The Law that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Over the past couple of months, in the pages of First Things – both real and virtual – as well as in a few other online venues, an important and animated conversation has been occurring over the nature and limits of natural law reasoning. It started with an essay written by the eminent theologian David Bentley Hart (author of the magnificent book Atheist Delusions). His critics have included philosophers Edward Feser (here and here) and R. J. Snell (here and here).  Among Hart’s sympathizers are Rod Dreher, Peter Leithart, and Alan Jacobs, a soon-to-be colleague of mine at Baylor.

The strength of Hart’s case against natural law depends on a claim made by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).  According to Hume, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Explains Hart: “Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise.”

So, for example, it does not follow from the fact that human beings require nutrition and hydration for survival that it is morally wrong that Josef Stalin starve the residents of the Ukraine and place its dissenting Orthodox priests and bishops in Siberian Gulags.  No knowledge of the human good, according to Hart, follows from human nature.

There is a sense in which Hart is correct, if all he means is that mere observations of human nature, without any recourse to what we seem to know about the human good, can ever tell us what is good for human beings. But in that case he just begs the question, since he is abstracting from his picture of the world what he claims is not essential to viewing it and what his critics claim is in fact essential to viewing it.

It would be like a jealous Boston Celtics fan explaining to a Miami Heat fan that the Celtics are better than the Heat if one just imagines that Dwayne Wade and LeBron James do not play for Miami, and then based on that abstraction conclude that because the Heat can exist without Wade and James, therefore, it is perfectly appropriate to compare the present Celtics to the Wade-James-less Heat.

That is precisely Hart’s strategy: “The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way.”

     David Bentley Hart

In other words, any oughtness we attribute to human nature is not derived from human nature, but rather, from a conceptual framework we impose on human nature. Thus, the natural law is not natural. It is, in the words of Hart, a prompting of “one’s prior supernatural convictions.”

If that is in fact the case – that all judgments of “ought” are artificial impositions with no universal import since nature qua nature is devoid of final and formal causes – then it’s not clear why we should worry about Hart’s prescription. He is, after all, suggesting to his readers that given the nature of nature, they ought to agree with him. So, if one cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” how does Hart manage to do it? 

It’s because the law is “written on our hearts,” (Romans 2:15), and that even those who vehemently deny it, must at some point rely on its insights to make their case. Thus, we can ask Hart, why should one embrace your argument? Is it because it provides truth to us, and it is good to embrace the truth? And if it is, what is the basis for believing that embracing the truth is good?

One answer – and the one that seems to make the most sense – is that the human mind is ordered toward the truth: because of its form, the mind’s end is the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. For this reason, if Hart is correct, one would lack virtue if one intentionally and willfully rejected his case.

But such a judgment depends on deriving an “ought” from an “is,” precisely because our knowledge of what “is” includes not only its material and efficient causes, about which we are conspicuously aware, but also our tacit apprehension of its formal and final causes that dare not speak their name.

Hart is certainly correct, as he notes in his essay, that we live in an age in which this understanding is denied by many in our culture who have embraced a mechanistic view of nature. But as we have seen from Hart’s own example, a verbal denial is not the same as an actual denial. Sometimes people practice what they don’t preach. Our duty, as Christians, is to draw their attention to this fact, to tell them of the unknown God they worship in ignorance. (Acts 17:22-23)

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).