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June/July 2002

Tony Blair and Natural Law

ANTHONY S.D. McCARTHY

"There is a very interesting debate which I used to study at university - I was not interested in it then but I'm interested in it now - between the concept of natural law and utilitarianism. I've shifted far more towards the first, having been for a long time for the second."

Tony Blair
 
Sunday Telegraph
 
Interview, 18/3/2001
 
 

The natural law is dangerous in a disordered society to the extent that that society is itself disordered. And what we should realize in particular is that men often prefer to keep their disorder rather than to have it criticized or changed.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
 


Statements of belief in Natural Law should be dangerous in a disordered society. For to believe in what is known as the philosophy of Natural Law, is to believe that there is an intrinsic order to the world, and that objective values exist which are not wholly dependent on human being's wills. It is to believe that reason can and must be used to judge mere custom and positive law. Such a belief, says the Natural Lawyer James V. Schall, "involves nothing less than a proper understanding of man's full reality as a being endowed with a rational faculty open to and capable of knowing and acting on truth." Thus Tony Blair's statement of belief in an anti-relativist Natural Law ethic should cause us some surprise.

Yet this radical statement of the Prime Minister's elicited a fairly muted response from our opinion-filled press. One journalist who reacted was the Guardian columnist and biographer of Karl Marx, Francis Wheen, who noted: "Medieval natural law, promulgated by Thomas Aquinas, was essentially a way of disguising individual prejudice with mystical mumbo-jumbo so that it could be passed off as an eternal verity. As Aquinas explained, law is natural because it is 'a purpose implanted by the Divine art.' Citizens had no rights, merely duties. It was not until the Enlightenment that a more positive and secular version of natural law emerged, giving rise to such revolutionary concepts as human rights."

Leaving aside the intellectual vacuity of the pejorative description of "medieval" Natural Law, this quotation shows us how 'enlightened man' sees the matter. For Wheen and his 'liberal' sympathisers, the positive idea of 'human rights' is 'revolutionary' and also, presumably, 'enlightened'. But what does this idea amount to? It amounts to the Enlightenment idea that rights are dependent upon the human will, an idea popularised by the French Revolution, and present in the writings of Rousseau, and later (though in a very different form) in the ethics of Kant. This notion is a convenient one for those who wish to extend indefinitely 'human rights' to include whatever is commonly practiced. Thus, if the 'popular will' wills abortion - it becomes a 'human right'. Likewise the state must recognise gay marriage as a 'right', if the 'popular will' recognises it. Rights are created in accordance with statistics, and sociological patterns trump philosophical principles. And it is lawyers, judges and politicians that gradually incorporate this popular will into positive law.

Such a notion, (as leading contemporary Natural Lawyers James V. Schall, John Finnis, Germain Grisez and any number of present day traditional Natural Lawyers remind us), means the abandonment of the idea that there is a standard - in nature and reason, by which we may judge actions according to what man 'ought to be.' As Schall has noted, in our present climate what man actually 'does' is all that matters. What the medievals such as Aquinas held, and what today's Natural Lawyers hold, is that there are truths beyond political will, truths about human nature that ground and justify and restrict 'rights' talk. And this idea is, of course, to be denounced as fanatical and anti-democratic, because it suggests that what we 'do' is insufficient to ground, as a human right, our 'right' to do it. The suggestion that rights are tied to duties is terribly offensive to an age which, like an adolescent, believes it has a 'right' to do whatever it so chooses.

It is no surprise that despots and politicians for the past century, have, on the whole, welcomed the Enlightenment view of 'natural law'. For if positive law is the only standard by which we may judge 'rights', then there is nothing to stop a government simply imposing its will on its people. After all, if government is the expression of the 'popular will', then why can it not simply 'create' whichever rights it chooses. A brief look at Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany, or the dictatorship of the French revolutionaries, show the uses to which an unbridled positivist conception of law can be put. If the state is the final arbiter of what counts as a 'right', then there is no defence against the claims of totalitarians. Certainly the modern notion of 'human rights', based on human wants, cannot ground a sufficient defence against 'expressions of popular will'. Despotism is far happier with the 'enlightenment' notion of natural law based upon will, than the 'medieval' natural law which restricts what it is permissible for a government to permit, because it accepts that there are truths about man that go beyond the polis.

If Tony Blair was expressing a belief in the notion of 'medieval' Natural Law this would indeed be startling. However, as is so often the case, we cannot really believe what he says. Such a belief would entail an absolute opposition to abortion, an opposition to the deliberate and intentional killing of innocent civilians in war, an opposition to 'therapeutic' human cloning and a refusal to promote homosexual lifestyles as though they were equally valid to traditional family structures. Yet in all of these areas Mr Blair and his government have set themselves firmly against what Natural Law proclaims. On abortion he claims to be 'personally against it' yet absolutely in favour of the 'right' of others to practice it. Presumably he would think it sensible also to be personally opposed to slave-ownership, but insistent upon the rights of others to practice it. On cloning he believes that the (as yet unproven) 'benefits to the ill' outweigh the moral requirement not to sacrifice innocent human life to any end. Never mind that this position is blatantly utilitarian. The deliberate killing of non-combatants in Serbia also goes against Natural Law, not something that appeared to trouble Mr Blair. The list goes on and on.

Mr Wheen need not fear. A Prime Minister who signed up to a Human Rights Convention which reserves the right to create human rights rather than discover them, is a Prime Minister who shows himself adept at understanding political and judicial power. Real Natural Law is a threat to this power and Mr Blair is at best deluded, at worst lying, if he thinks that he believes in its validity.

Anthony S.D. McCarthy is a freelance writer with a particular interest in philosophical and ethical issues. He resides in London and can be emailed at asdmccarthy@hotmail.com or at dorota@btinternet.com