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More on Natural Law Arguments

Commenters on Rod’s post on why natural law arguments fail are, at this moment, generally supportive, but there’s some resistance also.

One dissent says, in effect, that people — maybe Christians in particular? — shouldn’t tailor their rhetoric to win approval, but should just say what they believe and let the chips fall as they may. As it happens, I have in the past argued that there is a place for this: sometimes what’s called for is proclamation, not persuasion.

But sometimes persuasion too is called for, both in the political arena and in general Christian terms. St. Paul seems to have taken some trouble to shape his arguments to the audience he was addressing — see his famous speech to the Areopagus in Acts 17, and his emphasis on becoming “all things to all men” in 1 Corinthians 9. And of course political rhetoric is necessarily deeply concerned with persuasion, whether one is rallying one’s base or reaching out to the undecided or trying to win over opponents to conversion or compromise.

The point that David Bentley Hart makes in his First Things article and that Rod endorses is that when it’s time to persuade, arguments founded on the existence of natural law get no traction in the current intellectual climate. This is exactly (I would say obviously) correct, and important for us to know.

Which leads me to the second dissent: some people say that natural law arguments do work with people whose reason is functioning properly, and if those arguments fail, then the fault is with the listener, not with the defender of natural law. Let me, per argumentum, grant that point. My question then is: Now what?

The unpersuaded people are still there; the social or political problem you’re trying to fix is still there. Is it really the best we can do to say “You fail to meet my standards of rationality; therefore I refuse to debate with you further”? In an ideal world, the existence and force of natural law would be self-evident and readily acknowledged by all, but since we don’t live in that world, must we who believe in natural law (I join Messrs. Hart and Dreher in that company) just fall silent? — have nothing to contribute when faced with our political opponents, or with people who don’t share our religious beliefs? That, in my view, would be neither good politics nor good Christianity.

So, as I see it, those of us who believe in certain political and moral truths that we see as guaranteed by natural law need to pursue two courses. In the short term we need to find ways to commend our strongly-held views without recourse to natural law arguments; and in the long term we need to think about how the existence of natural law can be made both plausible and appealing to people who now see nothing in it. I don’t see a responsible way out of either pursuit.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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