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Why Natural Law Arguments Fail

In an essay only available to First Things subscribers — wanting to read it is why I finally got off my rear end and subscribed to the magazine whose site I read every day, several times a day; you please do the same — the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart contends that natural law arguments have no traction in public debate today. I’ve been trying to say something like this on this blog in talking about same-sex marriage, but Hart is an actual intelligent person and trained theologian sympathetic to natural law convictions, so listen to him.

I’m only going to quote him briefly, because the essay is behind the firewall. Basically, he says that he believes in the natural law, by which he means the harmony of a cosmic and material order, supported by God. He differs from natural law theorists in that he believes that this order is much less knowable by reason than natural-law theorists suppose. Hart doesn’t spend the essay arguing that point, but rather explaining why attempts to bring natural-law theory to bear on questions of public policy, without reference to God (or at least prior belief in a metaphysical order), is a “hopeless cause.”

In essence, Hart — who, again, is an Orthodox Christian, and not a progressive or any sort — says Hume was right to say there’s no way to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Excerpt:

The truth is that we cannot talk intelligibly about natural law if we have not all first agreed upon what nature is and accepted in advance that there really is a necessary bond between what is and what should be. Nor can that bond be understood in naturalistic terms. Even if it were clearly demonstrable that for the majority of persons the happiest life is also the most wholesome, and that most of us find spiritual and corporeal contentment by observing a certain “natural” ethical mean—still, the daringly disenchanted moralist might ask: “What do we owe to nature?”

To his mind, after all, the good may not be contentment or even justice, but the extension of the pathos of the will, as Nietzsche would put it: the poetic labor of the will to power, the overcoming of the limits of the merely human, the justification of the purely fortuitous phenomenon of the world through its transformation into a supreme aesthetic event. What if he should choose to believe (and are not all values elective values for the secular moralist?) that the most exalted object of the will is the Übermensch, that natural prodigy or fortunate accident that now must become the end to which human culture consciously aspires?

Denounce him, if you wish, for the perversity of his convictions. Still, after all hypothetical imperatives have been adduced, and all appeals to the general good have been made, nothing would logically oblige him to alter his ideas. Only the total spiritual conversion of his vision of reality could truly change his thinking.

If you don’t believe there is any cosmic order undergirding the visible world, and if you don’t believe that you are obliged to harmonize your own behavior with that unseen order (the Tao, you might say), then why should you bind yourself to moral precepts you find disagreeable or uncongenial? The most human act could be not to yield to nature, but to defy nature. Why shouldn’t you? Or, to look at it another way, why should we consider our own individual desires unnatural? Does the man who sexually and emotionally desires union with another man defying nature? Well, says Hart, it depends on what you consider nature to be.

You have to believe so that you may understand, Hart argues, following St. Anselm. Anything else is question-begging.

This is why I don’t have any faith in the natural-law-based arguments against same-sex marriage. It’s not that I disagree with them necessarily; it’s that a) they are hard for ordinary people conditioned by our culture’s modes of thought to grasp, and b) partly because of this, they (understandably) prompt a, “So what?” response. This is Hart’s point.

What I mean is this: I don’t believe that natural-law arguments against same-sex marriage, however internally coherent and formally valid (and remember, a valid argument is not the same thing as a sound argument), carry any real weight in the world in which we live. Whether most people realize it or not, their “metaphysical dream,” to use Richard Weaver’s wonderful term, entails the belief that their is a supernatural cosmic order, but that insofar as it’s discernible, it is discernible by the individual heart. Here’s Weaver, from Ideas Have Consequences:

Every man participating in his culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.

The first of these are the thoughts he employs in the activity of daily living; they direct his disposition of immediate matters and, so, constitute his worldliness. One can exist on this level alone for limited periods, although pure worldliness must eventually bring disharmony and conflict.

Above this lies his body of beliefs, some of which may be heritages simply, but others of which he will have acquired in the ordinary course of his reflection. Even the simplest souls define a few rudimentary conceptions about the world, which they repeatedly apply as choices present themselves. These, too, rest on something more general.

Surmounting all is an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification. Without the metaphysical dream it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time. The dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.

When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude towards the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justice itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good. We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we approve some aspects of the existing world. The position is arbitrary in the sense that there is a proposition behind which there stands no prior.

This passage from Weaver, I think, helps make Hart’s point, and illuminates the fatal impotence of natural-law theory in the face of a advancing individualism, especially on matters of sexual autonomy, and the related phenomena of emotivism and philosophical materialism. As Charles Taylor observes, various cultural and philosophical trends in the West culminated in the 20th century with a radical (= at the roots) shift in our metaphysical dream. We became far more individualistic, and, because we also came to see sexual desire as inextricable with identity, came to see a metaphysical vision that would impose traditional limits on sexual expression as false.

Put plainly, as long as the will remains unconverted, and unwilling to consider conversion, reason is mostly powerless to change things, except insofar as the claims of reason are consonant with their metaphysical dream — that intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality. In our time and place, this metaphysical dream is no longer truly Christian, though it is obviously informed by Christian ideals and sentiments. This will fade, and is fading. This is the problem religious and social conservatives face, or, as it were, fail to face.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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