era
communism. Here was a worldview promulgated by intellectuals who thought
they could create their own order. Yet this pattern of government was
so ill-attuned to human nature that the entire system crumbled within
seventy-five years of its creationa world-historic lesson delivered
within a wink of an eye, historically.
With all this said, we must
add that most natural law thinkers have been theists precisely because
they find it difficult to make sense of an order without an Orderer. But
it is at least logically possible that the world works in certain ways
and not others, irrespective of whether God exists.
should mention that there are a group of thinkers who have, within the
last fifty years, developed a system of ideas known as the “new natural
law.” These thinkers include John Finnis, Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle
and Robert P. George. The new natural law theory attempts to detach
natural law theory from any overarching philosophical or theological
system. These thinkers conceive of natural law as a system of practical
ethical truths which do not depend on belief in God or other
metaphysical beliefs associated with the classical natural law
tradition. Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights (1981) is the most developed articulation of the new natural law.
is William of Ockhama Christian philosopherso significant in the
story of the decline and corruption of the classical worldview in
general and natural law in particular?
The classical natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas and his followers
builds on the idea that each thing in the world has a particular nature
or “essence.” Plato taught that all classes of thingstrees, stars,
human beingsare similar to other things of their kind in virtue of
their having a certain “form,” i.e., an archetype which represents the
perfection of that kind of thing. Plato’s student, Aristotle, concluded
that the form of each thing is a natural part of it. Each thing is made
of form and matter. The form of humanness unfolds as a human person
develops. It is literally our underlying human nature that is realized
through the development of the material (biological) process in
reproduction, birth and growth.
In the case of human beings, our essence is what we really are.
It also provides powerful clues to how we must live in order to achieve
our “end” or purpose or specific form of fulfillment in life. Our form
or essence gives us our nature. And it is from this nature that we can
derive specific conclusions about how we should live, what the good life
is, what our political and social institutions should look like, etc.
Without the idea of “form” or “essence,” we can no longer draw specific
conclusions about our nature and our “end” in life. The very idea that
we are designed with a particular end in mind becomes unworkable.
was this ideathat things of a certain class or species share a
specific nature and an essencethat William of Ockham attacked. He lived
within a century of Aquinas but challenged the very central assumption
of all natural law theory by insisting that there are no forms, essences
or universals. Ockham is considered the father of a doctrine known as
“nominalism.” Nominalism, from the Latin word for “name,” holds that
trees and stars and human beings have no natural essences.
Rather, he argued, we simply name
certain things trees because they resemble each other in certain ways.
But there is no core essence or nature that they share. We don’t give
certain thingstreesthe name “tree” because they share the same
essence. Instead, we simply apply a name to certain things that resemble
each other in some way. Then philosophers come along, Ockham would say,
and mistake this feature of our language for an objective feature of
the world. There is no essential nature that trees (or human beings)
Ockham sort of took the first important step in this
direction but carefully cabined some of the consequences of his own
doctrines. Thus, he certainly believed in God and even thought that
human beings have a natural end which God has built into us. But other
thinkers after him continued to chisel away at the foundation on which
natural law is grounded.
All of this may seem a rather obscure
academic debate, but the consequences of nominalism are devastatingonce
we follow them out to their logical extreme (as modern thinkers have
done.) It means that there is no built-in human nature. We can decide
for ourselves what our “end” is. Indeed, we can deny, as many modern
thinkers do, that we have any real “end.”
This, in turn, winds up
undermining many of our traditional values including human dignity. Why?
Because now there is no such thing as the state of humanness. There are
only individual human beings with differing capacities. Thus, we cannot
say that every human beingregardless of his stage of life (e.g. a
fetus versus a person who has been born) or his mental capacities (a
fully rational person versus a person with Alzheimer’s disease)shares
the same essential human dignity in virtue of our shared humanness. Once
we have abandoned the idea of human essence or nature, we wind up
having to make distinction about whether someone lives or dies, for
example, on the basis of their present capacities. The very idea of
human rights and human dignity become impossible to explain or defend.
book describes the cascading consequences of nominalismbut make no
mistake about it: the moral and practical consequences of nominalism are
CWR: Overall, how did Enlightenment
philosophers treat natural law? How did their approach affect the
formation and ordering of modern political states in the West?
