Maxim and Momentum

Monday, 07-31-2017


A certain little man of my acquaintance found ants in the house.  He began to squish them.  Squish, squish, squish.  You must understand that he is very small.

His grandmother said, “Don’t squish those ants.  You’ll make a mess.  I’ll take care of them.”

Somehow, grandmother’s words triggered the memory of one of mother’s wise maxims in the little man’s mind.  However, it took a few seconds for the momentum of his action to dissipate.  In the meantime, this is what we heard from his little mouth and feet.

“Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.  “Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.  “Don’t hurt God’s creatures!  They're precious!”  Squish.

I leave it to the reader to draw the moral of the tale.


Let Every Soul Be Subject – to What?

Tuesday, 07-25-2017



As I read Romans 13:1-7, God’s institution of human government is clear, but the apparent autonomy given to the authorities to judge what is right and what is wrong seems oddly detached from any kind of divine guidance.  So I am wondering if the Apostle Paul’s statements presuppose that the authorities will be limited by natural law.  If so, would it have been Cicero's natural law or Stoic natural law that he would have in mind -- or some form of Jewish natural law?


Was he assuming natural law?  In a word:  Yes!  The passage to which you allude is states “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  The tradition does not take this statement to require unquestioning obedience, for with equal authority, on an occasion when the local authorities unjustly commanded the Apostles to stop preaching about the risen Christ, St. Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men.”  If God really is the source of human authority, then human magistrates have no authority to exceed what God has committed to them, and they are charged to act justly.  So we should read the statement “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” as meaning that every soul should be subject to them in matters that lie within their authority for the common good.

There is only one natural law, so I take your second question, about Cicero, the Stoics, and the Jews, to be whether St. Paul’s statement commits us to a particular theory of natural law.  He doesn’t say so, but it is clear from various other statements he makes that natural law is both truly natural, that is, based on the human creational design and knowable by the human mind, and truly law, that is, capable of laying genuine duties on our conscience.  That obviously places limits on what kind of natural law theory we could adopt.

The great rabbinical commentators did teach something that we would call natural law, although they did not use that term for it.  Its first great expression in rabbinical commentary is the tradition of the seven laws given to the sons of Noah.  Considering that “sons” means “descendents,” that means that it was given not just to the Jews, but to all human beings.  Its second great expression is the rabbinical project of explaining the “reasons of the law.”  For example, Rabbi Hanina states concerning the commandment to administer justice that “were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”  Plainly, then, God’s basic moral will for us is not arbitrary and incomprehensible, but something the human mind can recognize as right.

More about the relation between natural and revealed law


Reading Well

Monday, 07-10-2017



I am a college sophomore who is curious to find good books to read.  I have not had an introduction in philosophy, but I do wish to begin to study the subject in the future.  I have had thoughts on becoming a Dominican Friar one day (perhaps if I can get Masters or Ph.D. in Mathematics).  I wish to study philosophy, in particular, Metaphysics and Ethics, so that I may be a mature, humble, and wise Catholic (or at least be a Catholic more mature, humble, and wise than I am now).  Are there any good pieces of literature that you could recommend to me?  Thank you for your time.



I commend your intention!  Considering your hopes, my first suggestion is to get a good liberal arts education.  This doesn’t mean that you have to pursue a liberal arts major, such as philosophy, but whether or not you do, you need to read widely in the classics of Western civilization.  Be careful, because in our strange era, even many teachers who do assign the classics poison the well.  The best remedy is to read so well that you can tell when the water is fresh.

My second suggestion would have been not to neglect mathematics, which is a good discipline for the mind.  But I see that you are already interested in mathematics – excellent!  Your studies in logic will probably focus on the rules of inference.  These will help you to avoid formal fallacies, but you should also be familiar with the informal fallacies, which are sometimes called fallacies of distraction.  An example of an informal fallacy is argumentum ad misericordiam, or argument from pity:  “What he says must be right, because can’t you see that he’s suffering?”

