A New Natural Law Approach to the Family
Over the years, there have been many different social science theories applied to the family (see Boss, Doherty, LaRossa, Schumm, & Steinmetz, 1993). Although there have been a variety of theories and perspectives, no theory has dominated family studies research. As regards family theorizing in general, there are at least five criticisms that have been made: “the lack of the theoretical development itself, the tendency for scholars to move from topic to topic without sustaining their effort, the weak links between theory and research, the relative absence of multidisciplinary collaboration, and the questionable value of conceptual frameworks in moving us toward better family theories” (Klein & Jurich, 1993, p. 39).
Each of the theories prominent in family studies makes assumptions concerning the family. These theories have different strengths and limitations based on social science criteria (e.g. methodological soundness, explanatory power). These theories have, for the most part, sought to explain the family, which explanation often includes at least a tendency to value some sort of prediction and control. In this paper, I will discuss the investigative frameworks of explanation and understanding. I will also suggest that that in order to better understand the family, one can look to new natural law theory.
Explanation vs. Understanding
As background to the examination and evaluation of theories of the family, it is important to understand an important distinction. At the most general level–the level of the mission and purpose of theory in the first place–it must be recognized that in studying any human phenomena, one can apply one of two basic approaches. The first is the staple of the contemporary social sciences—explanation (Williams, 1989). Explanation comprises applying certain constructs and categories to account for a phenomenon and often seeking prediction and control of some aspect of the phenomenon (Williams, 1989). The second approach is understanding. Understanding used here comes from Wilhelm Dithey’s treatment of the term Verstehen, which involves not merely rationally conceiving of something, but of actually “grasping” it, including understanding another’s person’s mind or when “life understands life” (Palmer, 1969, p. 115). With the understanding approach, one engages the phenomenon in such a way that the phenomenon can “be” and is not forced to conform to any certain perspective nor manifest itself within certain pre-selected ontological or cognitive categories (Williams, 1989).
Necessity, or the concept that things cannot be otherwise than they are, is a common construct in strategies aimed at explanation, whereas understanding seeks for the grasping of possibility and of meaning (Williams, 1989). In explaining, one applies predetermined methods and constructs to the phenomena of study; in understanding, the method of choice and the constructs used in theories should arise from, and thus, depend upon the phenomena themselves.
In discussing explanation and understanding, Dilthey argued that, “we want to understand human beings. Regarding all other objects there is an interest to explain; regarding human beings, an interest to understand” (Makkreel & Rodi, 1996, p. 229). In other of his works, it is clear that Dilthey thought that natural science only did explaining and that human sciences should be (or could be) about understanding humans (Palmer, 1969). Some critics disagree with Dilthey’s treatment of the two sciences (i.e., the natural and the human sciences) and the differences between them. These critics say that the natural and human sciences can be reconciled and that explanation and understanding happen in both camps (Palmer, 1969). The validity of these critiques can be argued, yet Dilthey’s work still highlights an important dimension of theorizing about humankind.
Most social science theories have mainly sought explanation of the phenomenon of the family. As Montgomery and Fewer (1988) clearly put it, “the major goal of social science is to explain why people act the way they do” (p. 19) This is largely the legacy of the brand of positivist science adopted in contemporary social science and it’s quest for what it takes to be certainty (see Williams, 1989).
Theories applied to the study of the family have said much and still have much to say about the family (see Boss, et al., 1993). This being said, I believe that new natural law theory (NNL, which I will introduce later) brings to the study of the family some concepts that are not only interesting but may provide an understanding (as opposed to an explanation) of the family that may reveal certain aspects of the family that are important for any program of family studies. In particular, NNL theory can shed light on the family’s moral qualities.
The questions this paper seeks to address are::
· How is new natural law different from classical forms of natural law?
· How would new natural law theory be classified in terms of explanation vs. understanding?
· What can new natural law reveal or emphasize about the family different from what is found in other theories?
· What are the research implications that can be derived from a new natural law perspective? What sorts of research questions are brought into focus by a new natural law perspective? What does new natural law suggest about methods of studying the family?
A Brief History of Natural Law
John Finnis (1980) argued that a brief history of natural law is not necessary nor possible; he claims this is the case because the principles of natural law arose not out of historical construction but have existed forever. Even though the principles of natural law may or may not be eternal, for the purposes of this paper I will attempt a brief history of the perspective.
