Archive for August 2018

The Myth of Natural Law

August 15, 2018

cap freedomI recently had a troubling exchange on a “Gordon Clark Discussion” Facebook page where a participant made the following statement:

Libertarianism’s axiom is the non-aggression axiom, which means it is never OK to initiate aggression against person or property. Christians ground this axiom as a principle in divine natural law … Anarcho-capitalism is simply the Bible consistently applied.

I wondered where someone could possibly get this idea, even asserting that Christianity has anything to do with “natural law,” much less someone on a Gordon Clark discussion group.  As it turns out it’s from a group calling themselves “Reformed Libertarians.” This became clear when another person posted a piece by Brandon Adams titled, “Natural Law: Greek or Hebrew?”  In his article Brandon positively extols the so-called “natural law” as normative, even Christian.  Brandon writes:

… there is disagreement over the content and source of natural law. Greek natural law and Isralite natural law are seeking to answer two different questions. Greek natural law asks “What is man’s good?” Hebrew natural law asks “What does God require of man?” The Christian is going to answer “What is man’s good?” with “Doing what God requires,” so there will be a great deal of overlap. But the two questions are distinct…. When we talk about the importance of natural law for a biblical political philosophy on this site, we are not at all endorsing the use of fallen man’s reasoning from the general principle of “seek what is good” to specific conclusions about civil government. Rather, we are simply referring to the fact that the precepts of the moral law are binding on all men from all time. There can be no appeal to natural law in distinction from revealed law in Scripture because the two are the same. Nothing can be deduced from natural law that cannot also be deduced from Scripture. (emphasis mine)

The idea that “natural law” and the revealed law in Scripture are one and the same is absurd. Calling one “Greek” and other “Hebrew” misses the point.  There is no natural law. And, the assertion that “nothing can be deduced from natural law that cannot also be deduced from Scripture” is demonstrably false.  There are any number of things that can be logically deduced from the vagaries of  “natural law” and the non-aggression axiom that cannot possibly be deduced from Scripture. One of the most glaring examples of this in Libertarian circles is Murray Rothbard’s argument defending the natural right of parents to starve their own children to death:

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die.

Then “Mr. Libertarian” adds this reassuring parenthesis:

(Though … in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)

Now, listen, little Johnny, if Mommy and Daddy don’t starve you to death we can always sell you to the highest bidder so be sure to brush your teeth.  Sleep tight.

Isn’t the “libertarian society” wonderful.

If you study Rothbard’s horrific argument his conclusions logically follow from his premises inexorably. The inherent absurdity of the non-aggression principle is not lost on Matt Zwolinski writing at, even if it is seemingly lost on those writing at the “Reformed Libertarian”:

It’s one thing to say that aggression against others is wrong. It’s quite another to say that it’s the only thing that’s wrong – or the only wrong that is properly subject to prevention or rectification by force. But taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP [the non-aggression principle] implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own. Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced. That it was Rothbard himself who presented the reductio, without, apparently, realizing the absurdity into which he had walked, rather boggles the mind. – Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle

While there are many things attractive about Libertarianism to include its belief in limited constitutional government, the acceptance and adherence to Austrian economics as an approximation of biblical economics, and even the non-aggression principle if only as a crude measure to identify some examples of government overreach, what is troubling is there are a number of young Christian men, some even calling themselves Scripturalists, who don’t seem to realize that in their youthful infatuation with Libertarianism and the non-aggression axiom that they end up juggling two competing and mutually exclusive axioms.  That’s because the non-aggression axiom is grounded on “natural law” theory, whereas the precepts of  Christianity are grounded on the axiom of the Bible alone.  To confuse the two, or even to equate them, is a fatal error.  Besides, the very idea of natural law fails before it even starts, as Gordon Clark explains in his Essays on Ethics and Politics:

The theory of natural law commits a major logical blunder when it tries to deduce a normative conclusion from descriptive premises. No matter how carefully or how intricately one describes what men do, or what the provisions of nature are, or how natural inclinations function, it is a logical impossibility to conclude that this is or is not what men ought to do. The is never implies the ought. This criticism applies to all empirical theories.

