BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (062) – What does a pencil teach us about natural law?

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Rev José Mario O Mandía

Last time we saw how our experience leads us to the need for ethics and morality. We have seen that the concepts of good and evil are related to and derived from our rights, from what we see as due to us. When we are given our due, we call it “good,” and when we are not given it, we call it “bad.”

What is due or owed us depends on what we are, it depends on our nature. For this reason, the law that governs human actions is called natural law.

Perhaps a comparison can make it clearer. Everything in the world has its own essence, its own nature. The nature of a thing determines how it works or functions or operates. This is why we say that nature is the principle of operations (“principle” here means “origin” or “source”).

Let’s take a simple analogy to explain what we mean by “principle of operations.”

A pencil has two parts (sometimes three, if there is an eraser): the barrel and the lead. That is its nature. This nature determines how the pencil works: one has to take it firmly with the fingers, then touch the paper with the end of the pencil where the lead is exposed, and start writing or sketching.

How about if I use the other end without the lead, could I write that way? No, I cannot.

But what if I want to use that end anyway? Well, of course I can do that, I am free to choose to use the pencil that way, but I will not obtain any result with it.

The nature of the pencil requires that I use it in a specific way. Its nature determines a rule (or law) which I must follow so that the pencil fulfills the function for which it was made.

Another question: could I use the pencil to clean my ears? I can, but maybe I should not. The pencil’s nature is such that it will not work well for cleaning ears. It may even do harm. So its nature also puts limits to what it can do

Everything in the world has its own essence, its own nature. Hence, everything in the world has to go by certain laws according to its nature. That includes man. We have explored man’s nature in previous essays (see Bite-Size Philosophy nos 41-58). This nature also comes with its own laws. This is what we call “natural (moral) law.”

The natural law guarantees that we, human beings, can reach our full potential. And because it is based on nature, it is objective, universal, immutable and can be known by human reason.

Natural law is objective (not subjective) because human nature is always the same. If the moral law were based on mere opinion or the majority rule, moral norms would be constantly changing.

Natural law is universal. It applies to everyone who considers himself “human.”

Natural law is immutable. Human beings may vary in customs, beliefs, upbringing and so on, but human nature stays constant. This is one reason we value the study of history, because it teaches us what things work for us and what things don’t.

The Golden Rule expressed either negatively (“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you”) or positively (“Do unto others …”), has been taught by all the major philosophies and religions of the world for at least 4,000 years. It proves the universality and the immutability of natural law.

Finally, the natural law can be known by reason and can be shown to be reasonable. Thanks, however, to the God who, “[i]n many and various ways … spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2), we have a sure source of knowledge of what this law demands. More on this next time.