Classical conceptions of natural law arose from the works of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas (Grisez, Boyle, & Finnis, 1987). Aristotle focused on virtue ethics and the order in nature (McKeon, 1941). Aristotle essentially invented formal logic (couched in the syllogism), and his work is a model of rational analysis (see Ross, 1995). He also gave a central place to virtue in his work, particularly in his ethics (McKeon, 1941). Aquinas’s version of Aristotle’s natural law includes the proposition that God created nature and put His law into it.
There are two intellectual strands of what might be called natural law theory that have descended from Aquinas’s ideas: natural law and new natural law. Natural law proposes that God created the world and the law and lets all humankind know the law by putting it in nature. According to this perspective, our sense of “good” and “bad” families, for example, flows from this law in nature (Teitelbaum, 1985). The pragmatic consequences of this conception of Aquinas’s work means that certain issues, such as family formation or assistive reproductive technologies, have a rationale from which to proceed (Dempsey, 2006). This conception of natural law also makes the judgment that natural is equated with good and right and unnatural is “immoral” (Dempsey, 2006).
New natural law claims to provide a clearer interpretation or reading of St. Thomas Aquinas’s work (Grisez, 1965). This reading of Aquinas focuses on the concept of practical reason and its relationship to positive law, natural law, and basic human goods (Grisez, 1964, 1965). This new natural law was created principally from Thomistic natural law (Grisez, et al., 1987) by Germain Grisez (1965) and John Finnis (1980) and further developed and articulated by Joseph Boyle (1979), Robert George (1999), and others. New natural law theory departs somewhat from earlier versions of natural law in its emphasis on “basic human goods” as the center of its analyses. Advocates of new natural law have used the theory to suggest and defend certain views in regards to subjects such as family, abortion, and same-sex marriage (George, 2008).
New Natural Law’s Assumptions
New natural law makes certain assumptions about human nature, morality, and reality, which affect the way that new natural law views the family and its moral value. These assumptions ground the analysis of the family.
Human nature. One of the fundamental ideas in new natural law is that individuals can make free choices (Grisez, et al., 1987). These choices are intentional, and many of them are rational. These choices are rational because of our very human nature. In speaking of human nature, new natural law theory states that humans are social and rational animals (George, 1999, 2007). New natural theorists especially emphasize the human capacity for reason. From this perspective, humans can intuit through rational reflection the facts and truths about the world and nature. Humans make meaningful decisions based on rational reasons (George, 1999). Since humans are considered in this theory to be rational animals, neither humans qua humans nor their faculty of reason are slaves of the passions, as (Hume, 1740/2000)Hume once postulated (George, 1999; see Norton & Norton, 2000). Also, a tenant of new natural law theory is that, as human beings, our value is not contingent (George, 2007), and because of this, each person has certain rights as part of their humanity (George, 2008). Along with our rights and because of the way we are constituted, humans have certain duties to each other and to society (George, 1999).
Morality: Basic human goods. New natural law theory provides an answer to the question of morality, this question being “what is good and right?” The fundamental answer is given in terms of things that can be established and defended by reason as “goods in themselves,” and things that derive from those goods or aid in their being realized in the form human life takes. Family is an issue laden with moral implications and sentiments. It evokes moral responses. Thus, new natural law’s assumptions about morality bring a distinctly moral cast to the study of the family. For new natural law, the answer to the question of what is good and right comes from new natural law’s notion of basic human goods. Basic human goods are truths about humans that are un-derived, self-evident, and ends in themselves (George, 1999). For example, Robert George (2007) argues that one truth about humans is that every innocent person should have the right to not be killed or maimed. This human good, the value of human life, is universal for all people (the other human goods are likewise universal). The basic human goods arise from our constitution as humans and would be different if we as humans were different (George & Elshtain, 2006); in other words, these basic goods are grounded in our very human nature. These basic human goods are “aspects of the fulfillment of persons” (Grisez, et al., 1987, p. 245) and lead to the flourishing of humankind, and yet they are not means to that end of human flourishing (George, 1999, 2007). Humans in this theory are likewise understood to be ends in themselves, not means to other ends.
In classical conceptions of natural law theory, the foundation of morality and moral understanding arose from nature or the law in nature. In new natural law, basic human goods form the foundation of moral judgment and the moral norms that can guide society (George, 2007). Another way that morality is linked to basic human goods is that what is “moral” is the realization of these goods in society. These goods are to be realized, promoted, etc. in society (Grisez, et al., 1987). It is right to seek for these human goods and to act in behalf of them.
