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Does Natural Law Require a Belief in God?

Professor Lee Strang discusses the breadth of the natural law tradition, which includes both religious and non-religious thinkers. The basic premises of natural law are rational and don’t require a belief in a divine being. Professor Strang cites John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights as an excellent presentation of the core natural law tradition which includes, but does not assume, a religious viewpoint. https://youtube.com/watch?v=8MNHiqEK9NU


So what if one doesn't believe in God? What does that say about one's relationship to the natural law tradition or to Aquinas in particular? The natural law tradition is broad. There's lots of people, both in the past in the Middle Ages and today, who either don't believe in God or don't rely on the proposition of God as being a necessary component to the natural law tradition. Aristotle is commonly identified as one of the progenitors of the natural law tradition. Aristotle had a conception of God, it was definitely not Saint Thomas Aquinas' conception of God, in that he still had a conception of natural law norms. Norms of conduct, things that were good for humans to do and things that were not good for humans to do, but his conception of natural law, relatively undeveloped as it was, was not dependent on the proposition of a divine being. In fact, in Aristotle's conception of God that God was actually relatively uninterested in the affairs of human beings. So that's an example, a concrete example, of somebody in the tradition, who is relatively nontheistic by today's standards, who still is a part of the natural law tradition. Another way to think about how one's relationship with the natural law tradition can be, if one does not believe in God, is to think about what are the claims that natural lawyers make to support and explain the natural law tradition? And whether those claims require one to believe in God. I think the best place to go, for people in the Anglo-American tradition, is John Finnis' Natural Law and Natural Rights, originally published in 1980, there's a second edition out now. In that book what Professor Finnis describes is the basic aspects of the directedness of human beings towards goods, what he calls basic human goods. He relies on no proposition about divine agency in his explanation. One of the examples that he gives that I think most of us, especially if we're watching this video, would find persuasive is that we're naturally directed towards knowledge. That we think knowledge is good. That if you come upon somebody in a law school classroom and they're reading a case book, and you ask them, "Why are you reading that case book," and they give you the answer, "Because I want to learn this law," that's going to be a sufficient reason for you to understand and understand why that person's doing what he or she is doing. It's not arbitrary, it's entirely reasonable. That line of reasoning, which Professor Finnis uses to describe the directedness of human beings, is unattached to the proposition of the existence, or lack of existence, of God. Then, secondly, when you look at his book Natural Law and Natural Rights he describes how one should pursue those basic human goods, both as an individual and living in a community. The principles of morality and ethics that he identifies, the principles of natural law, the first principle of natural law and other principles of natural law that Professor Finnis, and others, identify as well, focus on aspects of human nature and human existence that are accessible to all of us, regardless of our theological commitments. And not on the proposition that God exists or that God created these natural law norms. It is the case in the last chapter of Natural Law and Natural Rights that Professor Finnis talks about what he calls the basic human good of religion. Professor Finnis' claim is that for those who are religious, for those who do have theological commitments, that the natural law tradition actually has even greater explanatory power about human existence. But his claim, which I agree with, is that one does not have to have theological commitments to understand the natural law tradition in its fulsomeness and in its persuasiveness.

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