Third, I am providing below a very short list of classics, just to get you started.  You’ll notice that on a great many points, the outlooks of the authors differ widely.  Calling a work “classic” doesn’t mean that it’s right about everything; it means is that it set a kind of standard that other works have to reach in order for their challenges to its ideas to be taken seriously.

Not counting the Bible, my short list includes only eight authors.  Even so, these works will keep you going for a long time; a wise man said that it is better to read a few books well than a lot of books poorly.  You’ll notice that I’ve included only ancient and medieval writers.  Of course you should read the moderns too, but first learn the classical tradition, then read their challengers – not the other way around!

There will be no great surprises here:

The Bible, both Old and New Testament

Homer, Iliad

Homer, Odyssey

Plato, Republic

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Vergil, Aeneid

St. Augustine, Confessions

St. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

Dante Alighieri, Comedy

Not every one of these works should be read straight through in order, from the first page to the last.  For example, on your first pass through the Old Testament I would suggest focusing on Genesis and Exodus, then the key passages of the historical books, then just excerpts from the Wisdom books, the Psalms, and the Prophets.  You can skip the genealogies (although it’s true that they are there for a reason).  In Isaiah, focus on the Songs of the Servant of Yahweh.

Again, if you try to read the entire City of God straight through, you’ll bog down.  In my political philosophy seminars, I usually assign Book 2, Chapters 2 and 18-21; Book 5, Chapters 12-21; Book 12, Chapters 1-8; Book 14, Chapters 1-9 and 28; and Book 19, Chapters 1-7, 12-17, 21, and 24-28.

And on your first pass through the Summa Theologiae, begin with the opening questions on God; these are in the First Part.  Then go to the First Part of the Second Part (sorry, that’s what it’s called), and read the opening questions on happiness and ultimate purpose (I’m writing a book about them now).  Next, read just the most crucial questions on the nature of virtue – I would suggest the selections I included in another of my books, which you can find listed here.  Finally, read the questions on the nature of law -- eternal, divine, natural, and human.

Happy reading!  By the way, check out the link below too.

A Related Post


The New Approach to Reproductive Ethics: Making It Up

Monday, 07-03-2017



I thought you might be able to use the Atlantic article “Making Babies, No Sex Necessary” your blog or classroom.  Henry Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School, is making this easy for you as he gleefully steps into the natural law box without apparently being well prepared.

Greely argues that in the future, no one will have sex to make babies (except perhaps by accident, in the back seat of a car).  Couples won’t even have to donate eggs and sperm, because physicians will turn cells from their skin or other non-reproductive organs to make gametes to combine into embryos.  Then the embryos will be screened for whatever qualities we want.  Presumably the unwanted ones will be destroyed.


I wonder this gentleman even assumes that babies will be made by couples.  From his point of view, why not just clone ourselves?  One of the greatest things about having children is that we can’t play God and make them exactly like ourselves.  Dr. Greely wants to end all that.

Views such as his are hardly unexpected.  Ever since the development of artificial contraceptives people have been claiming that sex has nothing to do with making babies any more.  It follows that making babies has nothing to do with sex.

You’re right that he is unprepared to discuss natural law.  I wouldn’t quite say that he is making the argument easy for me, though.  The difficulty in arguing with fellows like this one is that you can’t; they are not interested in argument.

At the end of the article he is quoted as follows.  Speaking to imaginary opponents, he says, “If you, coming from a Catholic background, try to convince me, coming from a non-Catholic background ... that wouldn’t work for me …. I need a more intellectual argument than one 'based on my faith' or 'the tablets brought down from the mountain for me say this.' … There’s very little about our modern lives that’s natural or what a God from 3000 years ago would have expected or wanted, including all of modern medicine.”

Notice his implicit assumptions.  Concerning argument in general,

> The most likely source of argument in opposition is precisely the one we don’t have to listen to.

> “That wouldn’t work for me” is sufficient rebuttal to an argument.

Concerning faith,

> We already know that anyone who has faith is unreasonable; he believes because he believes because he believes.  Therefore, there is no need for non-Catholics to listen to the arguments of Catholic thinkers.  Even without listening we know that they will have nothing to say but “It’s based on my faith.”