Reality (through epistemology). Although the ideas surrounding basic human goods are new to natural law theory, the epistemology grounding this view of reality has been at the core of natural law from its inception. The grounding epistemology is rationality, which is the same as the grounding of social science (Slife, Reber, & Richardson, 2005; Slife & Williams, 1995) and virtually all intellectual endeavor in the Western intellectual tradition. The main epistemological difference between natural law and new natural law seems to be that new natural law grounds basic human goods in our human constitution and not just in the law found in nature.
The fundamental premise for natural law is that the truth is found integrated into nature and nature’s lawful functioning (George, 1999). For example, we as humans know that having children is natural and good because people in nature naturally have children, and those people having children are heterosexual couples (Dempsey, 2006). This natural law argument (i.e. same-sex marriage is not “natural”) has been the basis for many decisions in law as per denying assisted-reproductive technologies to homosexual couples (Dempsey, 2006). New natural law theorists go further with the idea of “truth in nature” in that they say that a person does not need to bring up God or appeal to God’s law in discussing and arguing for the new natural law position. One could merely say that what is lawful and good is in the basic human goods and nature—leaving out the part that God put the law in nature (Finnis, 1980; George, 2008). There seems to be changing or differences of opinion on this point, as George (2001) makes the case for God’s integral intervention or involvement in matters of truth.
The epistemological method behind these claims is rational reflection on the world. One can rationally intuit, or “grasp” these natural laws and basic human goods (George, 1999) and thus know them to be real and right.
Explanation or Verstehen. In terms of explanation vs. Verstehen, new natural law does not fit nicely in either category. If fact, one could argue that new natural law is more of a global framework that transcends explanation and understanding to some point. New natural law does not seek to predict or control phenomena. Likewise, new natural law is not seeking objective facts to prove its theories about reality. Instead, the perspective proposes a different ontology, a different sense of reality.
New natural law does not make a case for “what is” but a case for “what should be.” For example, new natural law does not state what the state of marriage is currently and the reason for its state, but new natural law states that marriage is to be between man and woman (see George, 2008).
New natural law has a firm basis or argument for the definition of the family that transcends any relativism that may be inherent in the understanding viewpoint. The meaning and definition of the family is not left up to social construction or mere co-creation every time it is experienced. Thus, new natural law theorists can proceed making pragmatic change in society because their ontology and its implications are laid out and settled. New natural law theorists are not trying to empirically prove their theory as much as they are endeavoring to rationally argue for a certain way of being for society.
Natural Law and the Family
New Natural Law on Family and Marriage
New natural law theorists justify and defend the family not by pointing to the private/empirical benefits of the family on spouses and children (Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, 2006), but by arguing that marriage and children are intrinsic, not instrumental, human goods (George & Elshtain, 2006). By arguing that marriage and children are intrinsic goods and that seeking these goods is a moral act, new natural law theorists highlight the moral worth of the family.
George (2006) claims that the reason why marriage and family are faltering in society is because of a lack of practical understanding (i.e. an understanding of the reasons and goods of family and marriage). Social science can explain the pragmatic benefits of marriage, but the philosophy of new natural law gives rational–in principle–reasons for marriage and family (George & Elshtain, 2006). Following the logic of new natural law, if what is good is to seek for the securing of basic human goods and the family is a basic human good, than the family has a legitimate reason to exist and should be defended and protected.
Also connected with these intrinsic goods are the benefits that flow from them. Although new natural law theorists would make a sharp distinction between intrinsic goods and instrumental goods (i.e. goods that are good inasmuch as they result in certain other goods or benefits), there is no problem with the fact that intrinsic goods can happen to result in other goods for individuals, families, and societies.
What Constitutes a Family
New natural law theorists believe that marriage is between a man and a woman (George, 2008) and that only in this type of marriage is this basic human good realized. To illustrate, I turn to a set of arguments between natural law theorists and same-sex marriage advocates. In his article about the rightness or wrongness of homosexual acts, John Finnis states that “marriage, with its double blessing—procreation and friendship—is a real common good” (Finnis & Nussbaum, 1995, p. 44). Finnis here states the purposes of marriage, procreation being one of them. Some same-sex marriage advocates have taken Finnis’s argument to mean that marriage is an instrumental good leading to children (the end good).
