Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | November 24, 2009

Natural Law, and Morality

The following was prompted by my reading this.

There are many laws that scientists have discovered over the past few centuries: Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, the four laws of thermodynamicsMaxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, and so on.  These laws describe forces that exist completely independently of humans; they are true whether or not we humans understand them, or whether we even think about them at all.  This kind of law is referred to as natural law.

In contrast to this natural type of law, Alan Dershowitz says in Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights:

It is we who create morality, for better or worse, because there is no morality “out there” waiting to be discovered or handed down from some mountaintop.  It is because I am a skeptic that I am a moralist.  It is because there is no morality beyond human invention that we must devote so much energy to the task of building morality, law, and rights.  We cannot endure without morality, law, and rights, yet they do not exist unless we bring them into existence. 

I am not so sure about that.  Scientists have had to devote a lot of energy to making their discoveries, and that certainly isn’t any indication that without humans, gravity or electromagnetic forces would cease to exist.

As I mentioned in “Is Religion Good or Bad?“, there are many people at the other end of the spectrum from Dershowitz.  These are people who believe that all morality comes from God and our only means for knowing what is moral is divine revelation.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I fall in the middle. 

I think it’s clear to most people that science can be used either morally (think polio vaccine) or immorally (think chemical weapons).  But, religion can likewise be used either morally (think housing the homeless) or immorally (think Inquisition, World Trade Center attacks). 

Now, in order for us to even be able to speak of a religion (or a government, or any other system that humans use to impose morality) being used immorally, there must be some objective standard, outside of these things, to compare them to.  In other words, I think there must be a natural law of morality – a standard by which we can judge whether a religion, a legal system, or any other human construct is moral.  There are people in all religions, or no religion at all – and people who believe in God, or who believe there is no God – who are moral, and others in each one of those categories who are immoral.  It is not their religion or belief which determines whether they are moral; it is this universal, natural law of morality, to which anything else must be compared to determine whether it is moral or immoral. 

The problem is, discovery of these natural moral laws cannot be reliably obtained from divine revelation.  It happens too sporadically and to too few people.  Even after receiving divine revelations, people have been killing each other for thousands of years over what any given revelation actually means, so this method has not resulted in a sufficient understanding of the natural laws of morality.   

This is what we ought to be pursuing: rational discovery of what the natural laws of morality are, using observations the way science does. Here is where I agree with Dershowitz. His method for establishing what rights ought to be protected by law – in other words, determining morality – seems very promising.  As Dershowitz shows in his book, a methodical observation of the different societies throughout history makes clear the consequences of failing to define and enforce various rights.  Knowing in which cases the lack of a given right has led to harm, tells us which rights must be included in a moral, just society. 

Another avenue to discovery may be comparative religion.  Any one religion by itself does not lead to complete discovery of the natural laws of morality, because we must be able to distinguish moral religion from immoral religion, and no religion is going to declare any part of itself immoral.  As I alluded to in Bonding, Bridging and Religious Appreciation, and as The Charter for Compassion is based on, however, real morality can be found in what all the religions have in common.  The things religions differ on, in general, do not concern how we treat other people.  Where other people are concerned, religions all agree: do not murder, do not steal, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, etc.  Studying all the religions and compiling that which they all have in common would produce at least a bare minimum set of natural moral requirements.  It would also be based in actual human experience, which I think gives it an advantage over ethical philosophy.  Of course, if people actually followed even just as much of what we already know to be universally moral, the world would be incredibly more peaceful, but that’s a post for a different day.  The point here is, the discovery of natural laws of morality needs to be observation-based, just as discoveries of natural laws of science are. 

Just to be clear: throughout this post I have argued only for the existence of a natural law of morality, and a practical means for furthering our understanding of what it is.  I have not been speaking about it in terms of its having some ultimate source, such as God, at all.  The source of moral laws is no more or no less divine (however you want to look at it) than the source of scientific laws, but what that source is (or even whether there is a source at all) is really of far less importance, in my opinion, than figuring out what the laws are, and then living by them.  This is what will bring about real peace. 

Jacob Bronowski said, “Man masters nature not by force but by understanding.”  Our understanding of science has allowed us to do amazing things like master gravity by building airplanes.  Understanding the natural laws of morality will allow us to do amazing things like achieve world peace, by mastering human nature through understanding rather than force.



  1. […] subject to unacceptable levels of corruption of those in power. I’ve been working on a post about natural law & morality that’s almost ready to publish. I hope you’ll comment on that one as well. Possibly related […]

  2. I have been thinking about this one for a while – one of my favorite things about this post is that you mention that “but what that source is (or even whether there is a source at all) is really of far less importance, in my opinion, than figuring out what the laws are, and then living by them.”

    In the end debating about the nature of morality is good to explore but since it is a metaphysical debate it is only worthwhile if these notions translate into real world action. I believe that morality needs no justification, that peace speaks for itself.

    In the end it may come down to challenging cultural norms instead of a massive philosophic upheaval. In the same way that racism is slowly (although it is still too neglected as “solved”) fading away – peace itself is best delivered by infusing it into our mythos. I think that naturalism is our enemy and although war may have its roots our biology – so do other behaviors which we do not observe.

    Art is an excellent place to start, especially geared towards children.

    • “I believe that morality needs no justification, that peace speaks for itself.”

      That it does. And yet, we still have so many people who disregard it – and there is noone who is moral/peaceful all the time. I can’t help wondering, if a justification could be found, if that wouldn’t cause a significant increase in both the number of people who behave peacefully and the number of situations in which those people are able to actually do so.

      “In the end it may come down to challenging cultural norms instead of a massive philosophic upheaval. In the same way that racism is slowly (although it is still too neglected as “solved”) fading away – peace itself is best delivered by infusing it into our mythos.”

      You are definitely on to something here. What matters is what people do, day in, day out – the habits we establish concerning how we treat other people. That is far more subject to cultural norms than it is to philosophy. I’ve become far more aware lately of the power of storytelling to communicate this type of concept. Like I wrote about in my post about the fundamental attribution error, people assign the cause of their own poor actions to the situation they were in but the cause of others’ poor actions to their character, because they lack objectivity toward themselves. When you tell a story, you give the hearer the objectivity that they need to be able to clearly see whether an action is moral. A quintessential example is from Second Samuel, chapters 11-12, where Nathan makes David understand that having Uriah killed so David could marry Bathsheba was utterly wrong. Nathan accomplishes this by telling David a story about a rich farmer who didn’t feel like slaughtering one of his own sheep for a dinner party, so he stole the only sheep of a poor farmer. David is completely outraged at the rich farmer, and only then does Nathan tell David, “the rich farmer is YOU!” David would have had a completely different reaction had Nathan gone to him and just said, “you did a really horrible thing”.

      People need to wake up to the fact that you don’t have a “character”, aside from what you do. If what you do affects others in a positive way, then you have a good character. If you affect others in a negative way, you have a bad character.

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