> Everything anyone says about God is a human construct.  Except for Dr. Greely’s view that Catholics have it wrong about God.  That’s not a human construct.

> Truth falls out of date, like fashions in clothing.  Nothing that anyone thought a long time ago could possibly have any value.

Concerning natural law,

> We don’t need to know anything about natural law reasoning to criticize it.  It’s okay to make it up.

> Natural law means being primitive.  That’s why medicine is unnatural.  The natural law would tell you that if you’re sick, it’s natural to be sick, and you shouldn’t get well.

> If very little about our modern lives conforms to natural law, then there isn’t any natural law.  Presumably, if very little about the way I drive conforms to traffic law, then there isn’t any traffic law either.

What natural law theory really says


Hear No Evil

Monday, 06-26-2017


Everyone notices that the culture is drenched in sex.  What not many notice is that many of the people in the ocean are hypersensitive about reference to the water.

Although they are immersed in it, they can’t bear hearing it mentioned in certain ways.

I first noticed this in my classes.  We were talking one semester about natural teleology -- the fact that certain purposes and meanings are built into us.  Though I hadn’t mentioned sex, a student asked how natural teleology related to a particular sexual behavior.  Briefly, I explained that according to the classical tradition, every use of the sexual powers must respect both their procreative and unitive purposes.  But saying so was sexual content.  Someone complained.

On another occasion, in another class, we were talking about the First Amendment free speech jurisprudence.  Contrasting the Founders’ views with the views of some judges, I mentioned that by “speech,” the Founders did not mean every sort of “expression.”  For example, they wouldn’t have considered strip shows as speech, much less protected speech.  But saying so was sexual content.  Someone complained.

Then there was the day when students asked about the Obergefeld decision, which held that same-sex unions are marriages.  Briefly, I explained why thinkers in the classical natural law tradition would have disagreed.  But saying so was sexual content.  Someone complained.

Silly me, I used to think the complaints were coming from religious kids who thought sex should never be mentioned.  Though I wouldn’t say “never,” modesty I get.  Some things shouldn’t be mentioned without strong necessity, for example the need to think clearly about a massive cultural change.  As St. Paul wrote, “it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret.”

But the sorts of objections I’ve mentioned are not based on modesty.  Complaints spring from seven causes.

1.   Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though what anyone does might matter.

2.   Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though the issue concerns sex, not equality.

3.  Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though there might be reasons for thinking one thing about it rather than another.

4.  Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though the traditional views about it may have merit.

5.  Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though it may be connected with procreation.

6.  Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though certain attitudes and behaviors about it may promote marital instability.

7.  Not from mentioning sex, but from speaking as though certain attitudes and behaviors about it may encourage abortion.

We are as prudish as a colony of Puritans, but our prudery is sham.  It is not for the sake of purity that we hold our hands to our ears.

Is purity a virtue anyway?

New book on virtue ethics


Whistling Past the Graveyard

Monday, 06-19-2017



I read your essay “Why the Natural Law Suggests a Divine Source,” in the anthology of Beckwith, George, and McWilliams, A Second Look at First ThingsYou seem to be making a kind of moral argument for the existence of god.  I don’t understand why you think a god is a plausible explanation of the existence of an objective good and evil.

Objective morality could be explained by any of the multitude of mutually exclusive alternatives to theism such as deism, naturalistic pantheism, pandeism, acosmism, panpsychism, transtheism, henotheism, polytheism, or an evil god.  For example, naturalistic pantheism can explain morality as a product of a law similar to gravity, simply a more advanced kind of law we have not yet discovered.

Besides, due to many philosophical difficulties, we have no basis to conclude that there is an objective anything (other than solipsism) much less an objective morality.

I agree that you need some kind of worldview to act as a basis for everything.  However, any of the mutually exclusive possibilities to theism can explain morality.  Let me know if you think I misunderstood something.


You ask me to tell you frankly if I think you are missing anything.  Yes, I think your thoughtful letter falls into two mistakes.

