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The Line Through the Heart
Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
By J. Budziszewski
ISI BooksCopyright © 2009 J. Budziszewski
All rights reserved.
Natural Law as Fact, as Theory, and as Sign of Contradiction
The Christian faith holds that the creation has been damaged. Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the opposite tendency away from God.... This paradox points to a certain inner disturbance in man, so that he can no longer simply be the person he wants to be.... There is a collective consciousness that sharpens the contradiction.... [T]he stronger the demand made by the law, the stronger becomes the inclination to fight it.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Before his consecration as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to several Catholic universities requesting that they sponsor and encourage public talks about natural moral law and contemporary society. His reasons deserve thought. "The Catholic Church," he wrote, "has become increasingly concerned by the contemporary difficulty in finding a common denominator among the moral principles held by all people, which are based on the constitution of the human person and which function as the fundamental criteria for laws affecting the rights and duties of all." For centuries unquestioned, he says, these truths of the natural law "constituted a valid starting point for the Church's dialogue with the world, with cultures and non-Christian religions." The urgency of "renewing an understanding of the natural moral law" arises, he says, from the fact that its truths are now "obscured," not only in secular dogma, but even sometimes in "the teaching which takes place in Catholic universities." He clearly believes that renewing the understanding of natural law is not a task for philosophy alone, but for philosophy in partnership with revelation, because, as he explains, it requires "a deeper understanding of the theology of creation, as this flows from the unity of God's salvific plan in Christ." To guard against misunderstanding of this important point, he quotes John Paul II to the effect that "it is not a case of imposing on non-believers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the person," "principles upon which depend the destiny of human beings and the future of civilization."
Strong words. The cardinal, now pontiff, makes sharp observations not only about the moral confusion of the times, but also about Catholic teaching, which ought to help to clear up the confusion, but sometimes merely joins in the muddle.
Ratzinger seems to view the natural law under three distinct aspects. In the first place, he views it as a fact. Natural law is a feature of the world, having to do with the constitution of the human person, and behind that, with the constitution of created reality as a whole. The cardinal's expression "the constitution of the person" calls several things to our attention. One is that the human being is a person, not just a mess of chemicals and electrical impulses. Personhood is not a mystification but a reality, and persons are meant by God to know reality, including the reality of themselves, as He knows them. But the expression also emphasizes that the human person is constituted in a certain way. If we lost sight of this fact, true personalism would collapse into a personalistic relativism in which we could no longer tell what counted as using a person wrongly, as a means to an end. After all, anyone can plead the second version of Kant's categorical imperative, "Never treat another as a mere means to an end." A woman denied an abortion might protest that she should not be reduced to a "means" to her baby's survival; a man denied assistance in killing himself might complain that he should not be reduced to a "means" to the peace of his doctor's conscience.
To say that natural law is a fact does not mean that theorizing about it is unnecessary. Calling attention to a fact is always an act of theory. Even so, we are apt to forget that before the theory must come the thing that the theory is about; natural law theorizing is about something that is already and unquestionably there. I use the word "unquestionably" with a qualification. Of course the "thereness" of natural law is questionable in a certain sense; everything is questionable in a certain sense. One might maintain that it is not there. But insofar as we are serious about being Christian philosophers, committed to an adequate view of the human person, a view which makes use of all of the resources of faith and reason as they co-illuminate each other, we should already know the answer to that logically possible question. At this stage of the game it would be frivolous — a squandering of what has been given to us — to waste breath on the question of whether the human person has a constitution, just as it would be frivolous for a mineralogist to ask whether there are minerals, or an oceanographer to ask whether there is ocean. The mineralogist and oceanographer have better questions to ask. So do we.
