Conservatives, America, and Natural Law


For conservatives, a retreat into self-imposed isolation isn’t a responsible option. We need more conservatives publicly witnessing that humans are wired to know and freely choose truth, and that this has implications for the political order.

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Recent months have witnessed an emerging debate among some American conservatives, especially religiously-informed conservatives and, even more specifically, Catholic conservatives. This debate concerns how they can (and, in some cases, whether they should even attempt to) engage in a public square that seems ever more rooted in modern liberal presuppositions and preoccupations.

At the risk of oversimplification, in one corner are those perhaps best described as “MacIntyrians,” after the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his seminal book After Virtue (1981). They suggest that modern liberalism’s advance in the academy and the wider culture (especially the media) is now so pronounced that it’s rendering any alternative shaping of the public square extremely difficult. Some even hold that aspects of the American experiment, by which they appear to mean a type of Lockean materialism, were bound to eventually marginalize alternative arguments.

In the other camp are those who might be called “Murrayites.” Named after the Jesuit philosopher John Courtney Murray and his equally important text We Hold These Truths (1960), this group readily acknowledges that American intellectual and popular culture is in very bad shape. They aren’t, however, convinced that the American experiment is either down-and-out or irredeemably flawed. Instead, they maintain that much of the American Founding continues to provide a sound general context for religious conservatives to make and advance their political, social, economic, and national security positions.

The significance of this discussion, however, goes far beyond the world of Catholic conservatives. Its wider importance—not just for Catholics but also other conservative-minded Christians, Jews, and those of a secular bent—is this big question: will natural law and appeals to right reason remain a salient element in American conservative public argument?

After After Virtue

Some of this debate was prefigured in exchanges prompted by the publication of MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). Enlightenment-influenced culture, MacIntyre suggested, has rendered expressions like virtue almost unintelligible to even the most sympathetic listener. Though MacIntyre qualified this historicist and moral particularist account in later works such as Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), there was no shortage of critics who argued that his approach ran the serious risk of relegating natural law to the status of “just another tradition.”

One such criticism of MacIntyre’s position was made by Robert P. George in a Review of Metaphysics article entitled, “Moral Particularism, Thomism and Traditions” (1989). He argued that natural law’s claim to be based upon “tradition-transcending, universal truth-attaining” practical reason could be inadvertently relativized by too heavily accenting cultural context.

Certainly, George acknowledged, it’s easier for people to grasp natural law if they live in a culture that affirms (1) there is truth beyond the empirical and (2) we can know it through the disciplined application of practical reason. There is also, George agreed, a recognizable tradition of natural law within which scholars have argued over the centuries as they continue clarifying its foundations and implications for politics, law, and the economy. But, George stressed, the very essence of natural law arguments is that right reason is intrinsic to who humans are. It follows that knowledge of some basic practical truths is universally available, notwithstanding the blockages caused by culture, ignorance, and rationalizations of wrongdoing that might prevent some people at particular times from grasping, for instance, that human sacrifice is always wrong.

In many respects, it’s arguable that self-identified American conservatives now face an analogous debate. Many conservatives seem to be edging towards withdrawing from what they see a hopelessly compromised American public square in which there is no God—except for a Teddy-Bear Deity whose main job is to hug me and affirm my feelings, with John Rawls as his prophet. While most such conservatives aren’t (yet) arguing for Amish-like responses to a troubled culture, they’re skeptical of the prospects of persuading people of the soundness of conservative arguments, given the prevailing context.

What’s Wrong with the “Benedict Option”

Given the state of American intellectual and popular culture, I can understand why some conservatives are tempted by such a course. The point, I presume, of what’s often called the “Benedict Option” (after St. Benedict and the monks who retreated to Norcia amidst a floundering Western Roman Empire) is that preserving islands of human flourishing amidst the surrounding chaos is how you ensure, first, that some modicum of civilization is preserved and, second, that resources are available if the broader culture ever comes to its senses.

That said, I’d argue that such a strategy isn’t open to those American conservatives—Jewish, Christian, or secular—who take natural law seriously. My reasons for maintaining this position are threefold.

