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The Natural Law Is What We Naturally Know

R&L: The concept of natural law underpins the analysis in your latest book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. What is the natural law?

Budziszewski: Our subject is called natural law because it has the qualities of all law. Law has rightly been defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by the one who has care of the community, and promulgated. Consider the natural law against murder. It is not an arbitrary whim, but a rule that the mind can grasp as right. It serves not some special interest, but the universal good. Its author has care of the universe, for he (God) created it. And it is not a secret rule, for God has so arranged his creation that every rational being knows about it.

Our subject is called natural law because it is built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind. Another reason for calling it natural is that we rightly take it to be about what really is—a rule like the prohibition of murder reflects not a mere illusion or projection, but genuine knowledge. It expresses the actual moral character of a certain kind of act.

R&L: Why is the natural law something that “we can’t not know?”

Budziszewski: Mainly because we have been endowed by God with conscience. I am referring to “deep conscience,” which used to be called synderesis—the interior witness to the foundational principles of morality. We must distinguish it from “surface conscience,” which used to be called conscientia—what we derive from the foundational principles, whether correctly or incorrectly, whether by means honest or dishonest. Deep conscience can be suppressed and denied, but it can never be erased. Surface conscience, unfortunately, can be erased and distorted in numerous ways—one of several reasons why moral education and discipline remain necessary.

In fact there are at least four ways in which we know the natural law. Deep conscience, the First Witness, is the one primarily responsible for “what we can’t not know.” The others concern “what we can’t help learning.” The Second Witness is our recognition of the designedness of things in general, which not only draws our attention to the Designer, but also assures us that the other witnesses are not meaning ful. The Third Witness is the particulars of our own design—for example, the interdependence and complementarity of the sexes. The Fourth Witness is the natural consequences of our behavior. All four work together.

R&L: What are the promises and perils of advancing a natural-law argument in the context of public policy disputes?

Budziszewski: The natural-law tradition maintains that the foundational principles of morality are “the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge”—in other words, they are not only right for everyone, but at some level known to everyone. If this is true, then the task of debate about morality is not so much teaching people what they have no clue about, but bringing to the surface the latent moral knowledge or suppressed moral knowledge that they have already. There is an art to this; people often have strong motives not to allow that knowledge to come to the surface, and they may feel defensive. One has to get past evasions and self-deceptions, and it is more difficult to do this in the public square than in private conversation. Even so, certain basic moral knowledge is “down there,” and our public statements can make contact with it. When this is done well, the defensiveness of the listeners is disarmed, and they reflect, “Of course. I never thought of that before, but somehow I knew it all along.”

R&L: Do you agree that large sections of the evangelical Protestant community have rejected natural-law ethics? If so, why do you think they have rejected it?

Budziszewski: Evangelicals ought to believe in the natural law. Many are coming to realize this. However, some say that the only place to find moral truth is in the word of God, and that natural-law tradition denies this. They argue that the natural-law tradition puts much too much confidence in the capacity of fallen man to know the moral truth. They worry that the first people to use the expression “natural law” were the Stoics, who were pagans. Finally, they suspect that the God of natural law is not the God of the Bible, but the God of Deism—a distant Creator who designed the universe, wound it up, set it running, then went away. The answer to the first objection is that the Bible itself testifies to the reality of the natural law; though it does not use the term natural law, it alludes to all four of the Witnesses. The answer to the second objection is also biblical. The Apostle Paul did not blame the pagans for not having the truth about God and his moral requirements, but for suppressing and neglecting it. In the Proverbs, the main complaint about “fools” is not that they lack knowledge but that they despise it. As to the third objection, it is true that the first philosophers to use the term natural law were pagans, but the biblical testimony to its reality came earlier still. Besides, if God has made some things plain to all human beings through the Four Witnesses, should we not have expected some pagan thinkers to have admitted some of them? As to the fourth objection, the God of natural law is not different from the God of scripture—it is an incomplete picture of the same one. Nature proclaims its Creator; scripture tells us who he is. Nature shows us the results of his deeds in creation; scripture tells us the results of his deeds in history. Nature manifests to us his moral requirements; scripture tells us what to do about the fact that we do not measure up to them.

R&L: What theological concerns do you have, if any, with respect to an ethic that ostensibly relies quite heavily on reason as its foundation?

Budziszewski: I wish you had not put it that way! Too many people think that acknowledging the claims of reason means denying the claims of revelation. I do not see it that way at all. Think of the matter like this. God has made some things known to all human beings; these are general revelation. He has also made additional things known to the community of faith; these are special revelation. Natural law is about general revelation, not special revelation. However, a Christian natural-law thinker will make use of special revelation to illuminate general revelation—and will use God-given reasoning powers to understand them both.

R&L: What should business executives know about natural law? How does or should the natural law affect the day-to-day routine of the average business executive?

Budziszewski: Natural law is moral reality. It affects the day-to-day routine of the average business executive the same way that it affects everyone else. Like others, then, business executives need to know that if they say “I am doing the best I can, but everything is shades of gray,” they are lying to themselves. Most of the time the right thing to do is quite plain. Like others, they also need to face up to the fact that some moral rules hold without exception. Figuring out a way to outwit or outrun the usual bad consequences does not make a basic wrong right.

