It’s recently become clear that the common ground people of a variety of worldviews once stood on is crumbling beneath our feet. And without this mutual starting place, known as Natural Law, it’s not clear how we can have meaningful dialogue or come to agreements on how to live together. 

Evidence for this can be seen in the attempts by Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire to get anyone on the left to define the word “woman,” now that it’s verboten to associate it with certain chromosomes or reproductive organs. The best anyone can offer him is that a woman is someone who says they are a woman. But this definition is likely to cause as much chaos as saying that anyone who calls themselves a doctor or an airline pilot can perform surgery or fly a plane. There are a lot of situations where it’s necessary to have a working definition of a woman. 

His colleague Michael Knowles exposed this widening gulf just as clearly in a debate with a protester at one of his recent speeches. When he asked her whether it was also important to consider the rights of a girl who has to see male anatomy in the locker room, she said, “I don’t think those are comparable, because you’re talking about… their human right to live however they want to.”

Knowles shot back, “I don’t think people have the right to live however they want to. You have an obligation to live as you should. If I wanted to be a dolphin, I wouldn’t have the right to do it, and I wouldn’t have the ability to do it.”

The protestor replied by saying, “But I would respect you. I would hear you, and I would be there for you if you wanted to identify as a dolphin.”

Tellingly, Knowles ended the 20-minute debate at this point, realizing there was no common view of reality to proceed from.

And this isn’t an isolated view of one wild-eyed protestor. I’ve heard these same statements when people are asked whether they would accept others who identify as different ages, races, and even heights. There is no way to avoid chaos in our common reality if everyone has the “right” to live in a different one. What would happen to rules governing what age you get social security, or who gets minority business loans, or even how tall you must be to ride a rollercoaster? 

The same could be said about basic laws of economics that say printing too much money causes inflation and targeting an industry (like the oil-and-gas industry) drives up their prices. If basic laws of cause-and-effect learned from centuries of observation in this area are no longer acknowledged, the economy will be threatened in the same way that concepts related to reproduction and family are.

So what is this Natural Law, and how can it be held up as common ground when there are so many different worldviews among human beings? In short, Natural Law is about seeing purpose, or telos, as inherent to human life and how we interact with reality. Those tempted to disagree with that as a starting point should consider that if there were no point to things like government or conversation, debating about it would be pretty useless.

And just to show that this was indeed a common ground that different worldviews reasoned from when deciding how to live together, consider how long and wide Natural Law has been practiced. Ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are often credited with originating the concept, St. Thomas Aquinas then developed it further in Catholicism, as did Averroes and Avicenna in Islam, Maimonides in Judaism, and John Locke in Enlightenment Protestantism, among many others. Non-Abrahamic worldviews were also built on Natural Law, like the Stoicism that dominated the Roman Empire before the rise of Christianity. The Chinese Taoist tradition even overlaps so completely with this universal wisdom that in C.S. Lewis’ book “The Abolition of Man,” he refers to the Natural Law as “the Tao” throughout.   

For this reason, when America’s Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, they relied heavily on core Natural Law elements, like natural rights. Thomas Jefferson’s famous line from the Declaration could even be seen as a summary of much of the tradition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence, displayed in a dimly lit hall at the National Archives, reserved for the original Charters of Freedom. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Many are aware that a similar list with “property” instead of “pursuit of happiness” originated with John Locke. But most are unaware that Jefferson likely got the phrase “pursuit of happiness” from Locke as well.

In his 1690 essay “Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke said, “The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty… we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.”

This is another core tenet of Natural Law. Only by successfully achieving our telos, do we achieve happiness, or eudemonia. This happiness is not what modern Americans may think. Eudemonia is a flourishing that is only achieved through arete (virtue or excellence) in pursuit of our true purpose. As Locke said, we often have to “suspend the satisfaction of our desires” to achieve this type of happiness. It’s not about the “human right to live however they want to,” which the protester said even extends to living as a dolphin; it’s about honestly accepting who you are and how you fit within humanity’s natural structures, things like gender, family, community, nation, culture, and religion.

But that identity (for me: a son, husband, father, citizen of the United States, creation of God) crumbles if those natural structures are deconstructed by those who see them as marginalizing and believe that each person should instead exist as an island.  

As the best thinkers from the wide swath of wisdom traditions found, though, we need traditions that accept the structures of reality and create best practices surrounding how people can flourish in relation to them. These lessons were learned over many centuries of trial and error, with the error often causing the collapse of entire cultures. Let’s hope we can avoid that part and re-establish Natural Law as a firm foundation on which people of many worldviews can stand and reason from.