The existence/content distinction within Natural Law and the UN
By Peter J. Colosi, March 28, 2012 in Outside the Classroom

Joe Fornieri and I presented papers in October 2010 at a Natural Law Symposium at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. Another presenter, who was a conservative, suggested that it is better not to argue for positive laws on a natural law basis. He said that this is dangerous because it puts too much power into the hands of liberals. His point, which I disagree with on principle, confirmed something I had been thinking as I prepared my lecture for that day. It seems that there is something new in human history going on with natural law or higher law argumentation. In the not so distant past, those who, for example, argued in favor of laws promoting abortion just wanted abortion to be legal. Typically they were people who rejected higher law argumentation. For example, during the Clarence Thomas hearings (before Anita Hill appeared on the scene) the argument against Thomas was that he expressed esteem for the natural law. As Peter Steinfels put it, “For some critics of the nominee to the Supreme Court it was as though the man had let slip a reference to torture by thumbscrews. Others squinted as though judge Thomas had disclosed an obscure and probably sinister belief in alchemy.” (NYTimes, Aug. 17, 1991, p. A8). Steinfels remarked about the curious display of cultural illiteracy by Thomas’ critics, since higher law argumentation has been prominent in human history from ancient Greece to Martin Luther King Jr.

But now things are different. By making a distinction between the existence of a higher law and the content of that law; then the movement at the UN to make abortion a human right can be seen to be a radical shift in approach. No longer are the power brokers arguing merely that abortion should be legal; they are now granting the existence of a higher law but inserting content which is the opposite of what the natural law actually contains. By claiming that abortion is a human right, and trying to get that into binding international treaties, and also into the individual constitutions of countries around the world, they are now accepting and using the template of higher law argumentation. In fact, this can explain the reason why we are getting so many conscience questions now. Soon it will be the case that if a top-notch med student applies to a top notch med-school, but requests to be exempt from all classes in which abortion methods are taught or practiced he will not be admitted to the school; He will be treated as if he is as evil as a slave holder for his position against the human right of abortion. That is certainly different than abortion being legal in a given place, but individual doctors and hospitals being free to opt out of participating.

Image credit: UN General Assembly by Gruban, on Flickr

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Lee Trepanier on Mar 28, 2012 at 3:51 am

This is an interesting development in natural law argument that I wasn't aware about and, like you, find it distrubing. However, it is telling that positivism seems to have its appeal among liberals and that they are in search for some moral explanation of their positions. In this sense, it moves public debate back to a moral argument, which in some ways is a type of progress.

PJ RYAN on Oct 22, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Fine blog on a society without shame

about the author

Peter J. Colosi
Peter J. Colosi

Peter J. Colosi taught for nine years for Franciscan University of Steubenville at their program in Gaming, Austria as assistant professor of philosophy. In the fall of 2009, he joined the faculty at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania as assistant professor of moral theology. He earned his BS in mathematics from Franciscan University, an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University, and his MPhil and PhD from the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. He has written a number of articles on themes within Christian personalism, developing also a critique of contemporary utilitarianism.  His CV is available here: