Digest of terms

natural law

this is an elaborated version of the appeal to nature as a source of moral guidance. Arising from observation of all aspects of the universe in which we live, the judgement is made that life operates according to discernible patterns or laws. In terms of both the natural and social sciences the universe is ordered. This is why, as the ancient Greeks worded it, we have a world of given Cosmos (order) rather than Chaos. There would be no human life without this evolutionary inheritance, and that natural given provides norms for behaviour, which can in turn be cues for identifying what is morally acceptable or unacceptable.

In Western tradition there are three main sources in the development of this notion. The first is in the thinking of Stoic philosophers during the Roman Empire.

The second is its expression in specifically Christian terms. And thirdly, there is its re-presentation as independent of any accompanying theology.

According to a Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, there is a divinely ordered oneness of the universe to which human beings should attune themselves if they are to achieve natural fulfilment. Paul in the New Testament saw family life, state rulers and the entire natural universe as a given condition ordered by God, such that all people, regardless of religious differences, had some knowledge of basic moral values, and this perspective was given systematic theological elaboration by Augustine and Aquinas and political codification by the Emperor Justinian. Although this Christian sense of natural law continues in twenty-first century forms, secular versions of the tradition emerged in the seventeenth century when, in writing of the universal laws of the seas and nations, Hugo Grotius spoke of them as valid 'etsi deus non daretur' - irrespective of whether or not God is part of the picture. Accordingly, the Western tradition of natural law has had many different advocates, including an evolutionary Social Darwinian version.

In Eastern traditions, again there are several strands which show some similarity though no exact parallel. From India there is the Hindu notion of eternal law (sanatana dharma) giving universal shape to all of natural life. It maintains a karmic balance of good over evil through observation of the natural rhythms of life (rta). There is also the Buddhist practice of living the life of true order - dhamma. From China the notion of the Tao, as developed in both Taoist and Confucian ways, operates as a given norm for life.

Running throughout these various traditions is an overall notion that there is an order for personal and social life 'grained into' human beings, both individually and collectively. That there is any constancy to this across centuries and cultures is challenged by many philosophers and social scientists. They draw attention instead to cultural diversity, and to the unreliability of jumping from what 'is' to what 'ought to be' (is/ought distinction) Yet others from their ranks pick up on 'ordered drivers' - transcultural continuities remarked by an anthropologist, genetic propensity towards altruism by a neuroscientist, or a protective sense of 'purity' by a social psychologist.

It can certainly be observed that trust in 'common' sense resonates across different cultures and across the centuries. So too does the hunch or judgement that there's a universal wrongness about murder or incest. However, none of these continuities provide any guarantee that individual human behaviour will invariably be influenced by any of this inheritance. Only that it's a powerfully given option. (moral foundations theory)

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