From the Menagerie of Rare Beasts: The Politics of Virtues

Thursday, 08-01-2019



I am writing a thesis on the politics of virtues, and I know you have written about this.  But where?



The politics of virtues is a way of thinking about government and politics that gives a very high place to considerations of moral character.  As thoughtful people have remarked for centuries, it’s difficult to get a better government than we deserve.

Moral character cannot be the only consideration.  If the only candidate who objected to infanticide was an adulterer, I would vote for the adulterer.  But I would worry.  A man who cannot keep his marital vows is unlikely to keep his promises to the rest of the citizens.

An early, short statement of my own take on the politics of virtues may be found in my online 1994 article “Politics of Virtues, Government of Knaves.”  In passing, some of these themes are discussed and elaborated in my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, the online Companion to the Commentary, and my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics, although there, of course, I defer to the views of St. Thomas.

But a number of brief reflections on politics and virtue can also be found – with some repetition -- right here in the blog.  Take a look at the following:

On Kicking the Ball Down the Road” (2 August 2014)

Rules and Virtues” (19 November 2014)

The Hamburger Helper of Regime Design, Part 1 of 2” (21 November 2014)

The Hamburger Helper of Regime Design, Part 2 of 2” (22 November 2014)

Bad Man, Good Statesman” (6 January 2015)

Just Like Me” (7 January 2015)

Heroic Virtue” (11 January 2015)

The Threshold of Judgment” (23 February 2016)

The Cruise” (26 March 2016)

How Much Difference Does It Make?” (5 April 2016)

Too Much Virtue Signaling, Not Enough Virtue” (6 August 2018)

Bad Men, Revisited” (23 August 2018)

Then Are All Good Men Good Statesmen?” (25 August 2018)

What to Do While Trying Not to Overload the Camel” (3 June 2019)

I hope this gives you some ideas.  Best wishes for your research.



Only Truth Is Merciful

Monday, 07-29-2019


Says one internet news outlet, “Since his election in 2013, conservatives have sharply criticized Francis, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the Church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics.”

Such reportage is typical.  However, the reason the journalist gives is not why the faithful are confused, or why so many Catholics have expressed concern about Pope Francis.

We have all sinned.  Nobody thinks the Church should not welcome sinners.  The problem is blurry language that makes it seem as though we cannot welcome sinners unless we ignore the reality of sin.

Ambiguity is not merciful.  Only truth is merciful.

How can anyone receive the loving God’s forgiveness if he is encouraged to believe he doesn’t need it?


Natural Law for Lawyers

Friday, 07-26-2019


For years I’ve been teaching a group of law students called the Blackstone Fellows about the classical natural law tradition.  I think this is one of the most important things I do every year, and it is certainly one of the most satisfying.  These young people are interns with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a coalition of public-interest law firms which fight for religious liberty, the integrity of the family, and the sanctity of life.

At the request of the Alliance, in 2006 I wrote a brief introduction to natural law, called Natural Law for Lawyers.  This book has been part of the Fellows’ curriculum every year since it was written, but I am pleased to announce that in order to make it easier for other readers to obtain, I’ve just made it available through, both as a Kindle electronic book and as an on-demand paperback.

Of all of my books on the subject, this one is the fastest read.  Despite the title, it’s not just for lawyers and would-be lawyers, but for anyone interested in natural law.  Here is the Table of Contents, and here is a sample.

Here are a few endorsements:

“J. Budziszewski has done it again.  This lean, lively, and compelling book may be one of the best introductions to classical Natural Law ever written.  It is certainly the best such introduction for lawyers. This swift and sure survey combines history and argument so that the reader not only knows how we got to where we are, but what the way out of the woods is.  A splendid achievement.” -- Ralph McInerny, professor emeritus, School of Law, University of Notre Dame

 “This readable book will tell a lawyer two things about the Natural Law:  That everyone ‘practices’ it whether he knows it or not, and that it makes no ultimate sense apart from its Lawgiver who wrote it in our minds and hearts because He loves us.” -- Charles E. Rice, professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame Law School

“J. Budziszewski distinctly understands and recognizes the importance of higher law and the vital role it played in the foundation for and establishment of the American legal system.  His book is a valuable tool in the struggle to recover original intent and founding principles in American jurisprudence and defend our First Liberty—religious freedom.” – Alan Sears, President, CEO, and General Counsel emeritus, Alliance Defense Fund

