Editor’s note: The following interview appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.
Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow in American Principles & Public Policy and Founding Editor of Public Discourse.
Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Executive Editor of Eikon.
ATW: Can you explain the “basic goods” of natural law — their identity? Is the concept of a “basic good” elastic or is all human action reducible to these categories?
RTA: Sure, the idea here is one taken right from the beginning of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That all human actions are for ends, ends that the agent perceives as beneficial (and, in that sense, valuable, worthwhile, good). So you could treat basic goods — the ends one pursues for their intrinsic worth, and not merely as means to other ends — as synonymous with basic ends. Then the question becomes one of identifying what those basic goods or basic ends are. You can think of these as the basic goods/ends of human nature. Given our nature, what ends/goods perfect us, fulfill us, constitute happiness, not in the sense of a mere psychological state, but in the sense that Aristotle had in mind in speaking of eudaimonia (flourishing) or in Latin beatitudo. Here various theorists of natural law have various lists, but that’s ultimately just a question of taxonomy. The reality is that there are certain ends/goods that we should seek precisely because they are not merely means to, but are constitutive of, our flourishing. So obviously care for our bodily life and health is one of those goods, knowledge of truth is another, as are skillful work and play, and enjoyment of aesthetic experiences, and then there are four forms of harmony: harmony amongst people, so friendship and human sociability in general; harmony within the practical dimensions of the person, that is, harmony between our judgments, choices, actions, and emotions, what we might call practical harmony, integrity, conscience, practical reasonableness, etc.; a distinct form of interpersonal harmony founded on comprehensive conjugal union, and ordered toward the bearing and rearing of children, called marriage; and finally harmony with the more-than-human source(s) of truth and goodness, or harmony with God or the gods, or religion.
All intelligible action is ultimately in pursuit of these basic goods. And you can test this out yourself by asking “why” questions. So consider: Why are we doing this interview? To have material for the journal. Why have the journal? Because it’s part of my job. Why have the job? To make money? Why make money? To take care of my wife and kids. Why care for your wife and kids? And then people start stuttering. Just because. I don’t need any further reason or explanation as to why I care for my wife and kids — it’s a basic reason for acting, a basic human good, a basic end of human nature: flourishing with respect to my marital and familial life. Now I could have answered this question in a different way. So consider: Why are we doing this interview? To learn something about natural law. Why do you want to learn something about natural law? To figure out if it’s true or not. Why do you want to figure out if it’s true? And then people might start stuttering — I just do! Because knowing the truth matters for its own sake — it is inherently enriching, an intrinsic aspect of our wellbeing and fulfillment as human beings. Of course someone could give a different answer at that point: I want to know the truth about natural law because it’ll help with various forms of harmony — it’ll help my own inner harmony by living according to natural law, it’ll help interpersonal harmony because societies thrive when structured according to natural law, etc. etc. But the basic point is that any intelligible answer to a “why” question about action will eventually bedrock at basic goods. And, of course, we seek the basic goods precisely because we want to be fulfilled, to flourish, to be all — and the best — that we can be.
One last comment on this. You’ll notice that when I got to the discussion of religion I left it ambiguous as to what the true religion is, and thus I spoke of harmony with a more-than-human source(s) of truth and goodness, or harmony with God or the gods. That’s because as a basic reason for action, we first need to figure out what the truth about God is to then be in harmony with him. This explains the intelligibility of the non-believer who is a seeker, seeking out the truth about God — is there a God? Is there only one God? Who is God? What does he demand of me? Even before arriving at answers to these questions, the pursuit makes sense because the religious good or end of our nature is there. As we discover more truths about God, we’re able to act more, or more fully, in harmony with him and thus flourish more completely with respect to religion. And, of course, the full flourishing of this aspect of our life will only come in the kingdom.
ATW: How does one understand the basic goods that determine right action when it comes to sexuality?