John Robbins writing in Freedom and Capitalism calls this “Hume’s Gap.” As Robbins  explains:

Law is not something that can be discovered in nature; it must be and has been revealed by God. Christian law is supernatural law, not natural law. The phrase “natural law” itself is capable of so many interpretations that anyone who advocates nature law must expend a great deal of effort explaining what he means.

Ironically, Brandon Adams quotes this last sentence above in the introduction to his article yet didn’t seem to grasp its significance when he concluded that natural law and the law revealed in Scripture are one and the same. Which is weird since only a page later in the same chapter in Freedom and Capitalism Robbins argues;

One of the principle objections to any theory of natural law is that it fails to take into account the fact that nature is cursed and man depraved. Nature is not normative; it is abnormal.

The doctrine of total depravity and even the historicity of the Fall are things any group calling themselves “Reformed,” even “Reformed Libertarian” should positively affirm, yet any discussion of man’s fallen and cursed state is missing from Brandon’s examination of natural law in both his imagined “Greek” and “Hebrew” varieties.

So while there may be some superficial overlap with natural law theory and the non-aggression axiom with the Christian system when it comes to things like the command not to steal or murder, the similarities begin to break down in areas like suicide, infanticide, abortion, so-called “homosexual marriage,” the legitimacy of taxation, the role of government in the administering of justice, and the list goes on. Which makes sense, because if you start with different axioms you are going to end up with different systems, any accidental coincidence between the two notwithstanding.

Contrary to Brandon above, the appeal to natural law stands in stark contrast to the revealed law in Scripture and the two are mutually exclusive for the simple reason that there is no natural law.  As Robbins explains above the precepts revealed in Scripture are supernatural, not natural, and are not discoverable in any sense (no pun intended) by the study and observation of nature.  According to Robbins “natural law” is nothing but vanity and idolatry:

Is it not obvious that only Christianity can furnish a valid ethical system precisely because it does not proport to derive law from reason or experience? David Hume … has laid an ax to the root of all efforts to devise a valid system of ethics from human experience. It it not evident that we must go out of — or rather, Someone must break into — our world in order to give us law? Only propositional revelation — only commands from the Lawgiver — can provide us with the needed ethical guidance.  Gordon Clark has formulated the Christian ethical principle in four words: “God’s precepts define morality.” Jerome Zanchius wrote that God “did not therefore will such things because they were in themselves right and he was bound to will them; but they are therefore equitable and right because he wills them.”

Those professing Christians — the Romanists and the Arminans  — who believe that natural law theory is compatible with the Bible or is even taught in the Bible itself have not grasped the implications of the first two chapters of Romans. Paul there wrote that ‘when the Gentiles (who do not have the law) do by nature the things of the law, they are a law to themselves, showing the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness with them’ (Romans 2:14-15).

Romanists and Arminians illogically conclude from this passage that natural law theory is found in and sanctioned by the Bible. But Paul says that men suppress the truth in unrighteousness; they refuse to glorify God; they are ingrates, fools, and do not like to retain God in their knowledge. He is describing all Gentiles, that is, the natural law theorists, among others. So long as they are men and are the image of God, they are responsible for their actions. Men cannot, however, construct theories upon this innate information, for their intellects are depraved: “The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Could there be a better refutation of natural law theory than that? The Gentiles, Paul says, performed some of the deeds of the law, almost, as it were, by accident. They show the work of the law written on their hearts, Paul wrote. Thus many Gentiles have never murdered anyone. But while Aristotle may never have actually murdered anyone, he recommended abortion and infanticide, and attempted to prove the existence of a finite, ignorant, anchoretic god. While the Gentiles may perform the law, Paul does not say – he says the opposite – that they can advocate or expound the divine law.… Yet this suppression of the truth is overshadowed by the idolatry involved in elevating nature – or rather, Nature – to the position of lawgiver. Natural law theorists, rather than worshipping the Creator and obeying his law, worship the creature and attempt to discover her laws. Natural law theory is, in the final analysis, a form of idolatry. What has nature to do with law? Nothing. Law is God commanding.


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