Sheer Hart Attack: Morality, Rationality, and Theology


Natural law theory makes a very limited, but very important claim—that there is common ground between all human beings, and particularly between religious believers and non-believers, on which moral disagreements can be rationally adjudicated.

In the March issue of First Things, theologian David Bentley Hart was highly critical of natural law theory. The piece got a lot of attention, some positive, some negative. R. J. Snell responded critically here at Public Discourse. I was another of Hart’s critics, and replied to him in an online article for First Things. In the latest issue of First Things, Hart has responded to my criticisms—quite aggressively, though not, it seems to me, effectively.

Before I respond to Hart’s mistakes, let me first clarify several things.

First, natural law theorists make a very limited, but very important claim—that there is common ground among all human beings, and particularly between religious believers and non-believers, on which moral disagreements can be rationally adjudicated. For there are, the natural law theorist claims, objective moral conclusions that can be derived via purely philosophical arguments from premises that in no way presuppose any special divine revelation, religious tradition, or scriptural or ecclesiastical authority.

Second, natural law theorists nevertheless in no way deny that their arguments are controversial, especially in a society that is religiously and philosophically pluralistic. Nor do they deny that religious, aesthetic, and cultural sensibilities shape most people’s moral thinking and practice more than philosophical arguments do.

Third, natural law theorists don’t deny that some moral truths might only be knowable through revelation; nor do they deny that grace may be needed for some to grasp moral truths; nor do they deny that revelation, religious tradition, and ecclesiastical teaching may be necessary to correct some people’s erroneous moral thinking.

That said, allow me to turn to Hart. In my first piece, I claimed that Hart was guilty of several fallacies. His new article repeats some of the same (though he pleads innocent). Worse, where Hart’s arguments are non-fallacious, they are also nonexistent. The article is full of unsupported assertions, put forward in prose so purple that its imperial gravitas is evidently supposed to stand in place of argument.

But assertions without arguments to back them up are like spitballs: Anyone can make them; anyone can fling them; and while they can annoy their target, they draw no blood whatsoever.

Whose Natural Law? Which Revelation?

Perhaps the most glaring of Hart’s fallacies is equivocation. As I noted in my initial reply to Hart, two crucially different approaches today bear the “natural law” label. There is, first, the traditional or “old” natural law theory, which grounds ethics in an Aristotelian metaphysics of formal and final causes and rejects David Hume’s fact/value dichotomy (where one supposedly can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”).

And there is, second, the “new” natural law theory, which doesn’t appeal to a specifically Aristotelian metaphysics and accepts the modern Humean dichotomy. To which approach does Hart object? The old? The new? Both?

In his original piece, Hart referred to “a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory.” It would seem then that he targeted all natural law theorists.

But then he claimed as his specific targets those natural law theorists who have “attempted in recent years . . . particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture” and in “the context of the modern conceptual world.” Naturally, then, we might suspect that he has in mind “new natural law” scholars such as Robert P. George and John Finnis, who have recently been the most visible proponents of natural law in America, and who have accepted aspects of modern philosophy that “old” natural law theorists do not.

Yet Hart also focused his criticisms on those natural law theorists who emphasize that “nature is governed by final causes,” and whose position is at odds with Hume’s fact/value dichotomy—a characterization of natural law theory that fits the “old” approach but not the “new” one. So who exactly was Hart targeting? He assured us that “names are not important,” but for the reasons I gave in my original response, names are in fact crucial, because Hart’s objections seem to have force only if one ignores the differences between the “old” and the “new” approaches to natural law.

Unfortunately, Hart fails to clarify things in his latest piece. Since he says his earlier piece was directed at “a modern form of natural law theory,” it seems he is critiquing the “new” natural lawyers. But he also tries again to critique those accounts of natural law that “require a picture of nature as governed by final causality”—clearly a description of “old” natural law theory. In short, rather than disambiguate his position, he simply reiterates the ambiguity.

Here’s another fatal equivocation Hart makes. As I have said, natural law theorists (whether “old” or “new”) hold that some moral truths can be known via philosophical arguments, apart from special divine revelation.