RTA: The central good at stake with our sexuality, of course, is marriage. Robby George and Sherif Girgis and I have written an entire book, What Is Marriage?, explaining how to think about marriage from a natural law perspective. The basic gist is that it is a comprehensive union, uniting persons in three respects: in a comprehensive act (conjugal union), which is then ordered toward a comprehensive good (procreation and the sharing of life that makes the bearing and rearing of children successful), and thus demands comprehensive commitments (comprehensive throughout time: permanent; comprehensive at every moment in time: exclusive). Sexual ethics — what your question about determining right action is about — will always be in reference to this good (and can, in addition, be in reference to some others). The basic idea here is whether or not any given action is compatible with respecting and promoting the good of marriage. This explains why non-marital sex, for example, is always wrong (and why degraded and degrading sex, even between spouses, is inherently non-marital, failing to be expressive of the good of marital love).
ATW: In a natural law framework, is intentional killing always wrong? What about lying?
RTA: There is debate amongst natural law theorists and within the natural law tradition on these questions. The question of lying is less contested, so I’ll start there. Augustine, Aquinas, John Paul II all teach that one may never lie, where lying is understood as false assertion. From the natural law perspective, to falsely assert goes against the truth, against practical harmony between our judgments and actions, and against interpersonal harmony. Against the truth because you’re knowingly asserting as true something you believe to be false; against practical harmony because your actions are out of alignment with your judgments about the truth; and against interpersonal harmony because a false self-disclosure thwarts any potential sociality and harmony. Now this doesn’t mean that you always have to reveal the truth (you can remain quiet), or the fullness of the truth (you can speak partially), or that you have a duty to reveal the truth to anyone who asks of it from you (the Nazi at the door), or that you can’t deceive in non-lying ways (military feints, etc.). So while you may never lie, that doesn’t mean you can’t conceal the truth in a variety of ways from those who have no right to it from you at that moment (again the Nazi at the door).
The debate over killing extends primarily to issues like capital punishment and killing in war. What the tradition as a whole more-or-less agrees on is that a private person (i.e., someone who does not have public authority) may never intend death. Full stop. So you and I may never intentionally kill. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use lethal force when justified, as in self-defense. Here, however, our action isn’t one of intentional killing, but using sufficient force necessary to repel an unjust aggressor, where we might foresee and accept — but not intend — the aggressor’s death. This is all straight out of Aquinas’s discussion of killing in self-defense, in one of the central texts on the so-called doctrine of double-effect.
The tradition also agrees that public persons (i.e., police, military, judge/jury/executioner) may never intentionally kill the innocent. Not even for a great benefit. So public authorities can’t execute an innocent person to get a village to cooperate. And they can’t drop a bomb on innocent civilians to get their leaders to surrender. Public authority can, however, target a military base, knowing that some innocent civilians will perish as collateral damage, again under double-effect reasoning, where their deaths are foreseen but not intended. The contrast being that when bombing a residential neighborhood, the deaths of the innocent civilians are intended, precisely as a means to the end of getting their government to surrender.
So here’s where the debate enters. Some natural law thinkers argue that all justified uses of lethal force — even from public persons — should be understood as a form of self-defense. That instead of the moral norm being no intentional killing of the innocent, the norm is no intentional killing, period. So all justified use of lethal force needs to be defensive and where the death is foreseen but unintended. The reason is that what grounds our human worth and dignity and value is our human nature, and this doesn’t change even for the worst of criminals. In other words, the life of the criminal has the same dignity because it is intrinsic dignity. Hence their life is always a basic good and gives all of us a basic reason to respect their life. Here, uses of lethal force by the police, military, and criminal justice system would all have to be defensive in nature. Thus capital punishment should be thought of more as capital defense, and with the rise of the modern prison system it seems less and less necessary as a defensive measure. Hence the recent teachings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. For readers who want to see all of these arguments fleshed out with back-and-forth debate, see the essays collected here: https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/featured/capitalpunishment/.
ATW: Does natural law theory speak to the construction of gender norms in society?
RTA: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that every culture needs to have a sound understanding of how our embodiment as male or female makes a difference for our pursuit of certain goods, and thus needs certain cultural and legal norms to help channel our personal and collective choices towards those goods. But no in the sense that it doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all answer, these norms are going to be somewhat culturally relative, in the sense that the natural law itself doesn’t say anything about pink and blue or pants and skirts. The basic task of a sound culture is to help guide people’s understandings and shape their attitudes and feelings so the trajectory of boy to man to husband to father, and girl to woman to wife to mother, is smooth and reasonably comfortable.
