In a free society where citizens have many different faiths – in the United States there are now about 2,500 religions – one might think no common standards of right and wrong, either in ethics or in politics, can be identified. But this is wrong.
The basis of common standards of right and wrong conduct and public policy need not rest on religion. If they did, we would indeed have a very difficult time seeing eye-to-eye about morality and politics. All varieties of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and others would be at interminable odds when it comes to judging how people should act and what our laws should be.
Instead, and this is in fact something certain theologians in the major religious faiths have argued, there is natural law, based on our understanding of human nature. The natural law tradition of morality, based on human nature, begins with some assumptions that do have their doubters, of course. But these doubters are fairly easy to refute. For example, some of them say there is no human nature at all. Some say there is nothing distinctive about human beings, so we cannot really tell people apart from many animals – this is the main message of the animal rights movement. Some say we cannot really know the world at all – our minds serve as filters so what we think we know may not be true at all (this is what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed). And there are other skeptics, with different messages.
Still, it is nearly bizarre to deny that there is a distinct species we refer to as homo sapiens, the human race, and that members of the human species are sensibly distinguished from other living beings by virtue of being rational animals, thinking biological entities, with the extraordinary capacity to choose freely from among alternative courses of action, a choice they are routinely responsible for making correctly instead of wrongly. In other words, we humans have a moral nature, and from this certain principles of conduct follow, some bearing on personal ethics, some on the laws of our communities.
The American Founders were aware of the problem of trying to bring all members of different religions together, so they made sure they were discussing the standards of a just society in terms of natural law. They referred to the “Creator” in a way that would not offend anyone, even those who didn’t believe in a supernatural deity, since some believed that nature itself created human beings. (Spinoza, among other major philosophers, actually believed that God and nature are identical.) This way they spoke to all citizens, present and future, as human beings, not as members of any particular faith or culture. And, because even at the time of the American Revolution there were colonists with origins in many different societies, with many different religious faiths and ethnic backgrounds, this was a very wise thing for them to do. They were, of course, also well aware of some of the bad side effects of people wishing to lord their religious views over others, resulting in many wars through Europe and the rest of the world.
But if we are not going to be commanded by the god of this or that religion – a god who may or may not change his mind about how we ought to act in certain ways (just notice how various religions often change their doctrines about, say, contraception, homosexuality, eating meat, etc.) – how could there be stable, lasting standards of conduct we can use to guide ourselves and judge others?
Natural law – principles of conduct derived from human nature – can be of great help here. If we really are rational animals – meaning we are uniquely equipped with minds capable of abstract thinking, and if we also lack instincts that others animals have to prompt them to act correctly – then we pretty much need to live by the use of our minds. Aristotle called it practical reason, as did the Roman Catholic Saint, Thomas Aquinas, an avid follower of Aristotle. And so did many, many other thinkers throughout human history, East and West.
The various human virtues Aristotle identified on the basis of his natural law, ethics all flow from this basic insight that we need to live rationally, sensibly, logically, if you will. Honesty, generosity, courage, prudence, charity, temperance, moderation and justice itself are the particular virtues everyone, including governments, ought to practice, and when one fails to do so, one may rightly be criticized, even harshly condemned if the infraction is grave enough.
These are virtues that are based on our common humanity and so long as we are human beings – which means throughout human history and as far into the future as is possible for us to plan – they will all apply. That is why we can tell that stealing, murder and slavery were wrong in ancient Greece as well as America or anywhere else. This is so even though slavery was sanctioned by a flawed U.S. Constitution and upheld by morally obtuse justices. That is how we can tell, if we look into the matter, whether folks are acting rightly or wrongly throughout the world. That is why human rights violations are wrong no matter where they occur, carried out by members of whatever faith or ethnic group or nationality.
So, there are common standards of ethics and justice because we have a common human nature from which we can derive them. And most people, of course, know this well enough and act pretty much accordingly.
Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of “The Passion for Liberty” (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper.