Virtue and Power: The Political Dysphoria of Natural Law Moral Philosophy

September 27, 2019

This is my final essay on Princeton professor Robby George and natural law moral philosophy. Other essays I’ve written about natural law (see below) have emphasized its political uses for an influential cohort of Catholic conservatives closely connected to Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

In this essay, I explore the relationship between the politics of abortion and adoption to surface irreconcilable contradictions at the heart of Catholic natural law. I argue that conservative Catholicism’s most significant political advantage – the illuminating moral clarity of Thomist natural law – is also its greatest weakness.

Order and Virtue

Evangelical Protestants – a significant part of Donald Trump’s and the Republican Party’s political base – supply cannon fodder for the culture war against urban, cosmopolitan, secular elites. However, it is conservative Catholics who have in the past five decades led this movement, contributing organizational, legal, and political muscle vastly disproportionate to their numbers. This Catholic political influence is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics at the national level, an emergence rife with irony and import, of course, as it has occurred at the same time the Church as a religious institution has been collapsing.

Natural law moral philosophy has provided the intellectual framework and justifications for this holy war. As I’ve written (ad nauseum), no one has more fully discerned and publicized the political implications of natural law than Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (and acclaimed stuffed owl), Robert P. George. When we last visited with him, Robby George had successfully persuaded Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to establish a State Department “Commission on Unalienable Rights” to realign discourse on human rights with classic natural law priniciples such as religious freedom. Let’s talk briefly about these terms, these “unalienable rights” and this “religious freedom,” as both are part of a clustered vocabulary, interlaced with meaning and implication, often invoked by conservative Catholics of the natural law persuasion.

Catholicism’s rich intellectual traditions – extending back nearly two millennia to Augustine of Hippo – have both flourished and foundered on persistent efforts to reconcile the competing claims and contradictions of the City of God and the City of Man. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism at its core is a political religion, its spiritual mission explicit and active within its earthly institutions and activities, with dual commitments to cultivating virtue and wielding power that converge and are reconciled in the concept of “order.”

In this sense, Catholic natural law moral philosophy is “deontological,” concerned with duties and obligations incumbent upon humans as the creatures who occupy the summit of God’s creation, whose capacities for reflection and reason distinguish them from other life forms and confirm their unique and intimate relationship to God. For this reason, Catholic natural law moral philosophy presents itself as a historically antecedent and fully formed Aristotelian-Thomist alternative to the more recent philosophical assumptions of Humean skepticism and Cartesian mind-body dualisms that underpin the “liberal values” and the “secular humanism” to which conservative Catholics attribute the moral decay and collapse of the modern era.

Unalienable Rights and Religious Freedom

Within the Catholic natural law tradition, “unalienable rights” refers to non-contingent, universal rights all humans claim as a result of their timeless, unique, and intimate relationship to God, captured by the concept of the imago Dei. In the context of the State Department’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights, the terms specifically references both the Declaration of Independence and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the context of the political agenda of conservative Catholic natural law moral philosophers, however, “unalienable rights” primarily references the related concept of “religious freedom,” which encompasses both freedom of worship for all faiths (or, as John Finnis has sometimes, and meaningfully, qualified this idea, all “true” faiths) and, more pointedly, restrictions on international policies and funding in support of contraception, abortion, family planning, and other elements of female reproductive freedom that challenge established religious doctrine and dogma about “human dignity” and the “sanctity of human life.”

Conservative Catholic proponents of this “new” natural law moral philosophy (NNL) rely on revelation, Church teachings, and universals deducible from the rational faculties God has gifted humans to trace a path from the ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas to non-negotiable contemporary political positions on abortion, contraception, marriage, family, sexuality, and gender. All in the name of the most fundamental goal of natural law, which is “human flourishing.”

“Rightly Ordered” Human Flourishing

And here we arrive at the key inflection point for natural law moral philosophy as it is presently understood and applied in the United States. Recall the importance of “order” to Catholic philosophical efforts to reconcile the dual commitments to cultivating virtue and wielding power. In this context, human flourishing requires and depends upon “rightly ordered” pursuit of goals intrinsic to our fixed natures as human creatures.

Consider, for instance, the prevalent Catholic commitment to the (literally) well-ordered sequence of responsibilities one assumes as an adult: education => career => marriage => children as the fixed script that supplies the conditions for human flourishing, within families and within societies. Deviating from this script – marriage before (or without) career or children before (or without) marriage – creates conditions of disorder that undermine the possibility of human flourishing.