Only in second place, then, does the cardinal view natural law as a theory. We are to be realists. The theorist must humble himself before the fact, which in this case means the reality of human personhood. This is where those "better questions" that I mentioned come in: What do we actually know about the constitution of the human person? How are its principles "natural," and how are they "law"? How can we explain them in a way that makes them intelligible even to the people of our time? I suggest that if theory does come in second place, not in first, then it will be a different sort of theory than the kind we have become accustomed to during the last several centuries. It will not be the belly-button-searching kind that demands exhaustive investigation of whether we can know anything at all before asking what, if anything, we know. Instead it will realize that we must already know something, and know that we know it, even in order to ask how we do come to know it. A truly adequate theory of the natural law will not always be turning into metatheory of the natural law, a theory about theories. It will resist that tendency. It will keep its eyes focused on the data, contemplating the constitution of the human person itself, rather than turning its eyes skull-inward in a futile attempt to catch itself at the act of contemplation that it was engaged in a moment before. The study of how we know is important, even indispensable, but it is only the maidservant of the study of the things that are known, not the master.
We have not reached the end of the story, for in third place, the cardinal seems to view natural law as a scandal, as a sign of contradiction. I take his remark that its truths have been "obscured" as a gentle way of saying that they have been widely repudiated. Whether or not he intended to make that point in his letter of invitation, it is certainly an aspect of his broader teaching; it is the point of the quotation I have set at the head of this chapter. And it is certainly true — a point which theologians acknowledge, but, curiously, is not often discussed by philosophers. The fact is that natural law exasperates. It offends. It enrages.
By the way, this gives us a reason — a serious reason — to consider the questions that I called frivolous a few moments ago. It may be frivolous for the oceanographer to ask on his own behalf whether there is ocean, but it would not be frivolous if he lived among people who denied water even though living on a raft. In the same way, it may be frivolous for us to ask on our own behalf whether the human person has a constitution, but it is not frivolous if we live among humans who deny the personal structure of their being. There is even a sense in which it is not frivolous to ask the question even on our own behalf, for faith in God — even faith in the God-given constitution of our personal being — is inevitably a choice against the ever-present possibility of doubt. Commenting on a scene in a play by Claudel, the cardinal writes,
Fastened to the cross — with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void which seethes beneath him and which remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day life.
The scandal of natural law is both chronic and acute. It is acute because of the suicidal proclivity of our time to deny the obvious, a proclivity, by the way, which itself cries out for explanation. We have reached that day that Chesterton foresaw when he wrote, "Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed.... Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.... We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed." The circumstance of living during an acute phase of the scandal makes it especially important that we not let our own eyes be darkened. Even today there is a common ground, because humans still bear a common nature; whether people are commonly willing to stand on that ground is another matter altogether. It is a slippery common ground, wet with the moisture of our evasions. Therefore we must not suppose that the definition of "common ground" is "what everyone concedes" or "what no one denies." There is nothing that everyone concedes; there is nothing that no one denies. We must be willing to be bold.
I have commented on the acuteness of the scandal in our time. But the scandal is also chronic. Natural law is a sign of contradiction, not merely incidentally because of the times, but essentially because of all times. One reason is the Fall. Our condition contradicts our constitution; our state is out of joint with our nature. The natural law scandalizes us because our actual inclinations are at war with our natural inclinations, because our hearts are riddled with desires that oppose their deepest longings, because we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. To understand the scandal at an even deeper level, natural law is a sign of contradiction because Christ the Redeemer is a sign of contradiction. The cardinal is quite clear about this. Consider again his remark, quoted earlier, that an adequate understanding of natural law implicates "the theology of creation, as this flows from the unity of God's salvific plan in Christ." Some people would say that in making such a claim, the cardinal is no longer proposing philosophical ethics, but demanding the abdication of philosophy to theology. On the contrary, he is rejecting a false view of philosophy, a view which supposes a relationship of faith and reason which is ultimately insupportable. Yes, we can and must find ways to make ourselves comprehensible to those who do not share the insights of revelation, but this does not mean that we can do so without relying on these insights. Nature presupposes supernature, and the present disorders of nature merely stun the mind when contemplated apart from the graces of creation and redemption. For this reason, a truly adequate understanding of nature's malaise requires some hint, some glimpse, some trace of its supernatural remedy.
