One may ask the question: “What are the primary precepts of the natural law?” The ultimate and primary precept of the natural law is the preservation of life – one’s own life and the lives of others – because this precept is directed toward the common good. Anything that contradicts this primordial principle would function contrary to the very nature of being human. This point is fundamental since the natural law is essentially universal, if we, as a global human community, are to exist in a world of pluralistic world-views and religious ideologies. Unless the natural law is consciously acknowledged as more than a theory, and is recognized as the innate principle governing human nature, we stand in danger of a clash of civilizations, cultures, political systems, religious beliefs, etc. Failure of the global community to act consciously in accordance with the natural law is evident in national/cultural wars, civil strife, religious persecution, terrorism, religious extremism, etc.
Human activity that disrupts the common good could and would be averted if the natural law would not be ignored but rather consciously acknowledged universally. For example, ignorance of the civil law does not exempt one from the obligations of the civil law since it is one’s responsibility to be consciously aware of the law governing civil society. Ignorance of the natural law does not exempt one from the obligations of the natural law since the natural law is innately human. Ignorance of the law does not exempt from responsibility to the law. Ignorance of civil law has consequences for the offender of such said law. In like manner, ignorance of natural law has consequences for the global community.
Human activity is exercised through the will. Exercise of the human will presupposes intellection, and intellection presupposes the rational quality unique to being human. Therefore reason is the rule and measure by which human acts are exercised. Thomas Aquinas taught that the first and essential principle follows: Bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum (good is to be done and pursued, and evil avoided).[i]
Thus the natural moral law, natural virtue “…is rational and natural, in the sense of not being arbitrary or capricious: it is a natural law, lex naturalis, which has its basis in human nature itself, though it is enunciated and dictated by reason.”[ii] Reason is the intellectual faculty governing the will. Reason is in compliance with the natural law when one’s will is ordered properly to the natural law.
The Greek philosophers initially proposed the concept of universal norms and absolutes. According to the Greek concept of universal norms and absolutes, the universe was considered governed by an immutable and hence universal law. This universal law was considered to be eternal since it was unchanging. The origin of this philosophical position is attributed to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece. Stoicism formulated the philosophical position that claimed a universe governed by norms and absolutes that are integral and emanating from nature itself. That which has come to be known as the ‘natural law’ is named such since it is based essentially in the governance of nature.
Human beings are unique in the expression of the natural law, not because one can opt out of being governed by such a universal norm, but because human beings have the unique characteristic of freedom of choice. The freedom of choice places the responsibility of submitting one’s will to that of nature or in defiance of that nature. Of course it remains that with choices there are consequences. Any choice, good or bad, is demonstrative of the freedom of human beings. One cannot deny this quality. Freedom can be oppressed based on external factors but the 'will to choose' remains an innate and distinctive quality of being human.
As regards the natural law, when choices are made that defy the very nature of the one choosing, the consequences can certainly be detrimental to the well being of the individual and others, knowingly or unknowingly. One’s denial of the reality of the natural law does not determine its nonexistence, but indicates an exercise of choice that contradicts nature. At work here is a very base knowledge, possessed by every human being a priori, that is, a knowledge that is knowable by the mere fact of human nature. When choices are made that oppose natural law, such choices are indicative of man’s potential actualized and functioning in a direction that violates nature.
The purpose of establishing the connection between natural law and religious consciousness is to provide a universal prescription for guiding the development of religious consciousness. All one needs to do is turn the television on and take notice of the unfortunate events of intolerant behavior practiced by one religious tradition against another. We see this occurring in India with Hindu and Christian extremists fighting and oftentimes killing one another in the name of God. The Middle East has witnessed the bloodshed of Christians and Muslims because of extremist behaviors that developed simultaneously with one’s respective religious consciousness, resulting once again in fighting and killing in the name of God.
Such external distortion of religious consciousness is not new to the present century, for it has been occurring from the earliest periods of human rivalry. The distortion of religious consciousness as externalized in competitive behaviors of religious traditions is evident in the rivalry of the ancient people of Greece with their Greek gods versus the ancient people of Rome with their Roman gods. Such distortions of religious consciousness existed between the Judaic Sadducees and Pharisees. It existed in the early Christian era between the various sects that developed out of the New Testament Church, and it existed between the various established Churches of the first century. The Middle Ages witnessed the development of the Office of the ‘Holy’ Inquisition, a department of the Vatican’s Roman Curia that was intended to protect the Catholic Faith from error/heresy. This Holy Inquisition lent itself to the distortion of religious consciousness in the systematic torture and killing of those who adhered to alternative beliefs. The list could go on and on.