Recently, FRC hosted Professor R.J. Snell for a Speaker Series event to discuss the relationship between natural law and public policy. He explored the crucial question of what natural law is and what its role should be in making policy.
Professor Snell defined natural law as a “universal objective moral normativity.” Translation? Basic human rights are not defined by what is relative based on the cultural trends, or “whims” of today. Instead, much like other great thinkers including Plato, Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Martin Luther King Jr., Snell agrees that natural law is based on an absolute Truth. He stated that “all human reason participates in the natural law of God.”
But what role should natural law play in the making of policy?
Policy should not be about winning for winning’s sake, or power grabbing. It should be about what we value as a society. According to Professor Snell, policy secures the blessings of natural law within our society by ultimately serving the person. Policy teaches society by showing what we value—what we actually seek and why. It is “non-theoretical teaching.”
Snell explained this importance by addressing the audience: “You, policy types, teach just as much as I as a professor do, albeit differently. Now I, as father and husband and citizen, need you to teach well because I need our policy to support my family [and] to support my friend’s family. “
As he observed, many students today have been taught that natural law doesn’t exist and instead are taught that public policy is the highest law: “I as a professor and teacher need you to teach well because by the time I get to students [at] age 18 or 19, they have 18 or 19 years of relentless policy education.” If bad policy is enacted based on relative cultural circumstances, then students learn merely conditional views of what is right and what is wrong.
He emphasized, “You [policymakers] are teachers.”
For example, students in America today are growing up in a society where pro-abortion policies have been enacted and are therefore deemed acceptable by many. This causes these policies to act as a kind of teacher about how society views humanity. So, by the time students get to college, many of them have come to understand the dignity of the unborn child as a flexible concept depending on the circumstances of that child’s conception. They are valued either as “wanted” humans or they are otherwise aborted. Natural law standards instead view both born and unborn life as equally valuable, regardless of the situation surrounding conception.
Professor Snell emphasized that policies based on natural law need to be encouraged in order to have a more stable society. Otherwise, anything can be deemed relative, including life itself. Many students today lack a basic understanding of natural law because they lack a basic understanding of a natural family. In many ways, a person’s family is the natural image of the natural law. Everyone has a family in some form. When the family structure that a child is brought up in does not reflect the natural structure we were created for, it can have a lifelong impact on that child’s life. It distorts a healthy view of marriage, human sexuality, and society.
That’s why the family structure is so incredibly important to teaching children values. It is, according to Snell, “the main bearer of tradition [sacred order].” In other words, it is the way that natural law is most made known and the means to which a person’s morals and norms are formed.
However, many of today’s policies are aimed at dissolving family values that reflect natural law. This leads us, as citizens, to an essential question: What is our public policy teaching our children? Is it aligned with natural law, or is it relative to the “whims” of today’s society? As Snell stated, “All policy is family policy.” Therefore, we must advocate for policies that support natural family values and continue teaching those principles in our homes.
Be sure to view the entirety of Professor Snell’s important lecture.
Alyson Gritter is an intern at Family Research Council.