As you might expect, western thinkers in the early modern period did
not throw out natural law theory, root and branch. Rather, there was a
period of two or three centuries during which the words “natural law”
continued to be used but in surprisingly new ways. As new wine was put
in the old “natural law” skin, its central idea slowly morphed, then
decayedbefore it was abandoned altogether.
Basically, by the
seventeenth century, natural law became associated with two distinct
ideasone moral and one scientific. The “moral” portion of the
tradition, associated with thinkers like John Locke, began to think of
natural law simply as the moral order God had created and imposed on
human beings. Natural law was “out there,” a rule made by God that we
are bound to discover and follow. But where Aquinas said that this
God-given moral law is “in us”we know the good through our conscience,
for exampleLocke was notoriously dismissive of the idea that there is a
built-in moral capacity for conscience. Indeed, as an empiricist (and
following Ockham), Locke was notoriously ambivalent about essences and
substances and other aspects of natural law theory. We are born “tabula
rasa,” he said. There is no innate moral knowledge. Natural law became
the foundation for Locke’s natural rights which, of course, influenced
our own founding fathers. But the old idea that there is a natural order
to things in which we participate was largely gone.
half of the tradition, represented by thinkers like Hobbes, thought of
natural law as the empirical laws of human psychology. There is a basic
human nature, Hobbes concludedand it isn’t very pretty. We are selfish
and insecure by nature. What moves us is, mainly, the fear of death and
the quest for security. Once we have this secured, then those who have
consolidated their power, wealth and position seek their own
self-aggrandizement at the sake of the less fortunate (as Rousseau
In sum, the old moral and physical order of the world,
as Aquinas conceived it, was sundered into two halvesone physical, one
moral. Once isolated, each half could not stand on its own. Science and
morality, the “is” and the “ought” drifted apart and came be seen as two
entirely separate spheres of reality. Today, many of our most
influential thinkers not only do not believe in an objective morality,
they increasingly doubt the reality of the laws of science, at is
evident in the post-realist movement in contemporary philosophy of
CWR: Without natural law, what is the
basis for moral judgment and thought in Western societies? From a
logical and historical perspective, where do we go from here? What are
Dr. Hill: Chapter 8 of my book
describes the trajectory of modern moral thought after the natural law.
Classical natural law theory grounds moral truth in facts about nature.
It assumes that nature has been created in a certain way, with specific
purposes, and that we can draw moral conclusions from this design of
After philosophy began to grow skeptical of the natural
law, philosophers had to find another foundation for objective moral
truth (for few thinkers, at least initially, wanted to contemplate the
possibility that no objective ground for morality exists.) Two movements
emerged, both in the 1780s, precisely at the point when the apparent
collapse of natural law placed the very idea of objective moral truth in
question. One of these systems is utilitarianism; the other Kantian
deontology. Both tried to find a different foundation for moralityone
not based on God’s design of the world.
In a nutshell, utilitarianism defines the Good by looking at the consequences of
our actions. In its classical form, proposed by Jeremy Bentham, it
holds that the best course of action is the one that generates the
“greatest happiness for the greatest number.” More recent versions of
utilitarianism replace “happiness” with personal preferences: the best
action is the one that leaves people free to maximize their own desires
In contrast to utilitarianism, Kant’s ethical
philosophy is grounded on duties and rights, not on maximized beneficial
consequences or outcomes. (In fact, where utilitarians tend to think in
terms of good and bad, Katians think in terms of right and wrong.)
insisted that the rightness of an action cannot be gauged by its
consequences. Certain actionsmurder, for examplesimply are wrong
irrespective of the (occasionally beneficial) consequences that might
follow from a particular act of killing. Kant would have agreed with St.