Empirically, it may be true that “human flourishing” does more reliably emerge for those who hew to this script. But the key point about Thomist natural law philosophers is that they generally eschew empiricism and consequentialism on behalf of a fixed deontological order. In other words, natural law Catholic conservatives do not support the traditional career/marriage/children sequence because it optimizes human flourishing. Instead, they will claim that human flourishing follows for families that conform to this ordered sequence because they are behaving righteously, with moral clarity, according to the laws of nature.

Normal Politics and Abortion Politics

In a recent National Affairs article, Robby George and Ryan Anderson do carve out a generous sphere of contingency that constitutes in their minds the realm of “normal politics,” the prosaic contests over resource scarcity and resource allocation that are the field of play in elections, legislatures, and administrative bureaucracies. This realm is not terribly interesting to the natural law conservatives, possibly because it is more fully the realm of empiricism, consequentialism, and a utilitarian ethics. In the recent conservative civil war between Sohrab Ahmari integralists and David French pluralists, this openness to (or disinterest in) the “chaos” and “disorder” of normal politics, at least nominally positions natural law philosophers like George and Anderson in the David French camp.

However, another way to look at this quasi-tolerance for “liberal process” casts a darker shadow. Which is that NNL philosophers such as George and Anderson are so trapped within the recursive sexual loops that have become the weird nut of the matter for them – with sexual probity the alpha and omega of righteousness, virtue, and order – that they have simply defined down their understanding of human flourishing to the biology of reproduction. And that, far from being indifferent to the chaos and disorder of normal politics, they quite cynically arbitrage its opportunities (via conservative sources of funding, research, advocacy, and influence) to leverage legal and political outcomes that advance their own particular sexual policy agenda.

What am I saying here? The non-negotiable universals of the new natural law are almost entirely a procustean bed of rules about how, when, and under what circumstances a man and a woman should have sex. And how they should respond if their sex act produces a child. Virtually the entire scope of the new natural law concerns an imagined, hermetically sealed domestic space that sets the terms for intimacy and reproduction, and that excludes as “not interesting” or “not important” or “contaminating” the messy political and social circumstances that are never absent from domestic relations, presumably because inclusion of these circumstances introduces a “disordering” focus on contingency that pulls us into history and undermines the universal values that exist outside of time and space and that derive from our status as creations in the image of God.

Abortion Porn

For conservative Catholics, procreation – when God imprints his divine image within a new human life – represents the highest and most exalted way to honor God and to honor ourselves. From the perspective of philosophers of the new natural law, abortion tilts the axis of existence toward chaos and disorder because it negates this new life. Abortion negates God.

However, it is a capacious irony that these NNL philosophers, focused on the lineage of their ideas from Aristotle and Aquinas, from whom they have adopted and placed at the center of their vision the notion of “human flourishing,” should locate the limit of their politics on behalf of this flourishing at the moment of birth. As I wrote in a previous essay, the new natural law’s “sins of omission” are the human goods the philosophy excludes from its lexicon, the goods that post-partum human flourishing requires.

I sometimes wonder whether this political limit – this all-or-nothing focus on abortion – represents another instance of a recursive loop from which conservative Catholics cannot loosen themselves. Consider the anti-abortion tactics: the almost salacious clinical detail of their depictions of the act; the high-definition imagery; the body counts; the weird subcortical, limbic responses to revelations about abortion butchers such as Kermit Gosnell and Ulrich Klopfer.

The Catholic Church – a religion very much about incarnation and embodiment – to a great extent lives through its liturgical moments. There is a sense in which these pro-life depictions, as a kind of abortion porn, represent a convoluted aesthetic of revulsion, a liturgy of horror that is in many respects more about the state of mind of anti-abortion activists than it is about the lives of the unborn.

Adoption Dysphoria

In the spirit of serving “the least among us,” the Catholic Church in the United States has for the past century provided foster care and adoption services as alternatives to contraception and abortion, particularly for teenage and unwed mothers. Even from a human flourishing perspective, the inadequacies and inconsistencies of this approach are rampant, and in the absence of any meaningful notion of politics that can encompass support for environmental stress on families and children, conservative Catholics can only default to an empty focus on virtue and values that promote rightly ordered behavior. And as a result, families and children suffer. They do not flourish.

Here are just a few of the thorny problems produced by the Catholic focus on foster care and adoption as the only meaningful alternative to contraception and abortion.

  • Forced Adoption – Catholic adoption charities have in the past participated in forced adoptions, involving thousands of young, unwed mothers, many of whom were taken from their own families and isolated within Catholic “maternity homes,” until they gave birth, at which time their babies were removed from them and placed with other families.