Gender is socially shaped, but it is not a mere social construct. It originates in biology, but in turn it directs our bodily nature to human goods such as marriage and various forms of friendship. A sound understanding of gender clarifies the important differences between the sexes and guides our distinctly male or female qualities toward our wellbeing. A concept of gender that denies or distorts these differences, on the other hand, hinders human flourishing.
I try to explain some of this in chapter 7 of my book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, and my law review article, “Neither Androgyny nor Stereotypes: Sex Differences and the Difference They Make.” The basic idea is that androgyny denies the differences between males and females, while stereotypes distort them. Between stereotypes on the one hand and androgyny on the other, the virtuous mean is a view of gender that reveals meaningful sex differences and communicates the difference they make — a view that takes sex differences seriously while upholding the fundamental equality of the sexes as complements to one another. It acknowledges what sex differences mean for marriage and family, friendship and education. Our sexual embodiment is precisely what makes marriage possible, and a host of social practices, including how we nurture boys and girls, are shaped with the good of marriage in view. On average, boys and girls, and men and women have different needs and inclinations, so our law and culture should not take the male way of being human as the norm. This means that women should not be forced to live, work, and compete as if they were men. Society should accept that men and women may, on the whole, have different preferences and freely make different choices.
ATW: Using a natural law framework, why is it impossible for a man to become a woman?
RTA: Well, partly this is straightforward biology: it’s impossible. And biology is the reason why it’s impossible. Then the natural law says why we shouldn’t try. I explain this at great length in When Harry Became Sally, but the basic gist is our bodies, no less than our minds and feelings, are parts of our personal reality as human beings; we are our bodies, though we are not merely materials, and do not inhabit our bodies and use them as extrinsic instruments. We are integrated body-soul composites, not “ghosts in machines.” We are personal bodies, embodied souls, ensouled bodies. Sex is a biological reality, conceptualized and identified based on an organism’s organization with respect to sexual reproduction. In human beings, this organization begins to form as a result of the chromosomes we inherit from our parents, as well as the reproductive organs, systems, genitalia, and hormones that develop as a consequence. As there are two reproductive systems, there are two sexes. Sex-reassignment is a physical impossibility — all that can be done is amputations and cosmetic procedures to make someone more closely externally resemble the opposite sex’s typical body type. But there’s no way to actually make someone the opposite sex. Attempts to do so go wrong for three basic reasons. First, they are attempts to affirm a falsehood. Attempts to reinforce a mistaken belief about identity. Second, they do damage to bodily integrity and bodily health; many procedures amounting to little more than mutilation of the body. And third, the best evidence shows that they don’t produce the positive psychological outcomes that are, at least ostensibly, their goals. Again, all of this is discussed at length in the book and other recent writings.
ATW: When it comes to religious liberty, how does natural law brace for erring belief on religious matters? Surely we would not say that everyone’s grasp of the divine is correct on natural law grounds, right?
RTA: Correct! Religious liberty is not based on relativism. Nor is it based on indifference. What I mean by this is that some people will say, “well we need religious liberty because one religion is just as good or just as true as another, and therefore it would be arbitrary to favor one over another. There is no religious truth, therefore we need religious freedom.” Or, someone might say, “religion just doesn’t matter. We can be indifferent to religion, and thus have religious liberty, because it’s simply not important. And unimportant things we can leave alone.” So that’s the basic relativism and indifferentism arguments for religious liberty. I make a different argument in my book Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, and then Sherif Girgis and I expand it in our co-authored book Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. The basic argument here is that religious truth is really important, and that’s why the state shouldn’t coerce our acts seeking and adhering to religious truth. But none of that entails thinking that everyone’s grasp of the divine is correct, or fully correct.
ATW: Is there a way in which natural law is not applicable to an ongoing debate in society?
RTA: Nope. Did you want me to say more? More or less every debate taking place right now in our society fundamentally comes down to competing visions of the human person, and thus of human nature and the fulfillment of that nature. That’s what natural law is all about. So whether it be debates about economic justice and racial equality, or debates about abortion and sexuality, all of these ultimately come down to questions of how we understand the human person and the ends/goods that perfect us. It’s applicable to everything.
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