In previous essay in this series we examined the concept of “the good” for its relevance to morality. We discovered that the good is not by itself a moral category. Strictly speaking, the mere fact that something is good for us does not obligate us to seek it. It leaves undecided whether or not we are at fault for refusing it. In my view, a sense of obligation is essential to moral experience. And this requirement leads us to the concept of “the right.”
Hence the concept of “the right” is indispensable for moral reasoning. Just as something is good because it is “good for” something else, an action is right because it corresponds to a norm, standard, or authority. The answer to a math problem will be right when the student understands the symbols and follows the rules for the operations. A history of a Civil War battle is not right unless it corresponds to the facts. In the same way, a human action is morally right only if it measures up to a moral law. And an act is morally wrong if it breaks a moral law.
We are familiar with the concept of human law, that is, law legislated by the state. The state claims authority to make and enforce laws for the common good of its citizens. A law is a statement that forbids or requires a certain act and prescribes the penalties for infractions. It is legislated by a legislative authority, enforced by an executive, and adjudicated by judges. But we know that the state is not the ultimate moral authority and that the demands of the state are not right simply because it commands them. Human laws can be right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad. There is hardly any need to marshal examples of unjust laws. They are all too common in human history. But we can judge a human law to be wrong only when we see that it is out of line with a higher law by which human laws must be judged. They are not wrong simply because you don’t like them.
What is this higher law? How is it legislated and made known? On what authority, and who enforces and adjudicates it? For many thinkers, nature is a prime candidate for this higher law. After all, nature exists independently of human culture and law. So, let’s consider the possibility that there is a natural law that stands above legislated law.
Upon consideration, natural law can mean only two things. Natural law describes either (1) the basic physical laws according to which nature invariably works or it describes (2) the conditions and actions required for human flourishing. In neither of these senses of natural law do we come under an obligation to act or refrain from acting. We have no obligation to act consistently with basic physical laws, since we have no freedom of choice in this area. Obligation and moral law concern only free actions. Even if natural law can tell us what is “good for” us, it cannot obligate us to perform it. The concept of the good does not include the concept of the right. Hence natural law can have the force of moral law only if the order of nature derives from the will of a moral authority above nature. The natural order is to the divine will what human law is to human legislators. If there were no God or anything like God, the order of nature would be a brute fact with no moral authority. Our actions would be limited only by nature’s physical laws. There would be no class of possible actions that ought to be done or ought not to be done. The idea of an unjust human law would make no sense.
For Christian theology, the order within nature derives from the will and act of the Creator. The world is the creation of an infinitely good, just, and wise God. Hence the true order of nature, including those actions that enable human beings to flourish and achieve their natural ends, possesses moral authority. We are, therefore, obligated to seek to know and follow the law of nature, that is, those conditions and actions that enable human beings to function properly, flourish, and achieve their end. In this way, what is good for human beings (“the good”) and our obligation to obey the moral law (“the right’) converge in the will of God. Or, to say it another way, if we consistently do the good, we will also be acting rightly. And if we consistently do the right, we will also achieve the good.
Where Are We?
Where are we in the series? We’ve arrived at a way to conceive of the union of the good and the right. The will of God is reflected in the created order. So far, so good! But there is much more ground to cover. Do human beings have ends beyond nature? Is there a divine law not given in nature? How do we learn what is good and right? If good and right ultimately coincide, why do we need both concepts, and which is primary?
How Do We Learn Good and Right?
To understand and deal with the contemporary moral crisis, it is first necessary to get clear ideas of the good and the right. I think we’ve accomplished this: The good is what is truly good for us in the most comprehensive sense and the right is a rule for human behavior that corresponds to moral law. But these concepts are still rather abstract. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we know what specific things and actions are good for us.
The Good and Experience
We don’t come into the world knowing what is good for us. As infants and small children we need adults to protect us from bad things and provide us with good things. Almost immediately, adults begin to teach us the difference between good and bad. Somewhere along the way to adulthood we learn from trusted others and from our personal experience enough to survive. We learn about what is good for our physical bodies. Fire, electricity, and busy streets are dangerous. We need to eat our vegetables and drink our milk. We also learn social goods and evils. We don’t bite our playmates, and we share our toys.
But all the adults in our lives were also at one time children and had to learn what is good and bad from the previous generation of adults…and that generation from the one before it. We can’t just keep resorting to the previous generation. From where did the knowledge of what is good and bad for human beings originate? Remember what we said in earlier chapters. To say that something is good for us means that it enables us to flourish and achieve our natural end. The goodness of a thing or act is revealed when it actually causes human beings to flourish and achieve their ends. It can’t be known theoretically. To say it another way, human beings learn what is good for them by experience evaluated by reason.
Community and Tradition
But we cannot learn all we need to know about what is good and bad for us through our own experience! Indeed, by the time we can survive without constant supervision, we’ve already learned from others a way of thinking about the world and we’ve internalized hundreds of rules about good and bad. We are born into a human community that is already heir to thousands of years of traditional wisdom. We inherit billions of years of accumulated human experience. Hence, knowledge of good and bad comes to individuals in the form of traditional wisdom formulated in rules, maxims, advice, observations, and sometimes in laws. The best and most enduring parts of this wisdom are often preserved in fables, parables, and proverbs. In every age there are wise men and women who pay special attention to this tradition. They collect it, organize it, and write it down. We are all beneficiaries of their work.
Notice that although rational reflection on experience is the original teacher of good and bad, the lessons of experience are mediated to individuals by language, the language of rules. Though the rules derived from the collective experience of the human family are not infallible, it seems foolish indeed for individuals to flout the lessons learned from billions of years of human experience in favor of their limited and as yet incomplete experience in living. Nor would a theoretical notion, such as autonomy or equality, suffice to overturn the authority of such a huge reservoir of experience. Traditional wisdom is derived from millions of completed lives, observed and assessed from within and without. If we really desire the truly good, we should acknowledge the limits of our individual wisdom and pay reverent attention to the wisdom of the moral tradition.
We’ve learned some important lessons. Human beings learn what is truly good for them through experience, and this good can be confirmed again and again by experience. But we’ve seen that we cannot discover what is truly good for us from our own private experience. We depend on the experience of generations of those who came before us. These lessons help us understand some things about the biblical vision of good and right that are often obscured in contemporary discussions. Given what we’ve learned about how human beings actually come to know the good, it should not be surprising that Christians look to the laws, parables, proverbs, and direct moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments to learn what is truly good for them. Everyone looks to moral tradition in one form or another. We have no choice. But Christians understand the moral tradition contained in the scriptures to be based on more than mere human experience, and it is concerned with a wider horizon and a greater end than life in this world. Christians believe that this human experience was elevated and deepened by divine revelation and providence and by the working of the divine Spirit.