By Steven McGuire, August 19, 2010 in Publishing and Research, ISI in the News
J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books)
Reviewed by Steven McGuire
It’s not too often that one tunes into C-SPAN and hears the words “natural law.” Politicians don’t appeal to it, reporters don’t ask about it, and pundits don’t call for it. The natural law is simply not a part of the political lingo in contemporary American society. The situation is more or less the same throughout most of the academy: professors don’t teach it, students don’t learn it, and administrators don’t assess for it. No wonder, then, that appeals to the natural law ring so hollow in the ears of our contemporaries. We simply don’t live within the language of the natural law anymore. But does that mean we no longer live within the natural law itself? According to J. Budziszewski, the answer is and must be no: ‘There is a difference between saying that the ideology people hold no longer gives adequate expression to the law which Saint Paul says is “written on their hearts,” and saying that it is not in fact written on their hearts.’ Thus, in his new book, The Line Through the Heart, Budziszewski attempts to show us how the natural law continues to illuminate the ethical and political dimensions of human existence today despite our best efforts to ignore it.
As Budziszewski himself says, the first chapter “sets the tone” for the volume: every chapter in the book reflects his conviction that the natural law is a fact, a theory, and a sign of contradiction. It is a fact in that it is real, we know it, and we can’t change it. It is a theory because we can reflect on our pre-theoretical knowledge of the natural law and attempt to develop a systematic account of it. Finally, it’s a sign of contradiction: the natural law is a scandal, it angers us because it confronts us. These themes explain not only Budziszewksi’s framework for his analysis of natural law, but also the attitude he adopts as an author. He expects to offend and he doesn’t shy away from it; he almost seems to revel in it. The natural law is controversial, it challenges us, and Budziszewski wants to do the same. Most everyone should be offended by something Budziszewski says in this book—and that makes for a highly enjoyable and worthwhile read.
The book is divided into two sections, one on moral theory and the other on politics. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the relationship between knowledge of the natural law and knowledge of God and revelation, while chapter 4 discusses the problem of how what is unnatural can seemingly become natural for human beings. In chapter 5, Budziszewski offers a critique of the reductionism of the naturalism that is so popular among contemporary philosophers. Chapters 6 through 10 make up the second part of the book dealing with politics. They address the meaning and nature of personhood, justice and capital punishment, the relationship between natural law and the American constitution, and the non-neutrality of liberalism as an ideology. All together, the book presents a well-informed and stimulating discussion of the natural law.
Two themes that pervade the book warrant particular attention here because of their implications for American politics and liberalism more generally. The first is Budziszewksi’s suggestion that we should not rely on natural law without reference to God or even biblical revelation. In Chapter 2, Budziszewski calls into question what he calls the “Second Tablet Project,” essentially the attempt to maintain that we have natural knowledge of the moral law without conceding that we have natural knowledge of God. Budziszewski argues that this project demonstrates its own failure as the “Second Tablet Project so often turns into a No Tablet Project.” The first tablet is the anchor that holds the second in place. Budziszewski also discusses how revealed knowledge of God supports our understanding of the natural law, and in chapter 3 he extends the discussion to an exploration of the relationship between reason and revelation in general. Again, although Budziszewski certainly wants to maintain that we can know the natural law through natural reason, he concludes that reason without revelation leaves us in a precarious state:
That was the Enlightenment’s project. Little by little, natural law thinkers scrubbed from their little cups of theory whatever grime of influence might have remained from the centuries of faith, whatever benefit they might have gained from the teacher’s help. First went the idea of nature; then the idea of law; finally, in our day, the idea of thinking the truth. In the end they found that they had scoured away the ground that they were standing on.
Does this mean, then, that Americans must recognize the “supremacy of God,” as Canadians do? Budziszewski seems to suggest that they should—and not only privately, but politically.
This becomes clear through the second important theme that deserves mention: the idea that the American Constitution should be judged under the light of higher principles and, specifically, the natural law. Thus, in chapter 8 Budziszewski warns against the potential for the Constitution to undermine the principle of constitutionalism itself: by giving the power of interpretation to the courts, the Constitution enables judges to interpret what it says in “extravagant ways,” and thus “the very instrument ordained to insure the sober rule of law comes instead to advance the arrogant rule of men—men who hold office as judges.” The upshot is that the principle of constitutionalism must be defended against the Constitution—or at least against certain ways in which the Constitution has been interpreted. In chapter 9, Budziszewski wades into even more controversial waters as he argues that we must not shy away from the metaphysics that underwrites the constitution. He claims that “the Constitution’s strange silence about natural law does not show that the Framers were in doubt about its reality.” Even more controversially, he contends that the courts should (or even that they must) have recourse to the principles of natural law: ‘courts should be granted authority to refuse to render judgment on grounds that the legislative act violates basic principles of the natural law such as “do not murder” and “punish only the guilty.” But courts should not be granted authority to refuse to render judgment when the only violations that are alleged concern remote implications of such basic principles.’ Especially when considered in light of Budziszewksi’s views on the relationship between natural law and revelation, this amounts to a call for a much more theological regime than many Americans would be comfortable with.
The book offers these and many other intriguing discussions, and it rarely disappoints, but it does have its weaknesses. For instance, the topics addressed in chapters 6 and 7, personhood and capital punishment, seem to demand more thorough treatments than the ones offered by Budziszewski. A critique need not be aimed at the positions Budziszewski stakes out. He may well be right in the end, but the chapters do not convince as arguments for his positions. For example, in the chapter on personhood, Budziszewski appeals to the concept of “natural kinds” to explain why human beings who do not fully manifest their rationality (i.e., children, the mentally ill, the unborn, etc.) are still persons. Fair enough, but isn’t that precisely what is at issue in debates over the nature of personhood? The problem is that Budziszewski merely asserts this idea against his opponents. He explains it as a concept, but he doesn’t adequately explain why it is right.
The chapter on capital punishment is also unconvincing. Budziszewski does not adequately respond to John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, and thus does not make a strong argument against the possible needlessness of capital punishment in modern industrial societies. Moreover, his arguments against Cardinal Avery Dulles’s analysis (to which much of the chapter is devoted) are not always persuasive. For instance, responding to Dulles’s contention that the possibility of erroneous conviction is a considerable argument against capital punishment, Budziszewski contends that Dulles expects an unreasonable degree of certainty. Perhaps, but Budziszewksi’s recourse to the possibility of a Cartesian juror who votes for acquittal because he can’t be sure that the world is not an illusion does not really dispense with Dulles’s position.
These criticisms aside, the book is well worth reading. Budziszewski offers a vigorous and informative defense of the natural law as an ongoing concern in contemporary ethics and politics. The language of natural law is not prominent in our society, but Budziszewski makes as good a case as any for why it should be. Moreover, he writes in a highly accessible style so that just about any educated person should be able to pick up this book and learn from it. And if Budziszewksi’s goal was to be controversial, then surely the book must be judged a success: just about any modern man who reads this book will understand what it means to call the natural law a sign of contradiction.