By “special divine revelation,” I mean truths revealed by God through supernatural means, such as a prophet whose authority is backed by miracles. This is often contrasted with “general revelation,” which is what we can know about God and his will by inference from the natural order, including philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

Since natural law theorists typically hold that God’s existence can be known through such arguments, they also uphold general revelation. Many of them would hold that this “natural theology” must be a part of any complete account of natural law.

Yet this doesn’t contradict their view that much of morality can have a purely philosophical foundation, for two reasons.

First, since morality is grounded in human nature, we can draw a number of moral conclusions from human nature itself without citing God as the ultimate source of human nature—just as we can do chemistry without having to make reference to the fact that God, as cause of the world, is the ultimate source of all chemical phenomena.

Second, even where natural law references God, it references specifically what can be known about God via philosophical arguments, not special revelation. It references what is “supernatural” in the sense of that which exists beyond the natural order as its divine cause, but not in the sense of a miraculous interruption of the ordinary, natural course of things.

This brings us back to Hart, who, against natural law theory, objects that “natural reason [is] merely one mode of revelation, and philosophy merely one (feeble) mode of reason’s ascent into the light of God,” and that “to encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes.”

If what he means is that God is the source of reason and of all natural causes—on which natural law theory, like everything else, depends—then like most natural law theorists I am happy to agree with him. But then we never denied that in the first place. What we denied was that natural law theory needs to appeal to any special revelation, not that it (like everything else) presupposes some truths of general revelation. Hart’s objection has force only insofar as it equivocates on the words “revelation” and “supernatural.”

“All that he had written seemed like straw”

Hart also objects that “most traditional accounts of natural law require a picture of nature as governed by final causality,” yet “in our age . . . final causality is a concept confined within an ever more beleaguered and porous intellectual redoubt.” It is hard to see what the argument here is supposed to be unless it is directed at a straw man.

For one thing, the “new” natural law theory, as I have said, does not appeal to a metaphysics of final causality in the first place.

For another, while the “old” natural law theory does rest on a metaphysics of final causes, its defenders do not assume that they can safely take for granted that such causes are real. On the contrary, they are well aware that the notion of final causality is extremely controversial and that they have to do a lot of heavy philosophical lifting in order to defend it. (That is one reason why, in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas, the reader has to plow through many pages on general metaphysics before he gets to any natural law arguments.)

Again, when the natural law theorist says that much of ethics can be grounded in purely philosophical arguments, he does not mean “non-controversial arguments” or “arguments with widely accepted premises.” So why emphasize that final causality is controversial? Who, exactly, are the natural law theorists who deny that?

Hart also tries to make hay out of the suggestion that nature, being red in tooth and claw, the arena of mass extinctions, diseases, and the like, is for most modern people an implausible standard of goodness. But this too is directed at a straw man, for no natural law theorist claims that nature is a standard of goodness in the sense that this objection requires if it is to have any force.

Natural law theory does not presuppose that the natural world is all good cheer and gumdrops. It takes nature as the standard of goodness in a much more modest and unexciting way, though for that reason in a way that is also much harder to deny.

Consider that what is good for a tree (say), what a tree requires in order to flourish, is determined by what it is to be a tree—that is to say, by its nature. A tree needs to be able to sink roots deep into the soil so that it can absorb nutrients and hold itself erect; it needs to be able to grow healthy leaves and carry out photosynthesis; it needs to be free of termites, and so forth. To the extent that a tree realizes these ends it realizes what is good for it; to the extent that it fails to do so, it fails to realize the good.

Likewise, what is good for a squirrel is determined by its nature, by what it is to be a squirrel. A squirrel needs to be able to gather nuts, to evade predators, to have room to scamper about, and so forth. To the extent that a squirrel either realizes or fails to realize these ends, it achieves or fails to achieve what is good for it.

That any number of trees and squirrels might be wiped out by forest fires, diseases, and mass extinctions doesn’t change this at all—it doesn’t for a moment call into question that what is good for trees and squirrels is in the relevant sense determined by their natures. Even “deracinated moderns” (as Hart calls them) can see that much.