First, natural law thinkers hold that public life can and should reflect a number of principles theoretically open to all, precisely because these principles are rooted in something universal to human beings: reason itself. That’s why people like Aristotle and Aquinas didn’t hesitate to apply natural law principles to the often turbulent political conditions and questions of their time. Certainly, natural law arguments, no matter how well articulated, don’t convince everyone. Engaging in this type of persuasion is likely to be frustrating at times. But, as anyone who has taught students basic principles of natural law knows, it is possible to immunize many individuals against the siren calls of contemporary liberalism.

Of course, one often hears that natural law arguments are “too complicated” for people to get their minds around. It’s true that most of us who believe in natural law can do a better job of explaining our positions. I challenge anyone, however, to identify a book as full of dense (and often turgid) prose as Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Yet does anyone doubt this text’s (alas) immense influence upon at least three generations of American political and legal philosophy professors and, through them, their students?

Second, in the absence of natural law arguments, the only alternative to modern liberal public arguments would seem to be those derived from skepticism, tradition-for-the-sake-of-tradition, libertarianism, or some combination of all three. The skeptic plays the useful role of warning us against the folly of rationalism. The traditionalist underscores Burke’s point concerning the wisdom often contained in customs and habits that we don’t always fully grasp until the tradition disappears. The strength of libertarians is the rigor they bring to economic issues. They make the rest of us face up to the unintended consequences of various forms of government intervention.

Unfortunately, none of these positions ultimately provides a substantive account of human happiness and the good—either because they don’t believe there is such a thing beyond experiencing pleasure, or they’re worried that positing such arguments might open the door to paternalism and tyranny. Such hesitation on the normative front matters. Whatever you might say about modern liberals, they’re much better than conservatives at persuading people at a moral level. Sometimes it’s through seductive evocations of the apparent pleasures to be found in liberation from constraint. On other occasions, it involves appealing to notions of social justice grounded in very flimsy accounts of equality. In some instances, it concerns endlessly invoking hard cases to persuade people of the absolute necessity of anything ranging from enormous welfare states to legalizing euthanasia.

By contrast, natural law has the advantage of being committed to strong accounts of human flourishing that go beyond pleasure, or autonomy for autonomy’s sake. It also articulates understandings of freedom, equality, and justice rooted in a vision of human beings as rational, creative, individual, and interdependent beings with free will who can, if they pursue and freely choose the truth consistently, realize happiness. No one, we should recall, wants to be unhappy. To that extent, natural law conservatives are in a unique position to advance a coherent conception of happiness that can be cashed out politically, legally, and economically in the body politic in ways that promote liberty, respect dignity, and realize justice.

Natural Law and the American Founding

The word happiness brings me to my third point: the American Founding, something from which some conservatives seem to wish to detach themselves. There’s no question that the American experiment in ordered liberty was shaped by a range of not always compatible influences. These ranged from Locke and natural rights ideas, to Montesquieu, social contract theory, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and various expressions of Protestantism. Overshadowing the whole exercise, of course, was the burden of slavery.

At the same time, the American Founding was suffused with the language of virtue. Alongside this went a conviction on the part of many Founders that there was a natural law that all humans could know. Hence someone such as Alexander Hamilton didn’t hesitate to affirm in his Farmer Refuted that “upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind.” To which Hamilton immediately added: “the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beautifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things.”

Granted, this isn’t precisely how Aristotle and Aquinas (or a contemporary Jewish natural law scholar such as David Novak) might have stated the case. But is this so far removed from more classical forms of natural law reasoning that today’s conservatives couldn’t invoke similar ideas expressed by various Founders to demonstrate how deeply at odds modern liberal philosophy and priorities are with many of the Republic’s intellectual origins?

For some Americans, this isn’t likely to matter. For various reasons, some aren’t disposed to accept natural law arguments or more generic appeals to virtue. Others have quietly written off the American Founding as the work of dead white men, slaveholders in thrall to even deader white men. Surely, however, there is enough in the Founding for conservatives with natural law inclinations to appeal to as they seek to bring the truths revealed by right reason to bear upon public discussion in ways that resonate with those Americans across the political spectrum who think well of the American experiment and who don’t self-identify as relativists or positivists.

If, moreover, one takes the notion of the common good seriously—as any serious natural law thinker must—it should be clear that, if anything, we need more conservatives publicly witnessing that humans are wired to know and freely choose truth, and that this has implications for the political order. And the very necessity of doing so publicly, I’d submit, suggests that retreat into self-imposed isolation isn’t a responsible option.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.

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