Understanding marriage as an instrumental good leads to certain criticisms of new natural law theory’s concept of marriage. Same-sex marriage advocates have argued that if conjugal heterosexual sexuality is a good because it is the means of having children, then what makes it good for infertile or elderly couples to engage in sex? And what is then wrong about homosexual couples having sex or even adopting children (George & Elshtain, 2006)? George departs from Finnis on this issue and articulates a different view of sexuality that deals with these arguments. George (2006) suggests that conjugal heterosexual sexuality is not a good because of the children that come from it, but the reproductive-type act of intercourse is a basic human good in its own right; this reproductive-type act symbolizes creation and also makes the heterosexual couple “one flesh” (George & Elshtain, 2006). So, whether or not a couple actually can have children, the reproductive-type act of intercourse is a basic human good. The basic human good of this relationship is not merely love or children, but the act and couple themselves.
One implication of this new natural law stance on family has the potential to impact research. One possible research area opened up by new natural law’s definition of the family is research on particular qualities of relationships that accrue from different types and forms of families. It also opens the possibility of research as to different meanings associated with marriage, sexuality, procreation, and morality that seem to be associated with different family types and different types of sexual relationships.
New Natural Law’s Defense of the Family
So new natural law’s defense of the family lies in the argument that traditional conjugal marriage and family is a basic human good. Basic human goods should be sought after and preserved. Also, the basic human goods bring forth moral judgment by establishing moral norms (George, 2007) which can delineate the rightness or wrongness of actions regarding the family.
New natural law’s defense of the conjugal family (heterosexual marriage) differs from other defenses from natural law. Whereas in the natural law perspective people look to nature to establish social norms concerning marriage and the family, new natural law looks to basic human goods for a foundation. Critics claim that the natural law perspective ignores homosexual-type relationships found in nature. New natural law theory avoids this type of criticism because it does not look to nature (i.e. plant and animal life/behavior) for its foundational norms.
New Natural Law Informing Research
Possible Research Questions
There are different types of family research and a variety of research questions pertaining to the family that are suggested by a new natural law perspective. This research may include implications of new natural law for the family, qualitative research reflecting the meanings people find in the basic human goods of conjugal marriage and family, and research on the rational decision-making regarding the family and the basic human goods related to it. These research questions represent different theoretical slant in family studies research.
Along with these different research areas that are made available in a new natural law perspective, there are other implications for research. For example, many methods and theories in social science research have the implicit assumption that humans are beings determined by genetic and environmental factors (Slife, et al., 2005). With research informed by new natural law, the methods and theories would instead reflect humans who are rational and intentional beings (Finnis, 1980). If researchers see humans as rational and intentional, then research questions, methods, and conclusions drawn from data will be different.
Because the family–as defined with the constraints of conjugal marriage–is a basic human good, it is desirable in its own right. This being said, the family’s status as a good does not negate the possibility that other benefits could flow from the family. The family does bring about other goods, many of which may be seen as desirable by society. A few examples of these benefits follow.
Over two decades of social science research has demonstrated that children fare best in an intact traditional family “headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage” (Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, 2006, p. 22). Also, children from intact families are significantly more likely to participate in literary activities (Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, 2006) and significantly less likely to participate in deviant behaviors in school (Schneider, Atteberry, & Owens, 2005). Not only does an intact marriage help the well-being of children, but it also benefits the couple themselves financially, emotionally, and physically (Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, 2006).
Some may wonder whether finding empirical validation for the family is profitable or even possible or necessary. Perhaps using empirical methods will just create a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it does for many theories in the social sciences (see Ferraro, Pfeffer, & Sutton, 2005). Perhaps the question is not what methods to use but what to measure and what to conclude from the results of measurement.
The family studies area has seen the development and elaboration of many different perspectives on the phenomenon of the family. Each theory has its own assumptions, strengths, and limitations. One common link between the theories is that they follow the agenda of most of social science research, which is to explain, predict, and control the phenomenon of interest. Commonly, most theories explain the family by applying their constructs and methods to studying the institution. This explanation approach reduces the family to a simpler set of constructs and excludes the meanings and possibilities that could be found with an understanding approach (Williams, 1989).
New natural law proposes basic human goods as the basis for morality and moral-norm creation. New natural law argues that humankind are rational and social beings that have reasons for action and intentionality. New natural law’s analysis is philosophical and asserts that the family has moral worth. Although not the explicit intent of new natural law theorists, their demonstration of the family’s moral worth also provides a defense for the institution.
Research from a new natural law perspective might involve the philosophical concepts of basic human goods, the public good, and the rationality and agency inherent in human experience.
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