April 27, 2010


Preface – The Line Through the Heart: The suicidal proclivity of our time, writes J. Budziszewski, is to deny the obvious. Our hearts are riddled with desires that oppose their deepest longings, because we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. Why? And what can we do about it? Budziszewski addresses these vital questions in his persuasive new book, The Line Through the Heart. [J. Budziszewski. "Preface." from The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (Downer's Grove, IL: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009)]

Perhaps the most interesting reason for considering it untimely to discuss natural law goes back to a terse, fascinating, and widely misunderstood article written a half-century ago by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe.

In brief, Anscombe argued that modern moral philosophers had backed themselves into a corner. On the one hand, they thought of morality as law. On the other hand, few of them believed in all the other things one must believe in order to speak of law coherently. It makes no sense to propose a moral law unless there is a moral lawgiver, and not many philosophers of that time believed in God. Anscombe thought that such incoherencies were at the root of the various other difficulties that plagued the theories then current, such as utilitarianism and Kantianism. It was as though people were trying to theorize about sums without believing in addition, or about ribs without believing in bones.

What she proposed to these skeptics was not that they abandon moral philosophy, but that they carry on the enterprise in a different way. Henceforth they would admit that they had no business talking about morality as law; instead they would content themselves with describing the psychology of the moral virtues. They would allow themselves to say "This is what it means to have honesty" or "This is the sort of person we admire as being courageous," but they would not indulge in the conceits that "Be honest" and "Be courageous" are moral laws. This suggestion prompted a great revival of philosophical reflection about virtue.

I am all for thinking about virtue. But there are several difficulties with the philosophical agenda "all virtue, all the time." First, it isn't what Anscombe meant. She didn't oppose talking about moral law; she believed in it herself, and for her this was perfectly reasonable, because she believed in all the presuppositions of law, such as the lawgiver. Her suggestion to stop talking about moral law was only for those who didn't.

Second, there are two different ways for a thinker who believes in law without a lawgiver to escape incoherency. Anscombe mentions one: Abandon belief in the law. But as her own case shows, there is another: Believe in the lawgiver. In fact, the natural law tradition is not the only thing enjoying a renaissance. Since Anscombe's time, so is theism. To be sure, a certain kind of atheism is still the unofficially established religion of the opinion-forming strata of our society – the courts, the universities, the news media, the great advertising agencies, the whole pandering sector of the economy. The kind of atheism that these boosters favor is practical atheism. They don't really care whether people believe in a God; what disturbs them is belief in a God the existence of whom makes a difference to anything else. Theoretical atheism, by contrast, ran out of ideas quite a while ago. Notwithstanding certain recent highly promoted pop culture books peddling atheism of the crudest and most ill-considered sort,7 all of the new and interesting arguments are being made by theists8 – and the sort of God whose existence they defend makes a difference to everything there is.

Third, talking about law and talking about virtues aren't mutually exclusive. Every complete theory of moral law requires a theory of virtue. In fact, I suspect that every complete theory of virtue requires a theory of moral law. Even Aristotle, who is supposed to be the paradigm case of a moral philosopher who talked only about virtue and not about law, talked about law. He holds that the man of practical wisdom acts according to a rational principle; this principle functions as law. He holds that virtue lies in a mean, but that there is no mean of things like adultery; this implies that there are exceptionless precepts, which also function as law. He holds that besides the enactments of governments and the customs of peoples there is an unwritten norm to which governments and peoples defer; this norm too is a law. Consciousness of law creeps in through the back door even when it is pushed out the front, and Aristotle wasn't even pushing.

But another objection can be offered to this book. Granted that one must drag ethics into politics, granted that one must drag natural law into ethics, granted even that one must drag God into the discussion of natural law – still, why it is necessary to drag in theology concerning God? Why not just nice, clean philosophy? In the most ancient meaning of the term, theology was a branch of philosophy, "first philosophy," systematic reasoning about God, the supreme cause and principle of all things. And it is quite true that a certain thin sort of natural law theory can get by with first philosophy alone. Today, though, the term "theology" is used for systematic reasoning about revelation concerning God. Must the cat be allowed to drag that old thing through the door?

We may as well admit that the cat has already had his way. Philosophy is full of questions and notions that it borrowed from theology and then forgot that it had borrowed. Consider but a single example, the concept of "personhood," on which I have touched already. It turns out that the very idea of a "person" – of a rational who with moral attributes, the ultimate possessor of his acts and even his nature – originates in Christian theology. If we purged philosophy of its theological acquisitions, it would look as though moths had eaten it. Is that what we really want?

Ultimately, a discussion among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, each of whom is invited to discuss his theological premises, will be more rich and interesting than a conversation among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, each of whom is expected to impersonate an atheist. Such a conversation may even be more courteous – just because, for a change, no one is insisting that the others shut their mouths.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2010 9:07 PM
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