Natural Law for Catholic Educators. Part I
Some Basic Principles and Fundamental Distinctions

Douglas P. McManaman
September 21, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

The gospel cannot be reduced to morality. This is a very important point that Catholic educators must get a good handle on. The good news of the gospel is the resurrection of Christ. The gospel is the good news that Christ, in dying, has conquered death, and by rising has restored life. We have been delivered from the slavery of sin in him. In other words, we can choose to freely insert our lives in him and rise above our inclination to sin and self-seeking (concupiscence) by virtue of his grace, that is, by virtue of Christ's redemptive presence through the power of his reconciling Spirit (the Kingdom of God). Eternal life begins now, in this life, but achieves its perfection at the end of time, in Christ's Second Coming.

There are, however, definite moral implications to belonging to Christ's kingdom. Although the principles of the natural moral law can be discerned through the natural light of human reason, the light of faith illuminates the basic precepts of the natural moral law, which is itself a participation in the divine law. That is why it is fitting that the fundamentals of the natural moral law be explored and studied from various angles in the many different subjects of the Catholic curriculum. In this module, we are going to explore the basic structure of the natural moral law, beginning with the most general principles and gradually moving to the more specific.

Character vs. Personality

The word 'morality' comes from the Latin mores , which means "character, laws, customs". Morality is fundamentally about character, which describes the kind of person we make ourselves to be by the choices that we make. Morality is not about creating the conditions that maximize our chances of a pleasurable life or a decent standard of living - that description is closer to economics than it is to ethics. Morality is the science that studies good and evil in human action. Such a science is of the utmost importance, because character is of the utmost importance; for our eternal salvation depends upon character, the kind of person we have made ourselves to be by our moral choices (i.e., holy or unholy, virtuous or vicious, good or evil). We determine our character, the kind of person that we are, by the moral choices that we make; and so, there is a relationship between "doing" and "being". It is not the case that "you are what you eat", rather, "you are what you choose". If I choose to lie to you, I become a liar (I am a liar); if I choose to take something that rightfully belongs to another (theft), I become a thief; if I choose to kill you, I become a killer, etc. In other words, that is my "moral identity" (character), the kind of person that I am (i.e., the kind of person that will lie if necessary). There is nothing more intimately our own than our moral identity; the reason is that character, or moral identity, is the direct result of a person's will.

Character is not the same as personality. The two are often conflated, but we don't determine our personality (i.e., a quiet melancholic personality, a vivacious and extroverted personality, etc.). Personality is really the product of genetic and environmental factors that we have little or no control over. But character is entirely our own creation. I may have a rather charming personality, but I may also be a thief and a liar (character). That makes me a charming thief and liar. I may be very nice and personable, but I may very well be a killer, and so I am a personable killer who has virtually everyone fooled about who I really am. In fact, the most dangerous, devious, and insidious psychopaths typically have very seductive and charming personalities. So too, a person may have a rather dull or cantankerous personality, but the character of a saint (morally beautiful character). Too often school administrators confuse a dynamic personality with good character and will hire someone who interviews well. It is only years later that many of them discover their mistake - they hired someone who consistently puts himself or herself before the well-being of students and the common good of the civil community. In other words, they hired a rather personable but self-centered human being who can hide his/her true identity very well and who should probably not be placed in front of a classroom of students. Morality is not about the shaping of personality but is fundamentally about how to sculpt morally noble, good, and beautiful character (virtue).

Basic Intelligible Human Goods

Morality is the study of right and wrong in human action. What are good human acts? What are evil acts and what is it that renders them evil? As such, morality is the study of "the good" in human action. That is why the study of morality must begin with an understanding of "the good".

Aristotle defined the good as "that which all things desire". If I desire something, I see it as good. And so, good has the aspect of "desirability". To desire something is to "tend towards it". Of course, there are goods that I might desire that you may not, such as a certain flavor of ice-cream, or a certain kind of food, etc. But there are goods that all human beings tend to, universally. These goods are natural inclinations, and they are rooted in human nature. For example, everyone naturally desires his/her own perfection; we all naturally desire happiness; and although we may not enjoy the same kind of music or entertainment, we all desire to behold the beautiful, whether what we actually contemplate is truly beautiful or not. Moreover, if I choose to do something, such as apply to a university program of study, I do so because I believe - perhaps mistakenly - that achieving such a goal will make me happy in the end. These last points permit us to make a fundamental distinction. Firstly, because I desire my own perfection first and foremost, my good consists in the perfection of my own nature. In fact, the good of any thing is precisely in its perfection or fullness of being. For example, a good computer is one that functions well, according to its purpose, and as it has been designed to do. A good knife is one that cuts well; a good roof is one that functions well or shelters those within the house and keeps out the rain, a good dog is one that has a healthy appetite, has good hearing and very good eyesight, runs and fetches sticks, etc. And so "the good" really means "fullness of being" or perfection. Secondly, the fact that I can mistakenly believe that a fulfilled desire (getting in the car with this man) is a good thing to do (i.e., I do not realize that he is a sociopath) clearly implies that there is a distinction between "apparent goods" and "true goods". Some goods only appear to be so, but will in the end destroy me (i.e., an adulterous relationship); other goods are truly perfective of my nature (i.e., genuine friendships, an education, health, etc.).