How awful such reflections are for those of us who crave the approval of our secular colleagues. The timid flesh crawls at the thought of their skeptical glances. Yet in the long run, there is no other way to make headway. How could we expect natural law to be plausible to those whose nature experiences only its humiliation, and not its rising again? These remarks risk scandal of yet another kind too. I mean methodological scandal, and this is unavoidable. The philosophical method of our day is minimalist. It assumes that people can consider propositions about reality only in small doses, one dry pill at a time. I suggest that at least sometimes, the very opposite is true. The reason the pill goes down so hard is that it is only a pill, for the mind, like the stomach, desires a meal. Just as some foods are digestible only in combination with other foods, so also some ideas are plausible only in combination with other ideas. In order to stand firm they must have context, as the single stone requires the arch. So let us not worry about scandal, but go ahead and do the unminimalist and unsecularist thing.
The rest of this chapter merely elaborates the three aspects under which we must view the natural law: natural law as fact, as theory, and as sign of contradiction. First, then, as fact. As I conceded earlier, to call attention to a fact is always an act of theory. Even so, it is not the same act of theory as what we do about the fact afterward, so let us consider the pretheoretical realities that provoke natural law philosophy and with which it has to deal. For convenience I will distinguish four categories of such experiences. First come those facts, those pretheoretical realities, that provoke us to philosophize about practical reason as such; second come those that provoke us to do so in terms of natural law rather than in other terms. The former category can be subdivided into facts that provoke us to philosophize about practical reason as practical, and facts that provoke us to philosophize about it as reason. In turn, the latter category can be subdivided into facts that provoke us to philosophize about natural law as law, and facts that provoke us to philosophize about it as natural.
To begin at the beginning, the pretheoretical reality that provokes us to philosophize about practical reason as practical is that we are, so to speak, magnetized toward other things, other persons, and other states of affairs. We are not just knowers, but seekers, who spontaneously incline toward certain realities other than ourselves. When I say that this inclination is spontaneous, I do not mean that it is arbitrary, because that is not the way that we experience it. One way of saying this is that we do not merely experience ourselves as drawn to things; we experience the things themselves as being such as to draw us. Our word for their being so — and there is such a word in every language — is "good"; goodness is the quality of being such as to draw us. So another way to express what I am saying is that we experience certain things as good, and experience ourselves as drawn to them because of their goodness; we are designed to be so drawn. With an air of demystification, subjectivists like Thomas Hobbes tell us that it is the other way around. They deny that we are inclined toward things because they are good. Instead, they say, we call them good because we happen to be inclined toward them (as we may happen to be inclined to different things tomorrow). Goodness is merely a name, and inclination does not point outside itself after all; it just is. But this is not just bad theory, it is a bad description of the experience. If you ask a man "Why do you love that woman?" he does not normally reply by telling you about himself — "I just do" — but by telling you about her — "Because she is wonderful."
It might be objected that some people do reply "I just do" — for example, in Country and Western songs. Quite so, but Country and Western songs are more or less explicitly about disordered loves, not ordered ones, and the perception of the disorder is internal to the experience itself: "I'm crazy for crying, crazy for trying, crazy for loving you." Even then the lover does not say that the beloved is not lovable. What he suggests is that her good is mixed with bad in such a way that by inclining toward the former, he ends up suffering the latter. "I knew you'd love me as long as you wanted / And then some day you'd leave me for somebody new."
So much for the pretheoretical reality that provokes us to philosophize about practical reason as practical; what then is the one that provokes us to philosophize about it as reason? Here I must apologize for my earlier metaphor of magnetism, for our inclination toward the good is only a little bit like actual magnetism. For animals, perhaps the resemblance is closer. The tom enters the field of influence of the estrous queen and is drawn in to mate, the wolf enters the field of influence of the unprotected fawn and is drawn in to devour. If an animal is inclined toward two objects at once, it pursues the most attractive. Everything is simple. For us it is not like that. We deliberate about which good to follow; the goods that attract us are not causes of action, but reasons for action. Deliberation is a strange and mysterious thing, not at all like what an animal does.
Excerpted from The Line Through the Heart by J. Budziszewski. Copyright © 2009 J. Budziszewski. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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