Natural Law is neither Useless nor Dangerous: A Response to Hart and Potemra


A recent claim to reject the natural law for its uselessness and false claims to neutrality misunderstands the first-personal perspective of contemporary natural law. The second in a two-part series.

In yesterday’s Public Discourse essay, I argued that David Bentley Hart and Michael Potemra appear fundamentally to misunderstand the metaphysical and epistemological workings of contemporary natural-law theory—their objections engage straw men. In spite of those clarifications, Hart could still claim that natural law is (1) useless, failing to persuade anyone not already on board, and (2) dangerous, perpetuating a fraudulent claim of liberal neutrality and peacefulness.

The Performative Undeniability of Natural Law

As I explained yesterday, natural-law theorists do not hold that moral knowledge is innate, intuitive, or easy. Even self-evident principles require acts of understanding by the intellect. And these principles do not let us leap over the reasoning necessary for morally upright choices in concrete actions. Natural-law thinking still requires thinking that can go wrong or be misunderstood in any number of ways.

Perhaps, however, this clarification feeds the objection, for the harder and less obvious natural-law reasoning is, the less useful it might appear. Am I not derailing its supposed force, objectivity, and universality when I insist that natural law needs to be understood, grasped by insight into our reasons for action?

Well, it depends on how objectivity and universality are characterized. Ethics, as John Finnis suggests in Fundamentals of Ethics, is practical rather than theoretical, which is why it does not begin with physics or metaphysics but with our own activity of seeking purposes, satisfying desires, and pursuing objectives. We begin by doing, by engaging in practical reasoning and then reflexively understanding “the full human good by attending to the sort of good” that one is already seeking.

So, too, for Martin Rhonheimer, ethics develops from a reflexive attending to what we are already doing (not what we have already known theoretically or metaphysically from nature), but adverting to what we desire and seek when we deliberate and choose. We start, then, from the perspective of subjectivity (certainly not the “objectivity” of a distant observer of nature “out there”), and it is our own practical subjectivity that provides the data for us to understand.

For Finnis, understanding that we neither “read” morality off of an observed and external nature, nor “peer” into our own nature to see morality immediately, may require something of an “intellectual conversion” by which we come to understand that knowledge is not attained by intuition—either empirical or intellectual—but by “reflecting on one’s own wanting, deciding and acting . . . by understanding human acts . . . by understanding their object(ive)s.” That is, rejecting a naïve empiricism in favor of the genuinely human knowledge of the internal point of view may require a significant development in a person’s understanding of moral knowledge.

The objectivity proper to the first-personal standpoint explains, I suggest, why natural law is neither obvious nor provable, but also why it cannot coherently be denied. Just as the principle of non-contradiction cannot be proven but cannot be denied without depending on the principle of non-contradiction, so too is the denial of the basic human goods operationally or performatively contradictory.

That is, there may not be a logical contradiction in saying “I do not value truth,” but there is a contradiction between the statement and those operations of intellect by which I decide it is valuable for me to explain why truth is not valuable. But this can be understood by the doing and subsequent reflection on the doing of practical reasoning.

All that need be accessed is that which we already have and which we cannot deny without absurdity, namely, that we experience ourselves, from within (so to speak) as wanting, as desirous, as seeking, or, as Hart so movingly articulates it in The Beauty of the Infinite, as having “interior dynamism,” “restless mutability,” “striving,” and “yearning.” While Hart operates within a theological aesthetics and metaphysics of creation far richer than is available to natural law, still this correlates to the more minimal claim that we access ourselves as “our souls open out” in restless pursuit of what we seek. He affirms precisely what the natural lawyers indicate: our restless hunt for the good.

Consequently, it is not the case, as Hart claims, that “only the total spiritual conversion” of a skeptic’s “vision of reality could truly change his thinking.” There need not be a fundamental change of metaphysical horizons, supernatural convictions, or religious beliefs; the only requirement is for persons of practical reason to meet themselves, perhaps for the first time, and to pay attention to what they are doing. Perhaps they do not wish to meet themselves, perhaps they will not understand themselves, and perhaps they will misapply what they’ve come to understand—all that is accepted by the natural lawyers, for the natural law is the order of human reason in all its humanness.

