Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Natural Law” by Peterson

Natural Law representative Claire Brown Peterson understands her ethical system as the theory that “morality is rooted in … who we are as human beings.” Peterson believes that like the other theories represented in this volume, what is being delineated in her programs is “true morality—how human beings really ought to live and relate…” However, what distinguishes her program from the others is that natural law theory grounds morality in the following facts: 1) humans are creatures that are capable of recognizing the good and the pursuit thereof, 2) humans are the kinds of machines that operate most effectively when certain phenomena are satisfied in optimum ways (needs, limitations, purposes, capabilities, etc.). These inner-workings of the human person point to those morals that, if endorsed, allow the human to thrive both individually and collectively. Peterson argues that while there are various ways to morally thrive, any compelling ethic must adhere to God’s grand moral theme for the human person. Such a theme offers individuals and communities the freedom to pursue morality in many different, yet consistent, ways.

Human Nature and Human Purposes

For Peterson, moral living is realized when people live according to their human nature—“the perfect definition of a human being.” This human nature was present before the fall and remains present today (albeit imperfectly). Knowledge of and adherence to one’s human nature is acutely inhibited by a competing sin nature. This is why, according to the author, special revelation is necessary as it correctly diagnoses the human condition and “clarifies what sin obscures.” Such revelation guides individuals in how to live consistently with his/her original nature and, as a result, affects personal and social good.

From Human Nature to Natural Law and the Knowledge thereof

Performing the kind of good that is consistent with one’s human nature requires cooperation with other moral agents. While both Christians and non-Christians are able to recognize this, Peterson suggests that only the biblical narrative is able to delineate how and why this is the case. According to the Scriptures, humanity was created in the image of God for relationship with God and others and in an effort to enjoy and care for the created order. To satisfy this purpose and live up to their created nature, Peterson believes humans must adhere to the natural law of God—a law that even non-Christians can understand to a certain degree.

Natural Law and Moral Guidance

That said, because one’s knowledge of the law of God and their human nature is incomplete and out of focus, guidance is required. According to Peterson, guidance of this sort comes by “recognizing factors potentially at stake in your choice(s) and how you can responsibly inhabit whichever path you choose,” making sure that such choices are consistent with God’s grand theme. While adherence to God’s grand theme can take on many forms, Peterson argues that such forms will not violate the law of human nature (that is the “perfect definition of a human being”).

What Difference does God Make?

After applying this theory to a hypothetical moral dilemma, Peterson identifies the role that God plays in her theory. In so doing, the author imagines a moral universe in which God does not exist. Such a world would be, in Peterson’s view, morally impoverished for the following reasons: 1) there would be no hope for contact with the divine, 2) no expectation for extreme transformation and healing, and 3) there would be no guarantee that anyone would pursue the ultimate good for all humanity. Therefore, Peterson believes that God provides a compelling telos, real moral change, and a standardizing theme that benefits both individuals and the world.


Natural Law Response

Kallenberg appreciates Peterson’s insistence that certain things ought to behave in certain ways based on what they are (humans ought to behave in certain ways because of their given human nature). In this way, Peterson is able to circumvent Hume’s complaint that moving from fact to value is somehow guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. However, by way of improving Peterson’s presentation, Kallenberg offers two pieces of advice. First, Kallenberg believes that natural law ethics ought to be considered as a component of virtue ethics (following Aquinas’ Summa Theologica). Second, Kallenberg recommends that Peterson should avoid the tendency to frame the human person as a static thing that can be nailed down by means of perfect definitions. Instead, he believes that humans are living and emerging organisms that can live rightly in many different ways.

Divine Command Theory Response

The most pointed criticism of Peterson’s work comes from divine command theorist John Hare. He takes issue with Peterson’s proclivity to use many different terms for the relation between morality and human nature. He also calls attention to Peterson’s avoidance of Scotus who, like Hare, denies that moral law can be understood primarily from one’s nature or that one would understand from its terms how people ought to live. Most fundamentally, Hare believes that Peterson’s program is not prepared to deduce moral obligation from an investigation of human nature. This is betrayed in natural law theory’s inability to provide compelling answers to questions like “why should we do this or that?” and “how do I know that this is right or wrong?” Hare is also skeptical of how highly Peterson speaks of the human capacity to know moral law (especially those who are not Christian).

Prophetic Ethics Response

In his response to Peterson’s presentation Peter Goodwin Heltzel states that Christians ought to be concerned about being conformed to Christ instead of their human nature. This seems especially appropriate when one considers that while Christ is constant, the culture’s understanding of human nature is ever-changing. Heltzel also believes that Peterson does not appreciate the noetic effects of the fall as much as she should. As a result, he argues that she is wrong to entertain that humans can adequately discern something of their nature and moral purpose.  Though God’s common grace does provide humans with a conscience, Heltzel concludes that even this is “muted and marred” and, as a result, “nature as a source of ethics at best is ambiguous and at its worst can be downright dangerous.”


Image: This is a detail from a mural by fra Filippo Lippi in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. It is entitled 'The Triumph of St Thomas'. CC license.