The Benevolence Behind the Moral Law

Douglas P. McManaman
May 2, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

In the typical adolescent mindset, laws, rules, regulations are very often interpreted as impositions, unjust and unnecessary limitations on the freedom to do what one pleases. It is only much later when certain epistemic conditions are in place that the person begins to see that laws and restrictions are really an outflow of love, a manifestation of good will, a desire to see the subjects of those laws flourish--for example, when he becomes a parent and worries about the safety of his own children. A very basic example of this is an owners manual, which is written so that the owner can get the most out of the product, whatever that product is. A friend of mine would rarely take his car in to get his oil changed--he would just buy oil and top it up periodically. I asked my own mechanic about that, and he just remarked that "it would eventually catch up to him", which it did: I recall driving downtown one day and seeing my friend's car at the side of the road. I thought to myself: "it finally caught up to him".

It is possible to misconstrue basic instructions on how to take care of one's vehicle and attribute to them conspiratorial motives: "They just want you to keep coming in so that they can make money". But the other possibility is that the manufacturers sincerely want you to get the most out of your vehicle, and that will require sacrifice, time, money, etc. Perhaps the problem is that we really only see in others what we see in ourselves, and if we are indifferent to the well-being of others and if our behaviour towards them is fundamentally manipulative, conniving, and self-centered, then it is difficult to interpret laws, rules, and regulations as anything other than unjust impositions that do not have our own well-being as their basic purpose.

Very few people see the natural moral law, not to mention divine law, as anything other than unjust impositions that unnecessarily limit our freedom to do what we think will make us happy. That's why so many get angry when they hear that certain choices and courses of action are immoral and forbidden by natural or divine law. But the intention behind the natural moral law is the good, that is, integral human flourishing or well-being. Behind that law is a law giver who is benevolent, namely God Himself. When an honest man gives you directions on the best way to get to your destination--i.e., go straight, turn right, take exit #14, do not take exit#12, drive 20 miles and then go south on highway 75, etc.,--, he is manifesting good will towards you. He wants the best for you, unlike someone who is indifferent to your well-being and delights in steering you off course and sending you off on a wild goose chase. The moral law can be looked upon as a set of directions rooted in the director's desire that you achieve your destination. But unfortunately, so few are wont to interpret it that way. As an example, take the commandments. It is good for us to put the worship of God above all else, for God is the Supreme Good, the source of all that is good, beautiful and true. God creates because God is love and love is effusive; He wills that creatures share in the goodness of human existence, as a participation in His own goodness, and so we owe God worship--not for His good, but for our own. It is good that we do not associate God's name to our own lies, which is what perjury is; for it is inconsistent with the love and worship of God. It is good to keep holy the sabbath day, to have at least one day set apart for the contemplation of God's goodness towards us. The debt we owe to God is a debt that we cannot fully repay, because every good we enjoy comes ultimately from His hand. Furthermore, there are other debts that we cannot fully repay, namely the debt we owe our parents; for we are the beneficiaries of their generosity and sacrifices. And so it is good for us to honour them. We are also aware that within ourselves is a tendency to preserve our own lives; we naturally will what is best for ourselves, and so we see our own human life as basically good. But we also, at the same time, apprehend that other human persons are of the same nature as ourselves, and so we know through a rapid inference that they too see their own life as basically good, that they too desire what is best for themselves. And so we know naturally that it is contrary to good will to intentionally kill another human being, or to recklessly put their lives at risk. We clearly see that such a natural law or restriction exists for his benefit, and for my own benefit. Marriage too is an institution that ought to be revered, for it is a relinquishing of my own independent and self-directed existence for the sake of entering into a permanent one flesh union that is exclusive in which the other is loved for her own sake, a generous love that naturally seeks to extend itself in the begetting of new human life. It is good to protect that union, and so the prohibition against adultery and all sexual immorality exists for the good of both of them, the children, and society at large. And of course, you have a right to own what you need in order to fulfill your obligation to preserve your life and the lives of those who depend on you, and so the precept against stealing is in place for your own good, not to mention the good of others. And the same holds for the precept against lying, bearing false witness, and envy.

Of course, the science of morality becomes a bit more complex as we move from the general to the more concrete level, in which a number of circumstances and contingencies complicate matters. But the principle is the same: the dictates of the moral law are manifestations of a benevolent gaze directed towards us.

What do we do in the face of the "adolescent rebellion" of adults who cannot see the benevolence behind the moral law, both divine and natural? We continue to teach it and insist on it. The parent who relaxes these laws, who allows their child to stay out all hours of the night and to eat what they want whenever they want, etc., in order to pacify that child, to please him, cannot be said to love that child. It is a deficient and short sighted love, superficial and sentimental. So too is the love of Popes, bishops and priests who are persistently silent about the specific and concrete demands of the divine and moral law, for fear that such demands will be felt as unjust impositions that will lead to rebellion.