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The decline of Natural Law

The Western philosophical tradition of Natural Law, has fallen on hard times, during our postmodern epoch.



“Life in a fake world”  de  theflickerees –

Steve Latham


The concept derived from ancient Greek thinkers, such as Aristotle, and became mediated to European culture via the Roman Catholic Church.

In particular, Thomas Aquinas provided the theological justification for the incorporation of Natural Law, initially a pagan idea, into official church doctrine.

He was initially condemned for heresy, because he drew on Islamic thinkers, who had preserved the Greek philosophical inheritance.

In the Nineteenth Century, however, he became a Saint, whose ideas supplied the intellectual bulwark needed against modernist criticisms of the Catholic Church.

The notion of Natural Law, accessible to all people, even without revelation, also shaped the approach of apologists, like C. S. Lewis. He was able to appeal to a transcultural model of morality, to ground ethics; for example, writing about the Chinese idea of the ‘Tao’, to support universally accepted norms.

In addition, the theory underlies idea of the ‘common good’, which can transcend the different interests competing in contemporary society.

This notion, however, of a universal ethic, arrivable at through reason, fed also through the Enlightenment tradition, has been exposed as a cloak for particular groups.

Replacing it has emerged a relativistic mix of personal preferences erected on nothing more than individualistic tastes.

The only norm here is the Hippocratic ‘Do no harm’, or Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’, both of which beg questions of definition and sincerity.

Individualist decisions, for example over assisted suicide, and business interests, as in Google’s entry into the Chinese online market, trump overly moralising concerns.

The interests of capitalism, for instance, overturned the idea of a ‘just price’ or ‘fair wage’, in favour of whatever the market would bear.

However, is there not also a price to pay whenever we hit the brute physical limits of biological reality? Might not physiology provide an entry point for a resumption of Natural Law thinking?

Recently a report in the UK showed that sexually transmitted diseases had increased by over 20% in a single year, reversing previous stable trends.

Moralists, throughout the ages, have constantly warned of the consequences of promiscuous, indiscriminate, sexual activity.

The syphilitic fate of the famous libertine, Casanova, is often cited by traditionalists to show how dangerous unconstrained sexual expression is.

Behaviour, which may be tragic for an individual, however, is disastrous if adopted by a whole society.

And the West has constructed an entire civilization based on rejection of earlier norms for sexual behaviour.

To compensate for the results, a range of medical and political initiatives are deployed, to cure infections, and support broken families.

Ironically, the State has to intervene to regulate the supposed ‘freedom’ of the sexual market place, which is commodified in conditions of late capitalist consumer economics: Grindr, Tinder, etc.

Some commentators complain that the upsurge in infections risks making sex into something ‘dirty’ again, instead of being celebrated.

But perhaps we should recover the awareness that sex, although pleasurable and ecstatic, is also dangerous and risky.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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