The Holocaust and Natural Law

written by Dr. Bernard Mauser

Another state has recently passed legislation to teach about the holocaust. The Nazis killed around 20 million people during World War II as part of their murderous campaign against those who they saw as unwanted. Not even children or women were spared. At least 6 million of these people were Jewish. The people who proposed these laws to kill the handicapped and other ‘useless eaters’ in the German society were moral Darwinists.

Prisoners in Auschwitz

There are many important lessons instructors can draw from the evil of the holocaust. I’d like to highlight the natural law theory as the preeminent moral theory to answer this evil.

Natural law says that there is a moral law that is a standard of good (or right) and evil (or wrong) that reaches to every person. A person’s genetics, culture, and education does not determine good and evil. The natural moral law is the standard by which every culture and person can be judged.

The natural aspect of this law is a reference to the distinctive part of humanity that sets them apart from any other animal. The natural for mankind is a reference to reason. When humans act in accordance with reason their actions are good and right. When they act against reason their actions are evil and wrong. All humans have a human nature, which is why we can call them humans. Your nature is with you in every culture, time, and place. People also have this nature even if they do not necessarily express it. You have your rational nature from the moment of conception and keep it when sleeping, knocked out, in a coma, and even if we removed your brain.

As humans we judge things to be good and evil. When talking about judging, the term often has negative connotations. A judgment is simply an assessment of whether something is good or bad. Judging is unavoidable, so we should want to make a right judgment (as Jesus instructs in Jn. 7:24). How do we judge anything to be good? The only way this is done is to know what it is for (i.e., its purpose). A good knife, its purpose, is a knife that cuts well. This purpose is its end.

How do we judge humans? One has to know the purpose of humanity to make this assessment. Those that reflect even a short time will realize that the only reason they act one way rather than another is because they think it will bring them happiness or flourishing.  This is the proper end of man.

Keep this in mind as we compare the lives of two different men. One man is an alcoholic. This person often can’t remember some of what occurred the night before due to being so drunk. Most of his friendships are superficial and he has broken many of his relationships due to his alcoholism. His work also suffers due to his drinking alcohol to excess. He lives for the pleasure of the next drink and nothing more. His health has also started to suffer as a result and has developed problems with his liver. Now consider a second man. This person is happily married with children. He loves his job and is good at it. He has some deep meaningful friendships that he regularly cultivates. He also gets to invest healthy doses of quality time every weekend building into his family. Which man has the better life? It doesn’t take a deep philosophical analysis to realize the second man’s life is better.

What about genetic factors as it relates to the morality of the two men? It would be the case that the second man’s life is better even if the first man were genetically predisposed to alcoholism. The mere fact he is genetically predisposed to love alcohol wouldn’t make alcoholism suddenly good. Alcoholism also doesn’t become good even if he gets pleasure from drinking, is taught that it is so, or even if the entire culture thinks it is. Alcoholism is objectively bad independent of these other things.  

There are three really evident reasons for this. First, alcoholism impairs reason. Remember that reason is what sets man apart from all other animals. A person’s rational nature is the one aspect of mankind that makes him uniquely valuable and able to pursue goods beyond what is merely physical. Second, alcoholism also helps destroy not just a person’s reason, but also his body.  Destroying yourself is an evident evil. Third, alcoholism keeps a person from operating as they ought to throughout life in a way that allows them to flourish. This means it keeps a person from attaining their proper end.

How does this relate to the holocaust? The dominant moral philosophy today is that of relativism. Relativism teaches that there are no standards of good or evil that all humans answer to. Good and evil are just the names that a person’s culture or education attaches to certain acts. Relativism says an action in one culture can’t be judged by any other culture. If relativism is true it means those in cultures outside of Nazi Germany can’t condemn the Holocaust. Surely relativism is absurd!

The implications of relativism are many. Let me highlight two of the most repugnant. First, a relativist can find no objective way to say Hitler is worse than Mother Theresa. Hitler was simply carrying out what some in his culture wanted. Mother Theresa, on the other hand, went against the culture in India by caring for the sick and poor. She’d be worse than Hitler if the relativist is correct. Second, if relativism is true there is no difference between opposites. This means there is no difference between bringing someone a nice meal and chopping them into bits.

It should be evident the problems this brings to the discussion of the holocaust. The main defense of the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, where they were being tried for war crimes, was based in the philosophy of moral relativism. This closely tied in with the legal philosophy called legal positivism. Legal positivism says that the state government determines right and wrong, good and evil. The Nazis said they did nothing illegal. They assumed that whatever is legally right is also morally right.

Nazis on Trial at Nuremberg

Those opposing the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials leveraged their prosecution using natural law as their basis for ‘crimes against humanity’ which should never be done. The Nazis had killed millions of people. The prosecution’s case was built upon the fact that there is a moral law to which even the government answers. This higher natural law judges the laws of a nation.

One popular display of this moral law is found in the play, “A Man For All Seasons,” which depicts the trial of Sir Thomas More. More refused to consent to the decision that the King is the head of the church. More states that, “Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”  More makes the case that just as a command of the King can’t change the physical reality about the shape of the earth, so too the King’s command cannot change the moral laws that operate over all of mankind. Good and evil are just what they are even if the King himself opposes and makes laws contrary to them.  

Let us take every opportunity to make ourselves and our culture better. It is not enough to simply recognize the evil in our midst. We must stand and fight against it.  There is much truth in the saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is something that we should not only be teaching our children, but living before them as bearers of light in the darkness.

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Used with the permission of Dr. Mauser. See more articles like this one at his site: http://www.bernardjmauser.com/

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