Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Robert P. George, recently described by the New York Times Magazine as “the country’s most influential conservative-Christian thinker,” presented a talk entitled “Natural Law, God and Human Dignity” as the 9th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on March 25th before a large crowd in Higgins Hall.
George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, is a leading scholar in the largely Catholic “new natural law” movement that grounds its understanding of unchangeable moral principles solely on the foundation of practical reason. In other words, we can understand the right thing to do—and indeed the moral principles that make actions right, as well as the “basic goods” that determine the moral principles—by reflecting on the nature of our human capacities and the ways in which we can flourish or languish.
George began his argument with the example of friendship, which he considers an intrinsic, basic human good. Friends act in ways that make sense to us, he said: they give without expectation of receiving, they help one another simply because they are friends and not for future gain. Friendship makes sense to us as humans because we recognize it as a good in itself. We don’t need any other reasons to explain it; our natural capacity for friendship yields a natural understanding of its merits. Conversely, a purely instrumental friendship—one based solely on the likelihood of mutual advancement of individual goals— is not a friendship at all, because it fails to contribute to our well-being as social creatures. When we have true friends, and are true friends to others, we flourish as human beings.
Like friendship, health and the pursuit of intellectual knowledge (in any field of thought) are basic human goods, George argued. We can flourish or languish depending on our actions with respect to any of these intrinsic goods. Among the implications of this argument is that there are numerous basic goods that we should pursue, and that they sometimes come into conflict. This means that “the human good is variegated,” not singular. Natural law, George said, helps us to choose among competing moral claims in ways that move us closer to “integral human fulfillment,” to a balance of human goods that fulfills our human capacity to flourish physically, morally and intellectually.
After explaining his conception of natural law at some length, George discussed its merits over competing ethical theories—primarily those like utilitarianism that focus on consequences rather than intrinsic values—and spoke in broad terms about the moral implications of his position. The “master moral principle” that natural law highlights is a familiar one, George argued, for it is expressed in such norms as the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the Pauline Principle (don’t do evil even if good might come of it) and Immanuel Kant’s principle of humanity (treat humanity, whether in the person of yourself or another, always as an end and never as a means only). Using these broad moral principles, we can then derive more specific moral norms that apply to particular cases like adultery or lying in specific situations.
George ended his lecture with remarks on human rights as moral principles. With a nod to Harvard law professor and former Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon (who was present at the lecture), George argued that while rights language is sometimes employed in inappropriate contexts, it is ultimately a “useful, supple way of conceiving and expressing the moral principle that guides our action conclusively away from” choices that might otherwise be understood as acceptable. There are other ways to argue for the intrinsic value of human life, including “the straightforward language of justice,” he said, but human rights offers a particularly powerful and important form of argument. On this point, the audience was in complete agreement.