Law, Naturally

In 1945 the initial formation of the United Nations promised a renaissance in “natural law.” Stating a “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person …” the preamble to the UN charter outlined what appeared to be a basic conception of natural law and human dignity reaffirmed by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Even as the expansion of historical knowledge revealed an unfathomed diversity in global cultures and customs, the West's faith in a universal moral unity seemed firm.

This faith was fragile and soon to fade. The tides of ethical relativism and legal positivism arose to subsume half-hearted and incoherent conceptions of natural law, and replace them with nihilism and uncertainty. The Catholic Church stood unyielding in its reaffirmations of natural law stating in Veritatis Splendor, “Inasmuch as the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind” (par. 51). But a secular world remained and remains largely unmoved. Christian natural law often alienated those who lacked faith, and enlightenment theories predicated on a common “state of nature” were devastated by abuse, by modern anthropology, and by the expansion of historical thought. The very concept of a universal ethic, at times, seemed lost.

However, in Natural Law and Human Dignity: Universal Ethics in an Historical World, Professor Eberhard Schockenhoff attempts to reclaim this ethic arguing “a double concept of natural law and human dignity” with a “basis antecedent to all strategies of consensus and procedure” (ix). This work systematically evaluates the modern status of natural law theory, and argues for a reformulation inclusive of historical insight and targeted to a multicultural world. Constructing a Thomistic ethic rooted in “practical reason” Schockenhoff lays the foundation for a universal recognition of fundamental human liberty, subsequently constructing a separate, biblical ethic for the fulfillment of the redeemed human being. And while his name may be unfamiliar to many American readers, the discussion that arises from his treatment of these topics is sure to please anyone with a serious interest in natural law theory.

First is an evaluation of the challenges facing traditional justifications of natural law theory. To many, these objections will be familiar, based on ambiguities and abuses within the theory's history, but the discussion is sure to hold something of value for even the most hardened natural law scholar. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Schockenhoff readily concedes that the traditional Christian understanding of natural law has been tainted by inconsistency (consider the church's shifting stance on organ donation or smallpox vaccination) and a departure from its Thomistic origins, but he similarly recognizes those external difficulties posed by historicity and the ethical relativism of modern anthropology. Citing thinkers from Wilhelm Dilthey and Leo Strauss to Ernst Troeltsch and Thomas Aquinas he notes the skepticism surrounding traditional justifications and the problems posed by the appearance of circular reasoning and Hume's “naturalistic fallacy.”

Upon outlining these problems, Schockenhoff confronts the primary critics of this theory—ethical relativism and historicity. Again, these topics may seem familiar, but Schockenhoff's insightful treatment of them is both brilliant and devastating. Turning a critical sword to relativism, he successfully reverses the accusation of naturalism (or the naturalistic fallacy) arguing that relativists incorrectly posit that the mere historic existence of a value implies that value “ought” exist, a fallacy first noted by Hume. He further argues the logical inconsistency of strict ethical relativism, and finally, asserts that a proper understanding of cultural relativism can even be subsumed within a correctly formulated theory of natural law.

His treatment of history is more sympathetic. Schockenhoff contends that proponents of natural law cannot view nature and history as mutually exclusive, but must “accept historicity as one of the essential characteristics of modern life in which the human person experiences his own nature as a finite being.” (130) Relying on the telos (end) of man rather than a conception of the state of nature, Schockenhoff sees history as “time as formed, interpreted, and also endured through human action,“ (117) and like Ernst Troeltsch appears to believe in an ”ultimate end which is now in the process of realization.“ (103) As Schockenhoff notes, historicity is not necessarily destructive of natural law properly conceived, but rather ”the intellectual challenge is to accept historicity as one of the essential characteristics of modern life, in which the human person experiences his own nature as a finite being.“ (130) Historical situations may seem vastly different, but the essential characteristics of human nature are not destroyed by this diversity—only superficially concealed.

This treatment of historicity and relativism complete, Schockenhoff constructs his own natural law theory. He systematically presents a Thomistic conception of natural law founded on the telos of man, his natural order and reason, the autonomy of practical reason as distinct from theoretical (speculative) reason, and the fundamental importance of ethical self-determination—“a dignity rooted in freedom and reason.” (221) Schockenhoff rejects a neo-Thomistic interpretation that too closely binds theoretical and practical reason and denies the practical reason the flexibility and autonomy necessary to adapt to individual historical situations. His basic understanding of natural law is minimalist, a “reflection on the indispensable minimum conditions for human existence…that normative kernel of human dignity which the idea of inalienable human rights seeks to protect.” (186) And Schockenhoff's exposition of a Thomistic understanding of lex naturalis is matched in brilliance only by the exemplification he employs to clarify these claims. Using concrete examples of “intrinsically evil” actions such as rape and murder (Thomas' malum ex genere), he elaborates on the theoretical principles previously applied and illuminates his analysis in a captivating way.

Finally, upon constructing a viable theory of natural law protective of an essential kernel of human dignity, he provides a blueprint for the ultimate fulfillment of that dignity in “The universal claim of biblical ethics.” In classic form, Schockenhoff builds on the idea of the human person as the image of God and then makes an artful defense of the universal claims of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount. Even the Christian broadly uninterested in ethical relativism and Thomistic natural law will gain a wealth of insight from Schockenhoff's discussion of these two essential biblical doctrines. Additionally, his assertion that this perfection of human dignity is separate from the essential protection of said dignity in the natural law is bound to find broad-based acceptance in a religiously and culturally diverse world. In his conclusion, “The distinction between law and morality,” he rejects legal positivism, asserting the necessity of natural law to the construction of true consensus and justice while maintaining a careful distinction between the two. This is genius for a scholar attempting to reach a secular audience while maintaining, in earnest, his faith. Rather than calling for a Christian state reliant on coercion, Schockenhoff urges Christians to serve as living examples of the anthropological success of the Gospel in providing for human fulfillment. In echoes of Winthrop, he seems to see the Christian life informed by biblical principles as a “city on a hill,” persuasive in its success and visibility.

Ultimately, in Natural Law and Human Dignity, Eberhard Schockenhoff has added a refreshing and powerful voice to the dialogue on human rights, Christian morality, and universal ethics in an historical world. His analysis is thorough and thoughtful and his writing, while a bit complex, is accessible to the dedicated reader. A German, he cites thinkers with whom many Americans may be unfamiliar, and, indeed, his work is absent any mention of the Declaration of Independence, John Locke, or Thomas Jefferson; but this perspective may prove a greater help than hindrance to the reader searching for a fresh perspective on the natural law debate. Throughout the work, Schockenhoff manages to present his argumentation in an authoritative and persuasive manner, and, while he makes every effort to present an objective case acceptable even in secular circles, he never compromises his dedication to Christian faith or human liberty. On whole, Natural Law and Human Dignity proves an essential addition to the contemporary discussion of natural law theory.