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The Impotence Of Natural Law Arguments

St. Thomas Aquinas has great arguments — but how many 21st-century people are capable of grasping why they matter? (Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock)

Matt in VA is a gay conservative Millennial who has an annoying habit of saying sensible things in a provocative manner — annoying, because he unsettles settled minds. Here’s his most recent comment:

People greatly overemphasize the importance of whatever the doctrine is or was. This is typical of Extremely Online folks for whom everything is an argument. If it is *felt* by basically *all* that doctrine has changed — and on the Jewish issue, of course this is felt by all (understandably) then that matters a great deal, it matters tremendously. The law may be whatever the law is, but law is (99% of the time) fundamentally unappealing and ugly. (Try reading *any* legal writing except maybe for the beginnings and ends of Scalia’s dissents.) Literature, art, architecture — these are mediums where we can feel the *feeling* that lies behind and around what the law is, and where we can feel if the law has become a dead letter. I know that this will sound woo-woo to hardcore I-love-doctrine types, but they are increasingly only talking to themselves.

Matt has been talking about the impotence of deploying natural law arguments to defend traditional Christian sexual teaching. I strongly agree with this. It’s something that only makes sense to intellectuals. To be sure, my saying that does not mean that I don’t find natural law arguments intrinsically valuable. It’s simply to recognize that Matt is correct: nobody cares. We live in a post-rational society. Besides, we live in a society in which literature, art, architecture — all part of the symbolic environment, in which ideas are incarnated and made accessible through the senses — are preaching a very different gospel.

Princeton Prof. Robert George is a natural-lawyer (so to speak) par excellence. Even though he’s a Jesuit, the pro-gay activist Father James Martin would almost certainly be no match for George in a legalistic argument. But Father Martin has an entire popular culture putting the wind in his sails, not just specifically on the LGBT issue, but on the primacy of personal feeling and individual desire. Individualism is the universal solvent of doctrine and rationality.

The natural law is not untrue because it is apologetically ineffective. But it is impotent to reach most people. I like natural law arguments, but Matt is right about them. If the small-o orthodox Christians could produce more artists and writers capable of incarnating the natural law into their imaginative works, we might get somewhere.

Am I wrong? Help me out, you natural law folks.

UPDATE: Matt in VA adds:

OK, so reading this over, I want to elaborate a little on my reference to legal writing and Justice Scalia (PBUH). Why does Scalia’s writing stand out? Why does/did Scalia matter (and he matters/mattered to a lot of conservatives)? It’s because he could *write*, because he had *style* — and style is THE OPPOSITE of natural law arguments that are supposed to be true always and everywhere and that are not supposed to be relative or different for you than for me. Style is the individual — great style is the individual in all his glory. I say it in all seriousness– “argle-bargle” and “sheer applesauce” and Scalia’s other throwaways matter more than his Constitutional/textual arguments. You could have got those, more or less, from Alito or Thomas. What you couldn’t get was Scalia as a Character, a Man with a penetrating mind but more importantly, a concrete, specific model of how to be an admirable and even majestic man, a whole system of thought incarnated. It is one thing to talk about, say, miserliness in the abstract; it is quite another to be given the example of a Scrooge, an example that literally *millions* of people instinctively understand and feel in their hearts. It is not the fault of conservative Christians that they too often do not understand who the real unacknowledged legislators of the world are; I feel that almost no one understands it today in our “data-driven,” consumerist plastic throwaway world. But this is what is needed. Law can be correct, but on some level, law is always dead. All the little flourishes and conversationalisms in Scalia’s dissent’s openings and closings — this may sound absurd, but these are things you can love.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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