The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
Although I try to write all my scholarly books in such a way that non-scholars can also understand them, this one may be difficult to follow without a bit of background. Beginners should start with What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, and come back to The Line Through the Heart afterward.
The book is about natural law—about the foundational principles of good and evil inscribed in created human nature. Although it reflects a single point of view, no one could fail to notice that it was put together from essays written at different times. For that reason, it may be helpful to say something about how the chapters fit together. To summarize them would be too much like giving away the ending of a novel. I do think that I ought to “motivate” them. Before even that, the design of the book should be explained, since I may seem to have given birth to Siamese twins—a short book about ethics, joined at the hip with another short book about politics. No, the two parts do make a single book.
One excuse for connecting them is that the study of politics is a branch of the study of ethics. This old claim strikes most people as impractical and unrealistic, not to say bizarre. On the contrary, it is utterly hardheaded. What could be more impractical and unrealistic than to imagine that a bad man can be a great statesman, or that a people can have a wholly different government than it deserves? We may look at the matter from another side too. Ethics is the study of the good, and even a corrupt government rests on some corrupt idea of the good—for example, that the good is gaining power, amassing wealth, or protecting the position of the privileged. The politics of an age may rest on a crumbling foundation derived from a mistaken ethics, but it will have an ethical foundation.
The second excuse for the structure of the book is that it offers a connecting term between its two parts: the concept of law. The foundational principles of good and evil are the natural or moral law; of regime design, constitutional law; and of day-to-day legislative enactment, ordinary law. Some people will consider this emphasis a good and timely thing. After all, despite what Pope Benedict XVI has aptly called the dictatorship of relativism, the natural law tradition is enjoying a certain renewal and refreshment. Other people will consider it a bad and untimely thing. I cannot help that; with two short exceptions, which I take up shortly, the rest of my excuse must be the rest of the book. But this brings us back to the chapters.
Chapter 1, “Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction,” sets the tone. It begins, some would say, as offensively as possible, by quoting the pope himself. These days, much less than a quotation from the Holy Father is enough to give offense, and that fact is very much to the point. One day some years ago I was lecturing to a classroom of undergraduates about the strategies devised by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution for coping with political passion, self-interest, and virtue. Concerning passion, their goals were to avoid arousing it in the first place, and to slow down legislative deliberation in the event that it was aroused. Needing an example of passionate controversy, I mentioned the congressional debate about partial- birth abortion, which was going on at that time. Surprisingly, many of the students were altogether unfamiliar with the issue and asked me to explain. In my most dispassionate voice, I gave a one-sentence, purely clinical definition of the procedure; perhaps I should have realized what would happen. A woman of about thirty years of age, somewhat older than most of the class, began screaming at the top of her lungs. It took me a moment to realize that the shriek was articulate; she was claiming that the procedure was used “only when necessary to save the woman’s life.” Besides being false, this claim was beside the point, for I had not even raised issues like when it was used or whether it could ever be necessary. But saying so was no use (I tried). Relief came only when I remarked to the rest of the class, “Now you know why the Framers were concerned about strong passions”—at which point the young woman abruptly fell into silence. Apparently, people can be driven to hysteria by the mere act of defining the things which they say they approve. Doesn’t this fact raise questions about the human heart, and therefore about natural law? I think so. The chapter explores these questions.
Chapters 2 and 3, “The Second Tablet Project” and “Nature Illuminated,” take up the relation between the knowledge of good and the knowledge of God, along with the relation between what our minds require revelation to know and what they can know without it. Some thinkers drive a wedge between the first tablet of the Decalogue (duties to God) and the second (duties to neighbor). In fact they drive two wedges. The first wedge is the idea that although we can find out basic morality by reasoning, reason tells us nothing about God. The second wedge, which is much more intriguing, is the idea that ignorance of God does no harm to the knowledge of morality anyway—that our grip on, say, “Thou shalt not steal” is just as firm even if we lose our grip on “Thou shalt put no other gods before Me.” Together, these two ideas give rise to the ill-starred project of trying to get by with the second tablet alone, a project which I criticize in Chapter 2. The further question of what revelation adds to the conclusions of reason is touched upon in Chapter 2, and deepened in Chapter 3.