Paul and disagreed with utilitarians that one should not do evil in the
hope that good may come. Sometimes, one simply has to do the right
action, irrespective of its potential consequences. Dropping the atom
bomb on Hiroshima might be justifiable on utilitarian terms, but Kant
and St. Paul would agree that the killing of innocents is always
forbidden, irrespective of the beneficial consequences (saving the
greater number of lives of American and Japanese soldiers who would have
been killed had the bomb not been dropped.)
What makes certain
actions right or wrong, on Kant’s view, is a bit more obscure.
Basically, he argued that the right action is the action that is
motivated by the right intention, and that the “right intention” is one
that accords with basic duties that we have toward others and toward
ourselves. These duties, however, are not grounded in natural rights;
they are grounded in human reason.
There have been objections and
modifications to both groups of theories over the course of the past two
centuries. While each continues to have its defenders, it is safe to
say that there has been a general slide toward moral relativism in
academic philosophy which has accelerated since mid-twentieth century.
Having lost nature and God’s plan as a foundation, the very idea of
“objective moral truth” has become increasingly difficult to defend.
CWR: What is the relationship between the increasing loss of faith in God in the West and the decline of natural law?
Natural law is based on the idea that the world is an ordered and
intelligible placethat there is a correspondence between the way nature
is designed and our human needs and purposes. As we said earlier,
without God, it is difficult to see how we might expect such an ordered
correspondence. If you believe the world is simply a cosmic accident,
then things evolved the way they have from random causes. There is no
reason to expect that the world is in fact ordered and purposeful in its
design. Nor can you believe that there is a “law above the law”a
transcendent moral foundation that creates limits for human-made law.
So, it is perfectly “naturalif you’ll forgive the punfor a world that
has lost its faith to become skeptical of the natural law.
CWR: What role did natural law and related philosophical matters play in your conversion from atheism to Christianity?
My conversion began when I realized that the many of the things I had
been writing about as a philosopher and a law professor required a
belief in God. You can’t really believe in human rights unless you
believe that there are binding moral foundations that limit the positive
law of particular countries. This foundation cannot be predicated on
human agreement since agreements may themselves be immoral or unjust.
There has to be something outside the bounds of human agreement that
grounds and limits our morality.
As I thought about it more, I
came to see that all of our most important values require a God-centered
foundation. For example, freedom has become our preeminent value in
modern political thought. But what is freedom? Freedom is a Janus-faced
idea. It points outward to our political liberties (“freedom” in the
external sense of having certain rights) but it also points inward, to
the idea that human beings make free choicesthat there is this
mysterious capacity we call “freedom of the will.” Political liberties
are external legal protections for the free choices that we make. If we
grow skeptical of freedom of the will, political liberty will soon
become an obsolete concept.
And, this, I think is exactly what we
see happening in intellectual thought today. Secular atheists don’t
really believe in “freedom of the will.” They can’t make sense of it
because it requires a departure from the normal cause-and-effect way
that most materialists view the world. Sophisticated atheists are
usually “determinists.” Determinism is the idea that we don’t really
make free choicesthat no one is really responsible for anything they do
because our actions our simply products of our biology and environment.
And, corresponding with this, we have seen in the last century a
re-definition of “freedom” in the political sense. Increasingly freedom
is associated with rights to certain material resourcesto a right to
health care or a right to have a job at a certain wage. I’m not saying
that these aren’t valuable things, but they aren’t freedom.
short, philosophy played a fundamental role in my conversion to
Christianity. I think most non-Christiansat least if they are
thoughtful about these mattersreally haven’t confronted themselves with
the contradictions of their own worldview. They haven’t traced out all
of the consequences of their atheism. For, if you’re an atheist, you
can’t believe that there are objective moral truths. You can’t believe
in human rights. You can’t believe in any real conception of human
dignity. And you can’t even believe in that most vaunted of all liberal