The Commoners' Road
By J. Budziszewski, July 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

An intriguing question came up during one of the vigorous discussions after my presentation at ISI's American Studies Center Summer Institute at Princeton on June 21.  The presentation was an introduction to the classical natural law tradition.  I had explained that the theories we call classical take a "thick" view of natural law, always weaving together four different sources of moral knowledge -- as I like to call them, four witnesses.  These are: 


  1.  Deep conscience or synderesis (as distinguished from surface conscience or conscientia);
  3.  Sheer recognition that the human person has a constitution, a meaningful order, a design;
  5.  Observation of the principles of this design, for example sexual complementarity; and
  7.  The natural consequences of violation.


Thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and the last and current pope are all more or less congenial to the thick view.  I also put Aristotle and Cicero in this camp, because even though they are a little hazy about the first witness, they have an inkling of it.  Non-classical natural law theorists like Hobbes and Pufendorf are more or less hostile to the thick view; they acknowledge one or two witnesses, but at the expense of the others.  Thinkers like Grotius and Locke are ambivalent, blowing sometimes hot and sometimes cold.

Two lines of questioning might be pursued.  One is to ask whether all four witnesses are valid.  Assuming their validity, the other is to ask whether all four are helpful in conversation with the morally disoriented people with whom we share the public square.  The latter question is the one that came up.

Interestingly, though most of the participants suspected that some witnesses would be more helpful than others, they differed among themselves about which ones are likely to be helpful.  One group wanted to appeal only to deep conscience, because it is basic and spontaneous.  Another was more sympathetic to the two witnesses of design, because they show why only certain kinds of lives can flourish.  A third preferred to talk only about natural consequences, because liberal secularists get hung up on conscience and teleology.

My own view is that such strategies of engagement are partly quite right, but also partly wrong.  As a matter of timing, they make excellent sense.  I ought to begin conversation with the points my neighbor grasps already.  Even so there are two problems.  One is that different people don't always find the same points easy to grasp; the best place to begin speaking with Felicia may be the worst place to begin speaking with Felix.  Moreover, I shouldn't assume that just because Felicia and I begin with point A, point A is the only point we will have to discuss.  Each of the four witnesses implicates and interpenetrates each of the others.  In fact, whenever we push one of the four witnesses out the front door, it creeps in through the back door in disguise -- a point that "thin" theories of natural law never reckon with.

Suppose we stake everything on the witness of deep conscience.  Unfortunately, by itself deep conscience is underspecified.  It can get us to principles that would hold equally well for humans and rational Martians, such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but in order to know what I should have others do unto me, I have to know how we humans are different from Martians -- we require the society of other persons, we have two sexes rather than one or three, our young pass through childhood rather than hatching out fully mature, and so forth.  Already that brings in the second and third witnesses, and the fourth is not far behind.

Suppose we put all our eggs in the basket of design.  This time the problem is double.  In the first place, if we are going to take teleology seriously, then we must include the teleology of the moral intellect.  That reintroduces the witness of deep conscience.  In the second place, if we are going to discuss the fact that we must honor our design in order to flourish, then it is hard to see how we can avoid talking about what happens when we don't honor it.  That reintroduces the witness of the natural consequences of our actions.

Finally, suppose we try to speak solely about natural consequences.  Alas, there is no "solely."  Medical consequences make sense only in the light of bodily teleology; social consequences make sense only in the light of social teleology; noetic consequences, such as guilty knowledge, make sense only in the light of the teleology of conscience.  Besides, without such consideration we lose the distinction between natural and arbitrary consequences.  Without this distinction we can no longer explain what is wrong with seeking "systems so perfect that no one will need to be good."

Other recipes for making moral conversation easier than it really is suffer similar drawbacks.  For example, you might try to avoid mentioning that troublesome personage, God.  Good luck.  Should the conversation go on long enough, your counterpart will mention Him whether you do or not.  Worse, he is likely to think that you are up to something -- and with good reason.  The experience of conscience inevitably raises questions about the authority of its maker; the experience of ourselves as a meaningful order raises questions about the source of its meaning; and, perhaps most surprisingly, the sting of natural consequences provokes complaints about divine justice.

That last fact is likely to seem odd.  You wouldn't expect anyone to reproach the justice of God unless the question of God's existence had already been broached.  Real conversations turn out to be more surprising, more labyrinthine, and more mysterious.  Fallen man wants to be a god himself.  The system of natural consequences keeps getting in the way.  This goads him to resentment, and it seems he cannot help but feel that someone is to blame.  Don't blame me for that; I am only the reporter.  It is almost as though he reasoned, "I can't have my way; life is unjust; therefore there is a God."  He keeps on acting as though he thought this way, even while arguing that God does not exist.

Make no mistake:  A grasp of natural law is a sine qua non of moral conversation.  We should resist the academic urge to make the conversation harder than it is, because at some level the four witnesses make their appeal to every human being.  Yet we should also resist the impatient urge to oversimplify.  When King Ptolemy demanded of Euclid a simpler way to learn mathematics, Euclid replied, "There is no Royal Road to geometry."  Neither is there a Royal Road to moral sanity.  The road is the same for commoners and kings, and there are no short cuts along the way.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Jul 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm

This is an elegant explanation of classical natural law theory, which is useful for those who are not familiar with the tradition.

about the author

J. Budziszewski
J. Budziszewski

Dr. Budziszewski (Ph.D. Yale, 1981) is a professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.  An authority on natural law, he is especially interested in moral self-deception -- how we tell ourselves that we don't know what we really do.  He also studies problems that arise at the four-way intersection of political and ethical philosophy and theology, for example the status of natural law in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; the relation between faith and reason; the problem of religious toleration; the incoherence of liberal "neutrality"; and whether the old saw that civil society is more secure on the "law but solid" ground of selfishness than on civic virtue is true or false (can we really have a better government than we deserve?).

Author of numerous articles in both scholarly and popular periodicals, Dr. Budziszewski also has numerous books to his credit, including Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997, winner of a 1998 book award from Christianity Today), The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (1999), What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (2003), Evangelicals in the Public Square (2006), and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (2009). His newest work, On the Meaning of Sex, will be published in November 2011 by ISI Books.