Do human beings possess an innate sense of right and wrong? And, if they do, where does this innate sense come from and what is its nature?
We must begin with Aristotle’s observation that human beings are social animals. It is in man’s nature to live in societies with other human beings. It is clear that in order for these societies to endure, they must require that their citizens adhere to certain behaviors and norms with the risk of punishment for those who do not accept these behaviors and norms. This we may call the law. It is the purpose of this exposition to show that the written laws of societies are based upon an unwritten law known as Natural Law. It is this law that provides the source of objective morality.
But perhaps we have taken a step too far. Is there such a thing as an objective morality that is universal and innate or is morality subjective and learned? A survey of the laws of various nations and cultures would suggest that morality is subjective and learned for we see different mores and laws across nations and cultures.
How can we argue then that mankind has an innate sense of right and wrong when there is such variance in laws around the world? The answer appears to be best articulated by Thomas Aquinas, who divided Natural Law into two tiers. The first tier is one that is self-evident to almost all using reason alone. Here we may use the prohibitions against murder or theft that are common to virtually all cultures across time. These, Aquinas called “first precepts” and they appear to be accessible to all using reason. The second tier or “second precepts” are drawn from the first precepts, but these are not as self-evident as the first precepts and are subject to various customs and habits and are, therefore, changeable.
If man is indeed a rational animal, then Aquinas’s “first precepts” must be common to all men and accessible to all men by virtue of their nature as a rational animal. That is to say that there is exists an innate moral law among human beings and that this moral law is accessible to human reason. But what is this law? Who created this law and how are we to understand it? To answer these questions, we must begin by examining the various types of laws known to us by the light of reason and revelation.
We may view this survey of law in a hierarchical manner, beginning with lowest and most common type. This first type of law is one with which all of us are familiar with. They are laws made by men, laws that govern our societies. Laws such as how fast you can drive to who can vote. This type of law is referred to as Positive Law. While Positive Law is not always concerned with moral issues in the way that Natural Law usually is, Positive Law has historically been seen to precede from Natural Law (see Marcus Cicero’s “De Legibus”).
At the risk of drifting into epistemology, it should be said that a Catholic definition of Natural Law begins with intelligibility. That is to say that Catholicism asserts that the universe is rationally ordered by God and that this order is knowable to human beings. It is this level of Natural Law that allows for science. The second level of Natural Law asserts that human beings are endowed by God with certain rights, that these rights are universal, inviolable, and that they can be discovered using reason. It is man’s innate knowledge of right and wrong combined with free will that allows for the existence of a moral code. Therefore, we may state that Natural Law as it relates to morality is a set of traits, characteristics, and behaviors that are common to mankind by virtue of his rational soul and which is accessible by reason and/or Divine Revelation. A more formal definition of Natural Law is provided by Saint Thomas, who wrote, “Natural Law is humans’ participation in the Eternal Law, through reason and will”.
Eternal Law, then, is the mind of God as understood by God Himself. One may say that Natural Law is the manifestation of the mind of God.
I shall conclude by briefly mentioning the second source of understanding the mind of God. This second source is Divine Revelation, that is, God revealing Himself directly to mankind. That subject is beyond the scope of this writing, however. Suffice to say that the Bible is replete with examples of Divine Revelation, with the greatest form of Divine Revelation being Jesus Christ.