“J. Budziszewski is our finest modern exponent of Natural Law, the guide to moral right and wrong that we can’t do without, because it is written on our hearts.  I enthusiastically recommend this learned, charming, and lucid book for lawyers, for people who despise lawyers, and for everyone who knows someone who might someday become a lawyer.” -- Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, professor emeritus, School of Law, University of California at Berkeley


My other books



Evangelicals in the Public Square RIDES AGAIN

Wednesday, 07-24-2019



I use your book Evangelicals in the Public Square, about the formative influences on Evangelical political activism, in a course I teach at an Evangelical college.  However, the book is no longer in print.  Though I'm trying to figure out a way to keep it in the course, if it is really unavailable I'll need to replace it with something else – which isn’t easy.  Have you considered making it available as an electronic book, such as a Kindle?



Yes, a lot of teachers and pastors have asked me whether Evangelicals in the Public Square could be brought back into print.  I am glad to tell you that I’ve been able to convert the book into both a Kindle and an on-demand paperback.  They just went live this morning.

It took some time to get the permissions transferred and convert the books, but I’m very glad you suggested this – thank you! – and I hope it will help your students.  Now I’m trying to do the same thing with another of my out-of-print books, Natural Law for Lawyers.  Stay tuned!

Here is a little background for those unfamiliar with Evangelicals in the Public Square:

Since colonial days, Evangelical Protestant Christians have been conspicuous in the American public square. Although we sometimes think of their low profile during the early twentieth century as the norm, it was actually a short-lived exception.  Conventional wisdom dates their re-entry into public affairs to the spectacular rise of the fundamentalist Religious Right in the 1970s, but this view is misleading in several ways.  In the first place, fundamentalists make up only a part of the Evangelical movement.  In the second, Evangelicals had re-entered the public square at least a generation earlier.  If a marker is needed, we might use the founding, in 1941, of the National Association of Evangelicals, a self-consciously "New Evangelical" organization -- new in its contrast with fundamentalism, but old in its desire to engage the civic culture.

Unfortunately, although Evangelicals have long played a part in the public square, they have never developed a clear, cohesive, and Christian view of what politics is all about.  According to an old inside joke, their formula is "Ready, Fire, Aim."  Of course one expects sarcasm from foes, but even their friends have remarked the disorderly quality of their political reflection.  Historian Mark Noll, himself an Evangelical, attributes this shallowness to the origins of the Evangelical movement in successive Great Awakenings.  Revivalistic leadership is "direct," "personal," and "popular," depending more than anything else on a speaker's "ability to draw a crowd."   It attempts to "simplify the essentials of religion in a way that gives them the widest possible mass appeal."   The result is that Evangelicals are "intuitionist," trusting their "sanctified common sense," but mistrusting the work of the intellect.

Despite these intuitionist tendencies, the political thought and activity of American Evangelicals have been strongly influenced by various intellectuals, the most noteworthy of whom have been Carl F. H. Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and John Howard Yoder.  Not all four are American, and ironically, not all four are Evangelical.  Neither do they all agree on politics; three of them are more or less on the right, the other firmly on the left.

This book discusses and critiques each of these four thinkers.  Each analysis is followed by a response from an Evangelical specialist on the thinker in question (respectively David L. Weeks, John Bolt, William Edgar, and Ashley Woodiwiss).  A graceful afterword is offered from the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Lutheran who called herself a “friendly outsider.”


I Have Changed, Therefore I Exist

Monday, 07-22-2019


From a student:

I like learning about natural law, but the theory of it involves a certain amount of metaphysics, and I’m scared of metaphysics.  A friend of mine wrote an essay for another course, in which he denied the persistence of personal identity.  According to my friend, since some things about me have changed during the last two years, the me of today isn’t the same as the me of two years ago.  We are literally two different persons.  This is deeply disturbing.



I would find that conclusion disturbing too.  But wait – if my personal identity has no persistence, then how could “I” find it disturbing?

The problem with your friend’s argument isn’t metaphysical reasoning, but flawed metaphysical reasoning, and the cure is isn’t avoiding metaphysics, but reasoning about it better.  Many things about you do change, but there must be a real you that persists through the changes.  If that weren’t true, then it wouldn’t even make sense for you to say “I have changed” -- because at the moment of the change, “I” would have ceased to exist.  There wouldn’t be anything that had experienced the change.