The theme of the fourth chapter, “The Natural, the Connatural, and the Unnatural,” is the mystery of how things that seem to run against the grain of human nature can become “second nature”—how we can become habituated to seeking the good in ways that are destructive to our good—and what this does to our rationality. I confess that classroom experiences add poignancy to this topic, too. For example, there was the day when I was explaining to philosophy students the concept of natural teleology—that human powers and experiences have inbuilt purposes and indwelling meanings which we discover and do not invent. Two students in the back asked what view Saint Thomas Aquinas would have taken of certain fashionable uses of the sexual powers. I proposed that they reflect on the inbuilt purposes of these powers and work it out logically. The discussion proceeded very calmly and reasonably until, at the very point when it reached its conclusion, a young woman in the front began to weep, sobbing out a plaint about how hurtful and uncompassionate it is to “judge” and “condemn” people. Sensitive to the claims of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, I explained as gently as I could that no one was being judged; the question of condemnation had not even come up. But surely, I said, true compassion requires caring for the true good of other persons. If so, then to exercise compassion toward them it is not enough to know what they wish; one must find out whether their wishes are truly good. As this drama unfolded, I was acutely aware that whether I could explain compassion to the young woman was incomparably less important than whether I could show it to her. Only God knows whether I succeeded, but this returns us to the point. Wouldn’t one think that teaching would be merely the presentation of logical arguments? I have not found it to be such. The reasons for this deserve much more attention from natural lawyers than they receive. It isn’t enough that one’s philosophy is about human beings. It must be capable of being addressed to them in all of their humanity and brokenness. Yet this too reflects something about our nature, does it not?
The fifth chapter, “Accept No Imitations: Naturalism vs. Natural Law,” takes up so-called evolutionary psychology, also called evolutionary ethics. At the bottom of the discussion is an idea widely current among scientists, general readers, and not a few philosophers that natural law is just biology in fancy dress. There is something to the notion; teleology is more at home in biology, which deals with organisms—interdependent structures of purposes—than in other branches of science, which deal merely with processes. Moreover, the meaning of human actions doesn’tpush aside the organic purposes of the powers they employ, rather it builds on them. We share in the biological purpose of sex because we are animals; we share in the human meaning which supervenes upon this purpose because we are not merely animals, but animals with rational souls. Rationality raises everything biological to a higher level. One might say that it makes the body not less significant, but more. But here we run into a problem. An atheist can certainly recognize natural purposes and meanings; nothing prevents him from agreeing that eyes are for seeing, legs for walking, or kisses for showing affection. But he has no answer to the “So what?” question. If nature has no Author, then these natural purposes and meanings have no authority. Why shouldn’t he violate these purposes and meanings? If he saves all his kisses for mockery, so what? If he puts out his eyes to play Lear, so what? We might have evolved differently; our indwelling meanings are really meaningless; our inbuilt purposes are really purposeless. The genes are just another vile jelly. Out, out! I suggest that this outlook is dreadfully mistaken, and that the milder versions of naturalistic reductionism are mistaken, too.
Part II turns to politics—politics in the broadest sense, the organization of our common life. Aristotle recognized that one of the first questions of our common life is, “Who is a citizen?” But one must be a person to be a citizen, and so the more fundamental question is, “Who is a person?” This controversy, the topic of the sixth chapter, “Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Whom?” has obsessed two generations. One of my own teachers, lo these many years ago, held that the state may intervene to protect a born child, but not to protect a fetus. His reasoning was simple: If a child is not properly cared for, then when he grows up he will be incompetent to function as a citizen. By contrast, aborted fetuses present us with no such problem, for the simple reason that they will never grow up. I never understood why my teacher cut his argument short. Why restrict it to fetuses? Since his sole stated object was to keep from having to deal with incompetent adults, he should have reasoned that although we should not mistreat people who are already grown up, it would be perfectly licit to kill infants, toddlers, and adolescents. Today, those who take his side of the question go even further. The fashion is to say that although we may not deliberately take the lives of innocent persons, not all humans are persons—not even all adults. The question for them is not who shares in the community of human nature, but simply which of those who share in it shall be suffered to go on living. Not many ordinary people realize that this is already the shape that the question has taken in law courts, hospital ethics boards, and other councils where certain people decide whether others are people at all.
