Nurture and Natural Law

When I was six or seven, growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, my father took me into Boston to walk the Freedom Trail. As we progressed along the Trail, smelling the dust and exhaust fumes of old Boston, my father led me back into the eighteenth century. We strolled over the Common, and looked into Old South Church (the Tea Party started here, he pointed out), down to the Old State House (the Massacre happened in front of it), Fanueil Hall (stopping for lunch at nearby Durgin Park), and up to North Church (the lanterns signalling Paul Revere looked out to the Back Bay, which was water then, he explained). At each stop, he would have me picture the people, the conflicts, the emotions that accompanied the Revolution. It was a time of wonder for me. The names of Otis, Hancock, Revere, the Adams cousins, and even Crispus Attucks were impressed into my mind.

Now I suggest that if you who read this piece had a reasonably happy childhood, there was some moment (or moments) of similar awakening for you. As it was for me, I should think that event would be but one small instant in a rich texture of experiences, events, and discoveries that you, your parents, your siblings and relatives, and your childhood friends created and shared. In that texture, I, like you, found and pursued my particular identity, which was exactly what my parents hoped would happen. Since that time, neither I, nor you, have stopped the process of formation of our selves. And I, like you, continue to seek to make “better” that self in the skill of our respective crafts, in our physical well-being, and–perhaps most importantly–in our moral actions. Or, if we do not, we know that we ought to. We have setbacks, but the quest continues. We all, I suggest, spend our lives constantly seeking to become better persons.

What my father did for me that Saturday, and what my parents and other relatives did for me every day of my childhood, was to nurture me. They gave direction, encouragement, example, and material sustenance so that I could “do all I was capable of doing,” as the stock phrase goes. Whatever potential for excellence they divined in me, they sought to nurture, that is, they tried to provide the basis for my own individual achievement.

Nurture is a virtue, the giving and receiving of which is essential to the moral life. Aristotle described friendship as seeking the good of the other, but the kind of good that nurture seeks is the self-realization of the other in any of the arts of life, whether knowledge, productivity, aesthetics, or moral acuity. Nurture requires a complex and subtle relationship, usually with some degree of intimacy. It respects the individuality of the other person. Think, for example, of how parents enjoy describing the unique personalities of each of their children.

Nurture is not, however, doting kindness. It does not serve another’s wants or desires, but rather it looks to another’s needs. By “needs,” I mean that ensemble of objective requirements–material, emotional, and moral–that supports a particular individual’s achievement of any range of life’s goods. Nurture can, therefore, include a real component of discipline, for ultimately, it is the habit of self-discipline that permits us to accomplish anything of personal note.

Though directed at the individual good of the other, the giving of nurture is also necessary for the moral self-realization of the giver himself. It is an act of moral excellence that requires empathy, judgment, restraint, and respect for the other person. As we would have been hampered in developing each of our respective identities had we not received nurture from someone else, so too, without opportunities to dispense nurture, we would be unable to achieve our own moral individuality.

Under the classical theory of natural law there are certain values that are objectively good for the human person: life, knowledge, virtue, craft, aesthetics, community, and so on. For the individual to participate in any of these objective goods of life, the giving and receiving of nurture is indispensable.

Nurture, then, is a universal necessity, and, if the principles of natural law hold true, a universal moral command. It is applied, like all moral commands, in particular circumstances. Although the term is most commonly used regarding parental obligations towards children, the need for differing kinds of nurturing, and the obligation to be a nurturer, continues throughout our lives. That we may see it most concretely actualized in mothers (as Aristotle acknowledged) does not mean that nurturing does not go on in other forms and other relationships. A good teacher nurtures. A good lawyer is a nurturer. Even a child, in dazzling moments of insight, nurtures his mother or father.

If nurture is a universal moral norm derived from natural law, then what does that augur for the law, the polity and social policy? If a governmental policy works to deny me nurturing opportunities, it denies an essential part of my human flourishing. Can we, rather, find a system that not only protects persons from the evil and careless acts of others, but encourages and supports nurturing relationships upon which moral excellence and human happiness depends?

To begin with, we must confront the fact that nurture is relational, radically individualistic, and would seem to have the best chance to flourish in a society in which the material, temporal, and other opportunities for mutual support are available. By and large, therefore, because of the infinite range of circumstances and relationships necessary for nurture to thrive between humans, a limited state and a wide range of personal liberties is necessary. That is a logical conclusion supported by empirical observation of how individuals thrive in free political and economic societies. A governmental policy should respect an environment where nurturing relationships already flower, and be wise enough to leave it alone.

The state can, however, assist in the formation of a virtuous society. There are two justifications for the limited intervention of the state to improve the moral activities of the individual. One justification is by need. The other justification is by co-ordination. In each case, the purpose of state action is to assist the recipient of aid in the achievement of his (morally justified) life’s plan, and to educate by discipline or example the giver in appropriate moral conduct (whether the enforced giver accepts and internalizes the lesson is his responsibility).

Under natural law theory, the state may respond to the needs of individuals, if the needs are morally objective, and not mere subjective desires. A government that is the fount of material consumerism does a moral disservice to individuals. However, where the individual is unavoidably dependent on the community, then the state has a legitimate right to assist. Safety is the most generic need, but particular populations–the elderly, or children, or the desperately ill, for example–may have legitimate needs for sustenance and safety that the state should respond to.

The second justifiable mechanism by which the state could assist the practice of virtue is through the notion of co-ordination. Unlike state of nature theorists, and other egoist-based political theories, natural law scholars have never had much trouble in justifying the legitimacy of the state. It exists because it is an efficient mechanism of coordinating material needs among persons, because it can protect persons from harm, because it can assist those in the performance of their moral duties, individually as well as collectively, because it fulfills the moral needs of persons for social/political interaction, and because properly run, it can provide moral exemplars to the citizens. Under natural law theory, a particular state or regime, risks illegitimacy when it materially fails to achieve those objectives.

Let us look at a few current examples. Has the state provided the appropriate basis for the virtue of nurture in the laws on abortion, welfare, or education? When an unborn child is refused necessary sustenance, when a mother is denied the experience of her own moral actualization by the act of nurture, the harm to both parties is morally catastrophic. When welfare structures do not encourage nurturing relationships between husband and wife, when they deny the responsibility for individual self-realization that is the objective of nurture, then another moral harm is inflicted on persons. Finally, when education drives a wedge between parents and their nurturing responsibilities to their children, when educational theories imbue egoism in children rather than the other-directed attitude that is needed for adults to achieve moral excellence, then once again the value of nurture is demeaned.

In sum, the virtue of nurture can only flourish when government respects the liberty necessary for friendships and family relationships to thrive, and when government does intervene, it does so only to assist individuals in their self-realization of the moral good.