First, it is simply not true that every worldview can produce an equally satisfactory explanation of moral law.  For example, you mention the hypothesis of an evil god, but this hypothesis cannot explain how there can be an ontological distinction between good and evil.  In fact, the very existence of evil presupposes good, because evil is a privation of good.  Disease, for example, makes sense only as a flaw in health -- but health does not make sense as a flaw in disease.  Or consider your suggestion that the possibility of good might be a product of some other law we have not discovered.  This is merely hand-waving.  It is like saying that gravity might be due to undetected fairies.

However, the second difficulty in your letter is more fundamental.  I embrace the classical approach to epistemology which sets things before knowledge.  You embrace the modern approach to epistemology which sets knowledge before things.  This has been a dead end.  Even the skeptic has to assume that something is true; otherwise he has no way to decide what to do and how to live – the springs of action lose their springiness.  He cannot even justify his skepticism.  One must first try to know something, then go ahead and criticize the power of knowing.   We find out the weaknesses of the reasoning power only in the act of using it.

The Questioner’s Response:

If you have time, please let me know what you think.  You say evil is the privation of good, but from my understanding, under the evil god theory, good is simply the privation of evil.  Whether we pain with white paint on a black backgrop, or black paint on a white backdrop, we can paint the same picture.  With health and disease, or with light and dark, we can show which is really the backdrop, but with good and evil, we can’t.

When you say, “Of course even the skeptic has to assume that something is true,” you seem to reject views which rely entirely on appearances instead of asserting a reality.  I don’t see why.

Since even the skeptic has to assume that something is true, it would seem that we should start from apparent truth rather than actual truth, because we can be more sure about shared appearances than about reality.

My Reply:

Well, in the first place, the suggestion that good might be merely the absence of evil is not plausible.  You concede that it is implausible for health to be merely the absence of disease, but this seems to confirm my point, because health is a kind of good.

Second, the suggestion that it is arbitrary to propose theism because we lack any grounds for knowing anything for sure is self-undermining.  If this proposition were true, then we would lack any grounds for knowing that the proposition itself were true.  One should reject the argument for theism only if it is invalid – not because of a lazy skepticism which spares us the hard work of examining it.

Finally, it seems arbitrary to doubt everything except doubt.  The suggestion that we accept appearances and forget about reality is a counsel of despair, because the rational soul is ordained to seek and to know truth.  Besides – which of several conflicting appearances do you accept?  If shared appearances, shared by whom?  I am glad you wrote, but I think you are whistling past the graveyard.

New Book on Virtue



The Islamic Crisis of Reason

Monday, 06-12-2017


Wael Farouq, a Muslim associated with American University in Cairo, presently teaching at the Catholic University of Milan, suggested recently that Islamic doctrine “must be purified of the interpretations that lead persons of the Muslim faith to embrace terrorism.”  He argued that “The Muslim intellectual class must find its way out of the crisis in which it finds itself.  And it is a crisis of the use of reason, as [Pope Benedict XVI] rightly indicated in Regensburg.”

Farouq concluded, “The West has consecrated itself to pluralism and human rights, so as not to repeat the painful experiences of Nazism and fascism, but it must be asked:  Didn’t Nazism and fascism represent the supremacy of the stereotype over the person?  Didn’t they believe in something higher than the human person, for the sake of which it was justified to die and to kill?  And today, is there not the risk that ‘multiculturalism’ too will turn into a stereotype more important than the person and his authentic fundamental rights?”

It must have taken courage for Farouq to commend the famous Regensburg Address, in one brief section of which Benedict argues that Islam is tempted to violence because it misunderstands the relation between faith and reason.  The use of violence to spread faith, Benedict says, is unreasonable.

Christians can criticize Christians who use violence on behalf of faith, because in the Christian conception, faith and reason are allies, God is infinitely reasonable and wise, and man is ordained to know the truth, endowed by his Creator with an inbuilt longing to attain it.  In the Islamic conception, however, God is viewed primarily in terms of will.  He does not have to be reasonable, and all we have to do is obey.  Benedict remarks, “Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us.  Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

Ironically, Muslims in a number of countries protested the Pope’s suggestions concerning the Islamic temptation to violence by committing acts of violence against Christians. 