I anticipate that some readers of the sixth chapter may be surprised by the seventh, “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice.” A fashion on my own side of the question of human personhood is to say that it is always wrong to take life—that abortion, capital punishment, just war, and presumably self-defense are each wrong, always wrong, and wrong for all the same reasons. Against this “seamless garment” view, I defend the older tradition that the evil of murder lies in taking innocent life. Abortion, therefore, is different than the others. In particular, capital punishment has a necessary though limited place—not despite the sacredness of life, but because of it. Some thinkers in my own communion mistakenly plead the authority of the Church against this view. On the contrary, the papal magisterium has lately emphasized not that capital punishment is always wrong, but that under rightly ordered institutions it should be rare. And surely this teaching is true. Its much-neglected corollary is the importance of seeing to it that our institutions are ordered rightly. Presently, the various parts of the system of justice work at cross-purposes.
The next two chapters turn from the most basic concerns addressed by human law—human life and personhood—to human law itself. Someone who reads only the eighth chapter, “Constitution vs. Constitutionalism,” might think that I want to do away with the Constitution; someone who reads only the ninth, “Constitutional Metaphysics,” might think that I regard it as sacrosanct. Neither view would be correct. The Constitution is worthy of high esteem, but we should also acknowledge its flaws. Whereas the former chapter concerns the fact that we aren’t sufficiently on our guard about it, the latter concerns the fact that we don’t sufficiently cherish what is good about it either. A certain difficulty chafes those who try to discuss it at all. As George Carey has explained, serious efforts to teach and understand what the Constitution meant to those who wrote and enacted it will inevitably seem partisan. In a sense they are. Those of us who speak of these things have different commitments than the proponents of a “living Constitution,” which means a Constitution that means whatever they say it means. We are no more “neutral” than they are; we are only more objective. A fair examination of the founding documents does not support the claim of such proponents to fulfill the original meaning of these texts, so they must ultimately take refuge in hocus pocus like “non-interpretivism.” A fair presentation of their goals shows them at war with the natural law, so they must ultimately speak jabberwocky about a “different” natural law that authorizes everyone to invent his own interpretation of reality. For a while people can be overawed by such incantations, but eventually they say, “I don’t get it—it seems like smoke and mirrors.” At that point one can say, “It is,” and show them the mirrors, if only they are willing to look. It seems a terrible waste of time that so much of our teaching must be unteaching, that so much our effort must be expended just to prepare for Lesson One. All things considered, however, we do well to reach Lesson One—if we do reach it. Certainly the Federalists and Anti-Federalists reached no further. Let us be humble and grateful.
The final chapter, “The Illiberal, Liberal Religion,” returns to the problem broached in this introduction, the relation between the City of Man and the City of God. Here especially I risk the charge that I’ve “left off philosophizing and gone to meddling.” According to a certain interpretation of the history of recent centuries, credit for the achievement of relatively peaceful relations among the religions in places like the United States belongs largely to the practice of religious toleration. I don’t dispute this claim; indeed I hold that proper toleration and respect for the dignity of conscience are duties of natural law. What I do challenge is a double distortion of history which is usually bundled up with the claim. One side of this distortion concerns who discovered toleration; the other concerns what toleration really is. The idea that this virtue was discovered in modern times is an outstanding example of what happens when celebrities start believing their own press releases (in this case, celebrities in the history of ideas). What modernity did eventually develop was not the virtue of religious toleration as such, but a new, incoherent, and less than candid theory of it—along with certain new modes of religious oppression.
I have little doubt that this preface has already provoked certain objections. Allow me to anticipate two. One is an objection to the book’s focus on natural law; the other is to the way the book discusses it.
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, all of the new and interesting arguments are being made by theists—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 revelationconcerning 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.