Natural Law and the Modern Conceptual World

Hart stresses the uniqueness of the Christian narrative’s non-violent metaphysics. While liberalism purports neutrality, he suspects instead that public reason and neutrality are hidden power grabs, and any attempt to play by liberal rules is either complicit or duped, but fraudulent in either case.

Hart is not alone in thinking that natural law necessarily will be colonized by the alien standards of a liberalism that claims ownership over everything, masking its totalizing tendencies in the façade of neutrality—this is a fairly common objection. Since some forms of liberalism require setting aside comprehensive visions of the world—religious, metaphysical, or moral claims about the purpose of life or human fulfillment—in favor of reasonability as liberalism defines it, the acceptance of neutrality grants to liberalism the right to define what counts as reasonable.

Liberal neutrality makes all the rules, and any attempt to play by its rules is already for religion to understand itself from the liberal standpoint rather than from its own self-interpretation. Doing so makes religion tame, a servant of empire, forcing capitulation before the alien and hostile divinity of the state.

Some responses to this line of argument are well known and obvious, as, for instance, the historical role of natural law in disrupting the state’s claim to omnicompetence: Augustine’s explanation of why an unjust law is no law at all, a distinction used with “untamed” clarity in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the School of Salamanca’s defense of natural dignity, Lincoln’s abolition of slavery, John Paul II’s rejection of the culture of death, and Benedict XVI’s rejection of the tyranny of relativism, to hardly scratch the surface. Central themes in John Paul’s and Benedict’s papacies were human reason’s capacity to know moral truth, and the necessity for politics to by guided by this truth.

But even if we overlook that history, suspiciously discounting natural law’s capacity for dissent, critique, and non-compliance, and even if we grant the colonizing tendencies of the troubling aspects of liberalism, we find there is something in what Hart terms the “modern conceptual apparatus” that recognizes the dignity of the human person because of, not in spite of, modern thought, particularly because of the first-personal standpoint, what John Paul II called the perspective of the acting person.

Beginning from practical reason is to begin with a concern for purpose, for value, for the good. Not only does the first-personal perspective entail purpose and direction in particulars, but also for the whole, for the good of the subject that I am. In opposition to the worst excesses of narcissistic liberalism, the perspective of natural law reveals a person dwelling in the field of responsibility, where responsible choice, or agency, is always operative.

The first-personal perspective is a form of moral pedagogy, not merely a decision-rendering calculus. This shows that we are subjects for whom the question of value can matter, and thus that agency—whether of myself or of another—is not a matter of indifference. As Charles Taylor articulates it, it is only because I am a person who evaluates, who occupies the moral space in which my perspective as a moral subject matters, that the good can matter, and only because the good matters can “I define an identity for myself that is not trivial.”

That is, the perspective of the first-personal agent, the moral actor, which is the perspective of contemporary natural-law theory, quite contrary to the description Hart provides, is the perspective in which value emerges for the person, as does the value of persons for whom value emerges.

At a time when our anthropology tends toward the reductive and our vision tends toward the trivial, and when liberalism is used as an excuse for the superficial, the trite, and the self-indulgent, a stance revealing the person and his or her ineluctable linkage to value and significance is an enormous accomplishment, even a way, to borrow a phrase, by which to heal liberalism from within. Even if every moral dilemma is not thereby solved with a snap and all detractors exposed as wickedly ignorant.

In a sense, then, I’ll grant that natural law is not neutral, if by neutrality we mean valueless, for the starting point of subjectivity, a starting point which cannot be denied without the deepest contradiction, is the starting point of value, of human value. And of course there’s no point in denying that the way we interpret such value will be culturally laden; but still, there is neutrality accessible to all if by this we mean we can encounter ourselves, encounter practical reason, which is the way we live and move and have our being in the world.

Always, and for everyone.

R. J. Snell is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the philosophy program at Eastern University.


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