Those goods are true and universal which are pursued by all human persons. If they are pursued specifically by human beings, they are called "human goods". For example, dogs and cats never apply to university for admission, nor do they do their taxes. They desire certain goods that are "sensible", for example, a piece of meat, or a place in the shade on a hot day, or a place in the sun on a cool day, etc. Although human beings may desire these things as well, they desire goods that are "supra-sensible" or intelligible (known by the mind), such as friendship, integrity, justice, knowledge of the causes of things, etc. These goods are "intelligible goods". Moreover, some goods are sought as a means to other more ultimate ends, and so they are instrumental to more basic goods, such as an automobile (which is instrumental in getting from place A to B) or a pencil. This implies that there are goods that are sought for their own sake, and not for the sake of some other good, such as integrity, or marriage, or the contemplation of beauty, etc. These goods are not instrumental, but "basic". And so the motivating principles of human action are designated "basic intelligible human goods". There are a determinate number of them, and they as a whole constitute human flourishing, or human well-being. All human beings pursue these basic intelligible human goods because all persons desire their own flourishing or well-being. The science of morality aims to manage our relationship to these basic intelligible human goods. The reason we need such a science is that not every choice establishes a good relationship to the entire network of basic intelligible human goods. Although every choice aims at one or more of these basic human goods, not all choices are consistent with a will towards integral human fulfillment. At this point, let's have a look at these basic intelligible human goods. The following is a list and brief description of each.

1. Human Life : The human person has a natural inclination to preserve his life; for he sees his life as basically good. That is why he acts to preserve it, to defend himself when under attack, to perfect it as in the pursuit of health. That is also why married couples choose to beget life - they see human life as basically good, not merely their own private life.

2. Knowledge of Truth : Human persons have a natural inclination to know, not merely for the sake of some further end, but to possess knowledge for its own sake (i.e., history, astronomy, particle physics, etc.). Human beings have a natural sense of wonder; we ask questions, seek answers, wonder about the causes of things, which of course is the root of all the sciences. In other words, knowledge perfects us as human persons.

3. Leisure (the contemplation of the beautiful) : The human person is inclined to behold the beautiful. Beauty captivates us, whether it is beautiful music, a beautiful sunset, a beautiful painting, a beautiful face, or a beautiful life. The contemplation of beauty is fundamentally distinct from the possession of truth. However, although the possession of truth is a distinct good, truth is also beautiful, in its order, harmony, and simplicity.

4. Leisure (Making, Play) : Man is a maker. He is inclined to produce or make things, not merely for the sake of some further end, as in the production of an automobile, but also for its own sake, such as works of art, or poetry, or building a flower garden, etc. He is inclined to play, which is why he invents sports and games; he is inclined to create, to recreate, simply for its own sake (i.e., sculpting, painting etc.). Making and play are intrinsically and humanly good and they perfect us as human persons.

5. Friendship : Human beings have a natural inclination to friendship (sociability). Man is a social animal; he has a radical need for others. In fact, the human person's greatest need is to love and be loved. Aristotle outlines three types of friendships, two of which are instrumental, while only the highest kind of friendship is a basic intelligible human good. There is 1) friendship based on pleasure (I love you for what you do for me in terms of pleasure); there is 2) friendship based on utility (I love you for what I'm able to get out of this relationship, i.e., connections, money, etc.), and finally 3) friendship based on benevolence (I love you for your sake, not for the sake of what you do for me).

6. Marriage : The human person is inclined to marry, to give himself/herself completely to another, to belong to another exclusively and permanently in one flesh union that is open to the begetting of new life. Both husband and wife will to beget human life because goodness is effusive, and their unique conjugal relationship is good. Marriage is often looked upon as a type of friendship, but it is really a distinct human good unto itself. The reason is that it is an institution, not a private relationship; for marriage or family is the fundamental unit of society.

7. The Common Good of the Civil Community : Man is a social and political animal. He enters into relationship not only with friends, but with the civil community as a whole. There is a difference between one's own private good and the common good of the whole. The common good is a good in which everyone can participate without diminishing any other member's share in it. Just as a good player thinks of the team before his own private scoring record, a good human person lives for the common good, not merely his own private good. The criminal is different in that he has little or no regard for the common good but puts himself before the civil community as a whole.

8. Integrity : Man is inclined to seek integration within himself, an integration of the complex elements of the self. This is because he seeks to be most fully, and one (along with good, beauty, and true) is a property of being. He is inclined to bring about a more intense unity within himself, namely 1) an integration between truth and his acts, 2) between his actions and his character, as well as 3) between his will and his emotions. Bringing order to the passions (cultivating temperance and fortitude) is good in itself, but is also a means to a higher end. A person aims to be temperate and brave for the sake of possessing the highest good, namely God Himself, the possession of which is threatened by excessive sensuality and/or by inordinate fear and daring.

9. Religion : The human person aspires after what is higher than him because he is aware of a thirst within him for something transcendent. He beholds his own finitude and the finitude of creation. He aspires to what is beyond the temporal to the eternal, yet he cannot transcend the limits of his nature. But he dreams about it. He seeks to know the giver behind the gift of his existence. As a spiritual nature, he is open to the whole of reality, the whole of being (universal being). He seeks to know the "whole of reality", that is, to possess the bonum universale We know from divine revelation that he is not going to attain it on his own; Scripture reveals that this can only happen through God's initiative (divine grace). He cannot, of his own nature, attain God. If he is to attain the bonum universale , it can only be through another gratuitous giving, distinct from creation (divine grace). And so human persons depend upon the divine initiative for their own fulfillment. In fact, even his own natural happiness is dependent upon the gratuitous self-giving of others; for he cannot force people to be his friends. And so this dependency upon the divine initiative is not incongruent at all, for man knows already that an element of his own happiness is the feeling of having a debt that cannot be paid.