Natural Law and Sexual Ethics


April 3, 2012 7:41 pm

I am honored to have my essay included in this series on natural law.  Many of the other contributors are among my heroes and friends.  One of my heroes, Alasdair MacIntyre, uses one of his favorite terms in his essay:  he writes of “plain persons” and their grasp of morality and natural law in contradistinction to the experts and professional philosophers and their grasp of these matters.  A few years ago in Dallas, Alasdair MacIntyre gave a talk entitled “Do plain persons need to be moral philosophers?”  When I was asked to give the response to his talk, I was most honored because I consider Professor MacIntyre one of the foremost moral philosophers in the world, and it was a thrill to comment on his work.  I felt dreadfully underqualified – I felt like a high school student going up against Larry Bird – until I realized that I did not need to respond as an expert, as a moral philosopher of his caliber, but that I could respond as the quintessential plain person – for that is what I am.  After all, I am Janet Smith, daughter of John and Anne Smith; I grew up at 5 Hill Street and went to Home Street School.  I could write more, but it is all very plain.

The point I am making here is not merely a flip one – designed to ease us into more serious matters through an attempt at humor.  There is a serious point here – natural law is the plain person’s morality – in a sense it is simply plain old common sense.  There are profound and sophisticated ways of explaining natural law, but the practice of reasoning in accord with natural law principles, according to the theory itself, is natural to plain persons – that is, natural to all mankind.  Natural law holds that many of the most fundamental principles of moral reasoning are obvious, that is, easily known by all.  Yet, in spite of the plain commonsensicalness of natural law, it can seem shocking and provocative in many ways, for like natural law, plain old common sense does not command a lot of followers these days and can be shocking when juxtaposed to the values of our times.

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