One thing we've kept insisting on since the beginning of this blog — and quite some time before, as the "Keynote Address" at the centenary of the Central Bureau of the Catholic Central Union of America last year makes clear — is that the restructuring of the social (and economic) order must be in conformity with the natural moral law. Not unnaturally, this raises the question as to what, exactly, is the natural law.
As Dr. Adler explains, "Let us first be clear that by 'natural law' we mean principles of human conduct, not the laws of nature discovered by the physical sciences." That is, the natural law is the way human beings are supposed to act in accordance with their own human nature. It is not the set of mechanical rules that govern how the universe physically operates. "The idea of a natural right order to which all things, including human beings, should conform is one of the most ancient and universal notions." Dr. Adler completes this thought by observing,
In Western society, especially from the Roman jurists and the theologians of the Middle Age[s] on, we find the doctrine of the natural moral law for man. It is the source of moral standards, the basis of moral judgments, and the measure of justice in the man-made laws of the State. If the law of the State runs counter to the precepts of the natural law, it is held to be unjust.Thus, "the first precept of natural law is to seek the good and avoid evil." As a basic principle, however, this is nice, but nebulous until and unless it can be applied in everyday life. "Such a general principle is useless for organized society unless we can use it to specify various types of rights and wrongs. That is precisely what man-made, or positive, law tries to do." Dr. Adler continues,
Thus, the natural law tells us only that stealing is wrong because it inflicts injury, but the positive law of larceny defines the various kinds and degrees of theft and prescribes the punishments therefor.For regular readers of this blog, this is one of those "stop me if you've heard this" moments, or (as Yogi Berra would say) déjà vu all over again. Dr. Heinrich Rommen (of more anon) said virtually the same thing in his book on the natural law:
"Thou shalt not steal" presupposes the institution of private property as pertaining to the natural law; but not, for example, the feudal property arrangements of the Middle Ages or the modern capitalist system. Since the natural law lays down general norms only, it is the function of the positive law to undertake the concrete, detailed regulation of real and personal property and to prescribe the formalities for conveyance of ownership. (The Natural Law, 59)Human positive law is not set in stone, for (as both Aristotle and Aquinas observe), "particular rules of laws should [not] be the same in different times, places, and conditions." The basic precepts of the natural law are discernible by the use of human reason — Dr. Adler doesn't cite Aquinas on this, but in the treatise on law in the Summa, "the Angelic Doctor" states quite clearly that law is found in reason alone. (Ia IIae q. 90 a. 1)
Reflecting on Dr. Adler's explanation, we might conclude that it is humanity's task as a "political animals" to tailor our institutions, among which are positive laws, as well as customs and traditions, to conform as closely as possible to the essential principle of the natural law: good is to be done, evil avoided. Of course, we have to take into consideration the constraints imposed by the existing culture and institutions, human wants and needs, the physical environment, and so on. This is how Father William Ferree defined the "common good," the network of institutions (social structures) within which human beings as political animals carry out their business of living, the chief business being to acquire and develop virtue, thereby becoming more fully human by conforming ourselves ever more closely to our own nature.
Dr. Adler doesn't go this far, but Pope Pius XI developed the idea of an "act of social justice" that is directed specifically at the reform of the institutions of the common good. There's an explanation in Introduction to Social Justice why traditional philosophers like Dr. Adler do not — yet — accept the idea of "social justice" as a "particular virtue," but that doesn't concern us for the purposes of this discussion. The bottom line is that we are not helpless in the face of badly structured institutions or poorly organized societies. It is within our power, as members of organized groups, to effect beneficial social change directly on our institutional environment.
If your eyes glazed over reading the preceding two paragraphs, don't worry. They are not essential to this discussion, although they are critical to the implementation and maintenance of the Just Third Way. Just go on to the next paragraph.
As we might expect, not everyone agrees with this view of the natural law. For thousands of years there has been a school of thought that holds that human positive law is purely a matter of agreement among people joined together in society, a convention not rooted in our very identity as human beings. That being the case, you can pretty much do anything you like as long as you can get enough people to go along with it. Countering this belief, which Dr. Adler refers to as "conventionalism" and "positivism," will be the subject of our next posting in this series.