This is why the classical tradition distinguishes between things about a being, which do change, and what the being is in itself, which doesn’t change.  An hour ago you were hungry.  Now you’re not.  But what was hungry then, and isn’t now, is you.

Your friend reached the conclusion that frightened you by overlooking this distinction.  Metaphysics is just thinking carefully about what the real world is like.  The only thing to fear is thinking carelessly.

Trust me.  You exist.


Hooking Up High

Monday, 07-08-2019


Needless to say, a man who takes advantage of a woman by having sexual intercourse with her while she doesn’t know what is happening is a rapist, and should be punished to the full extent of the law.  But let’s not talk about that.  Let’s talk about voluntary sex with voluntary drunkenness.

Most people who hook up with strangers – both men and women -- are buzzed when they do it.  In fact, they get buzzed because they intend to hook up. 

Why do they do this?  Does intoxication make sex better?  Of course not; it makes it worse.  So what are the reasons?  I can suggest a few.

One is that hooking up with strangers is actually rather hard to do.  It’s harder for women, but even for men it’s not as easy as one might think.  The truth of the matter is that we aren’t made for sex without relationship.  So you may have to be a little drunk to go through with it.

Another is that people tend to feel guilty about that kind of sex.  If you weren’t quite sober, you can pretend to yourself afterward, “I wasn’t myself.  I wasn’t responsible.”  So to prepare your excuse, you get a little drunk ahead of time.

Want confirmation?  In their study “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right,” sociologists Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt write, “A notable feature of hook ups is that they almost always occur when both participants are drinking or drunk. … A number of students noted that being  drunk  could  later  serve  as  your  excuse  for  the  hook  up.  A  Yale University student said, ‘Some people like hook up because they’re drunk or use being drunk as an excuse to hook up.’

They continue, “A  New York University student observed, ‘[Alcohol is] just part of an excuse, so that you can say, oh, well, I was drinking.’  A Rutgers University student commented, ‘If you’re drinking a lot it’s easier to hook up with someone... [and] drugs, it’s kind of like a bonding thing ... and then if you hook up with them and you don’t want to speak to them again, you can always blame it on the drinking or the drugs.’”

People who really believe there is nothing wrong with how they live don’t need to make excuses for it.  Nor do they need to make their minds too foggy to think about it.  So-called liberation has tied us in knots. 


The Philosophical Effects of Broken Homes

Monday, 07-01-2019


We should always reason logically, but right reason isn’t just about logical arguments.  The pain of growing up in a broken home deeply affects how some of my students think about the natural laws of marriage, family, and sexuality.  Sometimes they draw the wrong lessons.

One young man told me that he longed for a loving, faithful, and permanent marriage, but his own mother and father hadn’t managed it.  Since he loved them, he simply couldn’t bring himself to think that he would be able to do what they hadn’t been able to.  What he longed for, he concluded, was impossible.  Ironically, his very desire to follow the commandment to honor his parents made him despair of following the one about being faithful forever to his wife.

On the other hand, some of my students react strongly against the notion that honor really is owed to mothers and fathers.  Intensely and persistently, they ask what kind of honor could be owed to bad parents.  Their challenge doesn’t have the feel of a hypothetical thought experiment.  One cannot help but think that some of them are thinking of their own mothers or fathers, or perhaps about the parents of persons close to them.

At the other end of this spectrum of feelings, a young woman in one of my classes found it difficult to accept the ideal of marriage as an enduring union between the mother and father just because she was so fiercely protective of her own mother, who had raised her alone with no help.  It seemed to her that to say that a child needs both a Mom and a Dad was a slur on her own beloved Mom – until she talked with her Mom about it and discovered that Mom didn’t agree.  Yes, her mother told her, it would have been better and easier had her father had been there to help, but she had never before spoken with the girl about it.

And then there was the student who sadly wrote about being born out of wedlock, “I am just a product of a violation of the natural law.”  That kind of statement breaks my heart.

I answered her, “No natural law thinker would ever say that about you.  Every human being is a person, a who, not just a what.  Thomas Aquinas rightly said that the word person signifies ‘that which is most perfect in all nature.’  The value of a human person cannot be diminished by so much as a feather’s weight just because of the circumstances of his or her conception.”

Mothers and fathers, if you are having difficulties, I hope you will resist the temptation to think of divorce as an escape.  If only you close that door, it will be much easier to work things out.  One day your children will bless you for it.

And although, by itself, the natural law can’t help to follow the natural law, there is also the grace of God.