Natural Law, Our Rules

Back in my ‘good old days,’ a half-century back, some claimed that science, technology, and a changing culture, made the ‘outmoded morality’ we’d been working with obsolete.

Others apparently believed that moral decay was caused by newfangled gadgets like the telephone and television: and, of course, ‘Satanic’ rock music.

About rock music, I agreed that many songs were an attack on society’s values:

“…Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see….”
Pleasant Valley Sunday” (1967)
The Monkees, via

But I was one of those crazy kids who thought buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress folks you don’t like — made no sense. And that’s another topic.

Folks who claimed that a changing world made ‘conventional morality’ obsolete were right: sort of.

That may seem odd, coming from a Catholic who agrees with Fulton Sheen:

“Right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.”
(“Life Is Worth Living” (1951-1957), Program 19, The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, via Wikiquotes)

I’m quite sure that “right is right” in all places and all times, and that the rules we use occasionally need changing: like when horses are no longer the fastest things on the road.

EEK! The Devil!!!

The trouble started around 1672, when Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit missionary, designed a steam-powered vehicle for the Kangxi Emperor.

Verbiest’s notes say the ‘car’ would have been 65 centimeters, 25.6 inches, long: too small for practical use. We don’t know if the prototype was ever built.

The design may have been based on the aeolipiles of Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria, with an open steam turbine added.

Fast-forward to 1769. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur/steam dray may not have knocked down a wall, but it didn’t pass the test-drive stage.

Cugnot was rewarded for his innovative work, and the fardier was eventually moved to the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers.

William Murdoch built a working prototype “road locomotive” in 1784. James Watt and Matthew Boulton said it wasn’t practical, and that’s yet another topic. Topics.

“…One story often told, … is that one night Murdoch decided to test his carriage outside on the open road and it soon outpaced him, leaving him to chase after it. Whilst chasing it he encountered a local clergyman in a state of considerable distress who had mistaken his carriage, with its billowing smoke and fire burning under the boiler, for the devil. This story may be accurate, however is more likely to relate to a model than to a full size steam carriage….”
(“William Murdoch: Steam Carriage,” Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)

The “local clergyman” wasn’t the only one upset by new ideas and tech in the 1700s. I’ve talked about ‘affronts’ to the Almighty like lightning rods and smallpox inoculations, and a Pope’s response to “a precious discovery,” before. (October 16, 2016; August 21, 2016)

New Circumstances, New Rules

(Amédée Bollée’s L’Obéissante, 1875)

Steam-powered road vehicles apparently gave some folks conniptions, so the United Kingdom’s Parliament started churning out Locomotove Acts in 1861. The best-remembered one may be the Red Flag Act of 1865.1

That’s the one requiring a crew of three for each self-propelled vehicle: a driver; a stoker; and a man with a red flag walking at least 60 yards, 55 meters, ahead. They could legally scoot along at four miles an hour, two in towns.

Legislators in America passed similar laws, but the genie was already out of the bottle.

Dr. J.W. Carhart’s 1871 steam-powered vehicle led to the State of Wisconsin’s 1875 offer of $10,000 reward for the first practical substitute for the use of horses and other animals. The Legislature awarded half of the prize in 1879.

Amédée Bollée developed and started building steam-powered road vehicles in 1873.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic eventually realized that red flags and a four mile an hour speed limit were impractical, unnecessary, and more than a little ridiculous.

Ideas behind the regulations weren’t completely daft, though. We still have vehicle registration, registration plates, speed limits,2 and maximum vehicle weights.

Some of the ideas behind the Roman Republic’s multi-tier status system made sense, too.

Isus Positum, Positive Law: Human-Made Rules

Under ancient Roman law, a person’s status mattered. Someone could be a Roman citizen (status civitatis); free (status libertatis); have a position in a Roman family (status familiae) as head (pater familias), or some lower member; or someone living by another law (alieni iuris).

Below the rest were slaves: but they weren’t persons, not legally.

That last was not a basically sound idea. Treating a person like merchandise is a bad idea and we shouldn’t to it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2414)

These days, American law recognizes differences between citizens born here and naturalized citizens, foreign visitors, minors and adults. How folks should be treated has been debated since before the Second Continental Congress.

We aren’t all alike, and aren’t supposed to be. Recognizing those differences makes sense. Ignoring our equal dignity doesn’t. (Catechism, 19341938, 2334)

The Roman Republic’s system wasn’t perfect, but it worked for five centuries before the Senate bollixed things up to the point where they needed an emperor.

America’s system has been working for nearly 227 years, 240 if you count the Articles of Confederation. It’s not perfect, either, which is why we’re still fine-tuning it.

Roman and American laws are an examples of ius positum, or positive law: human-made laws that define how folks may act, and what rights we have.

The ‘conventional morality’ that some folks got fed up with in ‘the good old days’ was positive law: something that folks, mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, had concocted.

Like Roman law, it had worked pretty well. But by the 1960s, that system of positive law was long overdue for overhaul.

I do not miss living in a society where “she’s as smart as a man” was supposed to be a compliment, and a person had to look like me to get a decent job. I remember the ‘good old days:’ and they weren’t.

Lex Naturalis, Natural Law: Universal Principles, Changing Applications

Folks at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle discussed what we call natural law, lex naturalis.

I’m Catholic, so I accept St. Thomas Aquinas’ idea that natural law is universal, unchanging, and designed by God. (Catechism, 19521960)

Natural law is ‘programmed’ into us, part of reality that we can understand through reason. It lets us recognize good and evil, truth and lies. (Catechism, 1954)

Natural law does not change. Doing evil so that good will follow is never acceptable. The Golden Rule always applies; we must always respect our neighbor, and our neighbor’s conscience. (Matthew 7:12; Catechism, 1789, 1958)

How natural law is applied varies a great deal. Folks in different cultures and eras face different circumstances. But the underlying principles of natural law do not change. (Catechism, 1957)

Ideally, following natural law would be easy. We would all love God, love our neighbor, and see everyone as our neighbor; and act accordingly. (Matthew 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Matthew 5:4344; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2530; Catechism, 1825)

We do not live in an ideal world.

When the first of us decided to break God’s rule, we lost the harmony we had with God and with this world. We’ve been dealing with consequences of that decision ever since. (Catechism, 397406)

But we are still human: made in the image of God, with responsibilities and the freedom to choose right or wrong. (Genesis 1:2627; Catechism, 307, 355361, 17011709, 1730, 1853, 22932295, 24152418)

Building a Better World

Positive law works best when it’s close to natural law, universal ethical principles built into the universe.

Positive law changes: and must change, as conditions we live in change.

Natural law is the same now as it was when Abram moved out of Ur.

Killing innocent people, for example, was wrong then. It will still be wrong when the Code of Hammurabi, United Nations Charter, and whatever comes next, are seen as roughly contemporary. (Catechism, 19541960, 22592262, 22682270)

Part of our job is bringing the positive laws of our cultures closer to natural law. (Catechism, 19281942)

I don’t think we’ll have a perfect society two millennia, or ten millennia, from now.

But if we keep working with all people of good will, keeping what is true and good in our societies, changing what is not, we have a reasonable hope of building a better world. We certainly must try:

1 More:

2 Speed limits vary, depending on where you are. Some roads, like some autobahns, have no speed limit, some parts of the United States only have speed limits if you get caught, and that’s yet again another topic. More:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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