Natural law was the subject of the pope’s speech, attacking the notion that anything not scientific is simply personal preference
by Andrew Brown
Pope Benedict XVI really is an intellectual; and his speech to the Bundestag last Thursday, when he began his state visit to Germany, is dense with ideas. A lot of them deal with the questions that get kicked around a lot here so I thought I would publish the central chunk of it, with annotations, to promote discussion. In this, he is talking about the idea of natural law, which he claims predated Christianity and was the unquestioned foundation of European ideas of justice for 2,500 years.
“The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term. Let me outline briefly how this situation arose.
Fundamentally it is because of the idea that an unbridgeable gulf exists between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. An ‘ought’ can never follow from an ‘is’, because the two are situated on completely different planes. The reason for this is that in the meantime, the positivist understanding of nature and reason has come to be almost universally accepted. If nature – in the words of Hans Kelsen – is viewed as ‘an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect’, then indeed no ethical indication of any kind can be derived from it.
A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, in the way that the natural sciences explain it, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers.
The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word.”
The view he describes is, I think, quite widely held on Comment is free belief, and certainly among scientific atheists. Jerry Coyne, for example, in the course of a recent attack on me, says that there are no moral truths, only opinions or preferences: “How can you possibly determine whether a statement like ‘[You ought to] forgive your enemies’ is true? It is not a reality about our universe, but a guide for behaviour.”
[read more: Guardian]