A different response came from a group of thirty-eight Muslim scholars, who sent an open letter in which, challenging Benedict’s understanding of the Qu’ran, they simply denied the Islamic temptation to violence.  But in reading such claims we must remember that in Islam, one is not required to tell the truth to non-Muslims.  Consider the hadith, or saying of the Prophet, recorded by the renowned Muhammad ibn Ishaq.  A proposal had been made to kill a certain Jew.   “Muhammad bin Maslamah said, ‘O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies.’  ‘Say what you like,’ Muhammad replied.  ‘You are absolved, free to say whatever you must”’.

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s classic work of Shāfī’ī jurisprudence, Reliance of the Traveler , cites a far milder hadith:  “I did not hear [Muhammad] permit untruth in anything people say, except for three things:  War, settling disagreements, and a man talking with his wife or she with him.”  But the outcome is stated bluntly: “This is an explicit statement that lying is sometimes permissible.”

For “the best analysis,” Reliance of the Traveler refers the reader to the Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī.  In the sharpest possible contrast with the view that Christian view that human speech is a gift of God ordained to truth, al-Ghazali flatly declares, “Speaking is a means to achieve objectives.”  “When it is possible to achieve [a praiseworthy] aim by lying but not by telling the truth,” he states, “it is permissible to lie if attaining the goal is permissible, and obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory,” although “it is religiously more precautionary in all such cases to employ words that give a misleading impression, meaning to intend by one’s words something that is literally true ... while the outward purport of the words deceives the hearer.”

Although al-Ghazali cautions that “strictness is to forgo lying in every case where it is not legally obligatory,” this statement comes on the heels of his startling remark, “One should compare the bad consequences entailed by lying to those entailed by telling the truth, and if the consequences of telling the truth are more damaging, one is entitled to lie.”

May God grant Islam the grace to escape from views, for unless it can do so, the preconditions for honest discussion are impossible to meet.  But let us return to the question of using violence to compel faith.

Umar Barakat writes, “Jihād means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.”  To be sure, he adds, “As for the greater jihād, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihād, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihād to the greater jihād.’  On the other hand, according to Umar Barakat, the scriptural basis for jihād lies in verses like “Fighting is prescribed for you” and “Slay them wherever you find them,” as well as haditha like the one that says, “I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat.  If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them.  And their final reckoning is with Allah.”

Plainly, scriptures like the latter refer not to war against the lower self but to war to compel religious belief.  If they supply the basis for jihād, as Umar Barakat asserts, then it would appear that the “lesser” jihād is the central meaning of jihād even if it is the lesser one.  Perhaps the Shāfī’ī school is eccentric, but if so then it behoves the thirty-eight scholars to explain what school of jurisprudence they are following.   To say that Shari’a should be interpreted as prohibiting religious compulsion is laudable; to say that it is normally so interpreted is implausible.

Farouq is right about four things:  First, that violent interpretations of Islam are a genuine problem, not a delusion of persons bigoted against Islam.  Second, that these interpretations are a problem for Islam itself, not just for non-Muslims who are threatened by them.  Third, that the solution to the problem can come only from Muslims.  Fourth, that the multiculturalist refusal to recognize the problems of these doctrines puts everyone at risk.



A translation of most of Wael Farouq’s editorial “He Who Kills Believes in a Specific Doctrine,” may be found in the English version of an article by Sandro Magister, “It Took a Muslim To Say What For Pope and Bishops Is Taboo.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections,” may be found at the Vatican website.

Benedict’s source for his remark about the views of Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm is Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue: Essai sur la structure et les conditions de la pensée musulmane, a work of the French scholar of Islam, Roger Arnaldez.

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler is published by Amana Publications.  This is a collaborative work; only a small part comes from the original manual by al-Misri.

See also J. Budziszewski, “Natural Law, Democracy, and Shari’a,” reproduced at this site from Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, eds., Shari'a in the West (Oxford University Press).