  • Commercial Adoption – Adoption has never been the pure, virtuous option for children or their mothers. Aside from the separation trauma, with the long-term guilt and confusion that can result for both mother and child, adoption has always been tainted by the most sordid commercial motives, which not infrequently shade the practice into not much more than human trafficking. This has long been an issue with international adoption, the most recent instance involving Paul Peterson, the Mormon adoption lawyer and the Maricopa County (AZ) assessor, who has been charged with transporting preganant women from the Marshall Islands to Utah, paying them to give their babies up for adoption, and then charging as much as $40,000 for placement with adoptive parents.

  • Adoption Attachment Wounds – Far from flourishing, adopted children often struggle with the most debilitating and excruciating attachment trauma, and are many times more likely than children with their biological parents to struggle in school, experience behavioral issues, battle emotional and mental illness, suffer from substance abuse, and attempt or commit suicide.

  • Adoption Dysphoria – Despite their focus on adoption as the most compassionate alternative to contraception and abortion, Catholic charities, many of which receive public funds as “faith-based” charitable organizations, have chosen in recent years to shutter their foster care and adoption services rather than provide these services to same-sex couples when mandated by law.

It is meaningful that when required to choose between assisting “the least among us” and implicitly acknowledging the rights of same-sex couples, these charities – and the Catholic Church, generally – have been unable to avert their eyes from the “deviant” and “disordered” sexual behaviors and emotional commitments of couples who are not able themselves to procreate. The blame-shifting to “liberals” and “government bureaucrats” who are violating “religious freedom” does not conceal the Catholic priority, intrinsic to the philosophers of the new natural law, of enforcing “rightly ordered” behavior over truly helping humans to flourish.


At the beginning of this essay, I wrote that conservative Catholicism’s most significant political advantage – the illuminating moral clarity of Thomist natural law – is also its greatest weakness. The predicate for natural law is the Abrahamic presumption of a creator God, whom humans can know through revelation, prophecy, reason, and faith. That is a lot of presuming on which to base the practical and political outputs of natural law moral philosophy.

The moral clarity and logical rigor of natural law do entice us. If the laws of nature – the specific aptitudes and behaviors and relationships God has assigned to each species of life – inhere, then of course the natural order of things reduces to a simple set of declaratives for each species. Thou shalt. Thou shalt not. As a Catholic professor trained in the law and in the Anglo-American traditions of analytic philosophy, nothing delights Robby George more than this capacity of human reason to adduce these laws of nature, these shalts and shalt nots. “I sold my view about reason!” George declared in 2009, speaking to a New York Times reporter, voicing boyish excitement that so many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration, despite endemic Protestant suspicions about the corruption of human reason.

But what if Robby George is wrong? About everything? What if these assumptions: about a creator God; a created human; this human, illuminated by the imago Dei. What if these assumptions dissolve like footprints in the sand? What if the layer of reason through which we discern the laws of nature is a mile wide and an inch deep? As Hume might say, what if our reason tells us nothing about God and nature and instead merely offers shape to our own heart’s inflamed desires?

And what of human agency? Of free will? What of the choices we, as human individuals, make each day, for which we take responsibility, these choices guided by a divinely informed reason? What if 99 percent of our choices, and the outcomes they produce, are contingent and overdetermined, influenced at every moment by circumstances and forces well beyond our capacity to control, or even to understand?

After all, the chain of logic through which Robby George and his colleagues construct the cathedral of possibility inherent in natural law moral philosophy is evanescent, dependent upon foundation premises and ultimate causes that are merely articles of faith (or despair), theodicic assertions about ultimate reality and ultimate meanings for which there is no evidence (and a preponderance of counter-evidence).

The moral clarity of Thomist natural law – the universal truths, the shalts and shalt nots – only makes sense, then, if one doesn’t consider too closely the oceans of particularity and contingency that engulf us. This moral clarity only makes sense if one fully accepts the premise of a God of creation who is also a God of law, through which he binds himself to us, makes himself known to us, and allows us to know ourselves. This moral clarity creates the conditions for an ordered state of affairs, the alignment of law and virtue.

But if there is no God of creation and there is no God of law, then the light of virtue itself dims and the natural law more closely resembles a Procrustean bed that garishly disassembles and reassembles us in order to force alignment, to enforce order. Without even probing the darker implications of the Gothic sensibilities that inform the new natural law of Catholic conservatives, we may fairly say that the perfume of myth and nostalgia that suffuses NNL ill-prepares this moral philosophy for the future that is arriving more rapidly than we can even imagine, with a collapsing chaos that will shatter any remaining illusions about a God creation and a God of law, a God of shalts and shalt nots.