By Robert Benne
In elementary school the teacher would demonstrate the magnetic field of a magnet by putting iron filings on a paper right over the magnet. Sure enough, the filings would get ordered according to the pattern of the magnetic field of the magnet. I often use that homely example to illustrate what the Western tradition has meant by natural law. The filings stand for us humans and the magnetic pattern represents natural law. Insofar as we abide by the magnetic field we gather into peaceful, orderly patterns. Insofar as we don’t we fall off the paper or wander aimlessly on the surface, bumping into each other randomly.
The analogy breaks down, of course, because we humans have the freedom to resist the patterns and go our own way. But perhaps the magnetic field is real and the patterns it elaborates are our guide to human flourishing. Perhaps something like the magnetic field is what the ancient tradition of natural law thinking is pointing to when it argues that reasonable humans have the capacity to recognize and follow the natural patterns embedded within human nature and nature itself.
There are many examples of these patterns. Our natural sense of justice leads to an expectation that we should get what we pay for. Oppression of others leads to their rebellion; the Golden Rule is a better way. When we take in too many calories over time or pollute our atmosphere our health diminishes.
True, violations of the natural pattern do not bring negative consequences in every case. Sometimes the oppressor gets away with it, but in the long run and in general, departures from the natural pattern do invite serious turbulence.
Let’s get to more contentious ground. It seems reasonable to claim that natural processes have produced complementary beings—male and female—who fit together biologically, emotionally, and functionally. Most cultures encourage unions of the two sexes that are permanent and shored up by public promises. When the two have sex children are brought forth and nurtured by that bonded pair. Together they bring up human beings who subtly gain their identities replete with all the subliminal gestures and recognitions that enable them to relate properly to other humans. The pair form the child in the moral and intellectual virtues that enable them to live productively and harmoniously in society. Indeed, this pattern is so near universal that marriage and family as institutions arise in almost every society.
Recently we have found that men’s and women’s roles are somewhat malleable—some men can nurture children well and women can be the breadwinners, but there seem to be tuggings in human nature itself that distinguish men’s and women’s roles more than we care to admit. Other patterns are not so malleable; children flourish best when they are in a stable home cared for by both a biological mom and dad who are committed to each other and the child.
There are huge social repercussions when this pattern is widely rejected. Americans are experiencing the extensive erosion of marriage and family life, especially among the working and lower classes—Black, White, and Hispanic. The absence of an involved father is devastating for the future of the children. The educated classes pretty much adhere to the pattern sketched above but oddly enough won’t defend it as a social good.
Until very recently, the laws of Western societies undergirded this pattern—the institution of marriage—with all its natural, consensual, social, and religious dimensions. All believed that this “thick” definition was anchored in natural law itself. But recently the “thick” definition has gradually been reduced to only its consensual dimension. Marriage is whatever two—or more?—people consent to. In this “thin” definition there is little to justify keeping gays, lesbians, polyamorists, and perhaps close blood relatives from joining in the bargain.
But in allowing this we disrupt the underlying pattern that is part of natural law and thereby deconstruct the institution itself, which is built on permanent heterosexual unions oriented toward the birth and nurture of children.
If there is such a thing as natural law we are likely to find just those aforementioned negative effects when we depart from it. Indeed, I believe there is such a pattern, as do billions of people in a common-sense sort of way. Our departure has already been damaging and further experimentation may multiply it. Nevertheless, the magnetic field still tugs and we always have the freedom to return to its patterns, patterns that will enable our society to flourish. We should exercise that freedom.