But it is in just that sense that what is good for us is determined by our nature—by what is conducive to realizing the ends that define human flourishing. We need, for example, to realize not only our basic bodily needs, but also those ends distinctive of rational animals—social interaction, knowledge, cultural expression, religious devotion, and so forth. The details are bound to be controversial, since as rational animals we are capable of rationalizing all sorts of behaviors that are pleasurable or otherwise tempting, but are nevertheless contrary to what is good for us given our nature. But the basic idea is neither mysterious nor, when properly understood, nearly as contrary to what the average modern person thinks as Hart supposes.

Let’s Not Argue

As I’ve said, Hart’s article is populated by non-arguments as well as fallacious arguments. Consider this passage:

Consistent natural law cases can be made for or against slavery, for example, or for or against capital punishment, depending on which values one has privileged at a level too elementary for philosophy to adjudicate.

To see what is wrong with this, compare the following parallel claim that one of Hart’s atheistic critics might raise against his own discipline:

Consistent [theological] cases can be made for or against slavery, for example, or for or against capital punishment, depending on which values one has privileged at a level too elementary for [theology] to adjudicate.

Would this claim be a devastating objection against theology as a discipline? I certainly don’t think so, and neither would Hart. For it is, quite obviously, entirely tendentious and indeed question-begging: Any serious defender of theology would hold that competing theological positions vis-à-vis slavery and capital punishment are either not equally consistent, or can be adjudicated at some deeper level of analysis. Certainly any critic of theology has to show that this is not the case, not merely assert that it is not the case.

But the same thing holds for anyone who would raise this criticism against natural law theory. For natural law theorists would, of course, deny that their disagreements are not amenable to philosophical adjudication. They have, after all, given arguments for their positions on capital punishment, slavery, and every other moral issue they address.

Those arguments are part and parcel of the purportedly naïve rationalism for which Hart chides them. So where, exactly, do their competing positions on these various issues reach a rational impasse?

Calling the kettle black, Hart writes: “At some crucial point, natural law argument, pressed to disclose its principles, dissolves into sheer assertion.”

But precisely who, exactly, is reduced to sheer assertion? Thomas Aquinas? Francisco Suarez? Ralph McInerny? John Finnis? Russell Hittinger? Robert P. George?

Pray tell us, Professor Hart, specifically which natural law theorists have been doing this, and where, specifically, the chain of one of their inferences reduces to sheer assertion. Pick just one of these writers, or any other well-known natural law writer you care to—any one of them, and we can go from there. “Names are not important,” Hart assures us. But they are important if one is going to back up assertions with evidence.

Worried, it seems, that his preceding claims haven’t been sufficiently sweeping or overstated, Hart decides near the end of his piece to throw caution into the wood chipper:

Feser asserts that “purely philosophical arguments” can establish “objectively true moral conclusions.” And yet, curiously enough, they never, ever have. That is a bedtime story told to conjure away the night’s goblins, like the Leibnizian fable of the best possible world or the philosophe’s fairy tale about the plain dictates of reason.

Really? Philosophical arguments have “never, ever” established objectively true moral conclusions? Every single philosophical argument anyone has ever given for any moral conclusion, even the least controversial, fails? And fails so manifestly that Hart can safely assume that his claim will elicit a shamefaced concession from his opponents?

Take just some of the many moral principles that are universally, or nearly universally, affirmed: It is bad to cause pain to a newborn for no reason whatsoever; it is good to provide for one’s children; it is bad to punish people who have done nothing wrong; it is good to hold people blameworthy when they have done something wrong; and so forth. Is Hart really suggesting that there is not a single good philosophical argument even for any of these innocuous claims? And (again) that this is so obvious that any reasonable reader will simply nod in agreement?

Since such chutzpah seems unlikely even coming from Hart, let’s interpret him charitably and assume that what he really means is that no philosophical argument has ever convinced everyone. If so, then he is probably right.

But so what? There are few arguments in any field that have convinced everyone. You certainly won’t find theological arguments that have convinced everyone, and there is disagreement even in science. But that an argument does not convince everyone does not entail that it is not a good argument—otherwise I could refute Hart, or anyone else I disagree with, merely by disagreeing with him.

In any event, as I have said, the natural law theorist is not claiming that his arguments are non-controversial, only that they are good arguments and that they do not presuppose special divine revelation.

But then, if Hart has so little faith in the power of rational arguments, it is hardly surprising when he fails to present them, or lapses into fallacy when he tries.

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. His webpage can be found here and his blog here.



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