R&L: What do you consider to be the top threats to engaging in ethical business practices?

Budziszewski: The moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. Once it comes to be viewed as just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the party, the company, or the cause, a person is not doing his or her job. Dishonoring truth is perversely regarded as a kind of duty.

R&L: Are these threats more significant than the threats facing past generations? Why or why not?

Budziszewski: Yes, I think so. We are passing through an eerie phase of history in which the things that everyone really knows are treated as unheard-of doctrines, a time in which the elements of common decency are themselves attacked as indecent. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Although our civilization has passed through quite a few troughs of immorality, never before has vice held the high moral ground.

R&L: What role, if any, does natural law play in determining the substance of the laws that govern a particular society? What happens if natural law is banished from the legal process?

Budziszewski: Try to think of a law that is not based on a moral idea; you will not be able to do it. The law requiring taxes is based on the moral idea that people should be made to pay for the benefits that they receive. The law punishing violations of contract is based on the moral idea that people should keep their promises. The law punishing murder is based on the moral ideas that innocent blood should not be shed, that private individuals should not take the law into their own hands, and that individuals should be held responsible for their deeds. If we refuse to allow discussion of morality when making laws, laws will still be based on moral ideas, but they will be more likely to be based on false ones.

R&L: How does individual liberty function under the natural law?

Budziszewski: Natural law and natural rights work together. I have a duty not to murder you; you have a right to your life. I have a duty not to steal from you; you have a right to use the property that results from the productive use of your gifts. If we all have a duty to seek God, then we must all have the liberty to seek him.

The correlation of liberties and duties may seem nothing more than common sense, but that is what natural law is: Common moral sense, cleansed of evasions, elevated and brought into systematic order. Unfortunately, the contemporary way of thinking about liberty denies common moral sense. For example in 1992, when the United States Supreme Court declared that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” it was propounding a universal moral right not to recognize the universal moral laws on which all rights depend. Such so-called liberty has infinite breadth but zero depth. A right is a power to make a moral claim upon me. If I could “define” your claims into nonexistence—as the Court said I could “define” the unborn child’s—that power would be destroyed, and true liberty would be destroyed along with it.

R&L: You begin What We Can’t Not Know with an explicit statement that your point of view is Christian. Why do you explicitly alert the reader to this?

Budziszewski: I am writing not only for Christians, but also for Jews, and not only for Jews, but for all sorts of theists and would-be theists. Why then do I explicitly declare that my point of view is Christian? Because it is; I do it for honesty. Even when we speak about the things shared by all, we do so from within traditions that are not shared by all. This fact does not mean that we cannot talk together; it would be more accurate to say that recognizing it is a prerequisite for talking together. So in remarking that the book is Christian I do not mean to exclude non-Christians from the discussion, but to invite them in.

A conceit of contemporary liberal thought is that we have no business raising our voices in the public square unless we abstract ourselves from our traditions, suspend judgment about whether there is a God, and adopt a posture of neutrality among competing ideas of what is good for human beings. This is a facade—a concealed authoritarianism. Neutralism is a method of ramming a particular moral judgment into law without having to go to the trouble of justifying it, all by pretending that it is not a moral judgment.

R&L: Is being Christian a necessary prerequisite to accepting the natural-law argument? Can a secularist ever truly understand the natural law?

Budziszewski: As I remarked earlier, the foundational principles of the natural law are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. This means that non-Christians know them too—even atheists. It does not follow from this that belief in God has nothing to do with the matter. The atheist has a conscience; atheists know as well as theists do that they ought not steal, ought not murder, and so on. The problem is that they cling to a worldview that cannot make sense of this conscience. If there is no moral Lawgiver, how can there be a moral Law? Worse yet, if it is really true that humans are the result of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have them in mind, then how can our conscience be a Witness at all? It is just an accident; we might just as well have turned out like the guppies, which eat their young. For this and other reasons, I do not think we can be good without God.

R&L: In What We Can’t Not Know, you allude to the fact that you did not always subscribe to the natural law or believe in Christianity. What happened to change your mind?

Budziszewski: That is correct; I denied Christianity, denied God, denied even the distinction between good and evil. What happened to me was what the Gospel of John calls the conviction of sin. I began to experience horror about myself: Not a feeling of guilt or shame or inadequacy—just an overpowering true intuition that my condition was objectively evil. I could not have told why my condition was horrible; I only perceived that it was. It was as though a man were to notice one afternoon that the sky had always been blue, though for years he had considered it red. Augustine argued that although evil is real, it is derivative; the concept of a “pure” evil makes no sense, because the only way to get a bad thing is to take a good thing and ruin it. I had always considered this a neat piece of reasoning with a defective premise. Yes, granted the horrible, there had to exist a wonderful of which the horrible was the perversion—but I did not grant the horrible. Now all that had changed. I had to grant the horrible, because it was right behind my eyes. But as Augustine had perceived, if there was evil then there must also be good. In letting this thought through, my mental censors blundered. I began to realize, not only that my errors had been total, but that they had not been honest errors at all, merely self-deceptions. Anything might be true, even the claims of Jesus Christ, which I had rejected some ten or twelve years earlier. A period of intense reading and searching followed. I cannot recall a moment at which I began to believe, but there came a moment of realization that I had believed for some time, without noticing.