There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.
That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause. [...]
[I]nsuperable problems arise when—in part out of a commendable desire to speak to secular society in ways it can understand, in part out of some tacit quasi-Kantian notion that moral philosophy must yield clear and universally binding imperatives—the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.
Reactions, Assents and Rebuttals
- 02/03/13 - Michael Potemra (National Review), heralds the post as "A Bracing Challenge to Conservative Natural-Law Theorists":
Hart’s approach is an important and welcome one, because it challenges the political use of natural law at its most vulnerable point — the shibboleth one so often encounters, usually in a form along the following lines: The moral desiderata of the American political Right are not an attempt to impose religious views in the public sphere, but a desire to make public morality conform to truths accessible to pure reason. But if these truths are in fact accessible to pure reason, why do so many people deny them?
- 02/20/13 - Rod Dreher (The American Conservative) concurs, in Why Natural Law Arguments Fail:
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.
- 02/20/13: Ditto for Alan Jacobs (More on Natural Law Arguments The American Conservative):
... 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”? [...] 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.
- From R.J. Snell, associate professor of philosophy and director of the philosophy program at Eastern University, a two-parter in the Public Discourse, arguing from the contemporary natural law camp, Understanding Natural Law: A Response to Hart and Potemra 02/27/13:
As a proponent of natural-law thinking, I ought to be somewhat concerned by these “bracing” criticisms. Instead I find myself wondering what theory Hart and Potemra are bludgeoning, for it certainly isn’t one with which I’m familiar. In fact, perhaps Hart insists that “names are not important” when identifying his targets because no one exists to be named. Certainly his objections are non-responsive to “self-described Thomists” such as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Martin Rhonheimer, and several scholars on the First Things masthead.
In today’s article I explain how Hart and Potemra misunderstand natural law thinking. [In Natural Law is neither Useless nor Dangerous: A Response to Hart and Potemra 02/28/13], I argue that natural law thinking is neither useless nor dangerous, even in the “modern conceptual world.”
- 03/01/13: Brandon (Siris) on Hart's Kantian Argument:
I'm utterly baffled by the argument. Hart argues that natural law theory cannot provide either categorical or hypothetical imperatives adequate to morality, but the two branches of the argument don't seem to cohere. His argument on the categorical imperative side is purely Kantian. But his argument on the hypothetical side is a sensible knave problem put in such strong terms that it would, if problematic for natural law theory, be equally a problem for the Kantian, who also cannot persuade Nietzsche. Perhaps this is why he also sometimes uses language suggesting not Kantianism but fideism? But it seems a little harsh to insist that a theory of practical rationality, which is what natural law theory is, can only be adequate if it is a completely compelling Kantian refutation of Nietzsche. This is a very specific thing to demand, and I'm not sure why it's being demanded.
(See also: on Hart, again).
- 03/06/13: A Christian Hart, a Humean Head, by Edward Feser. First Things "On the Square":
I have nothing but respect for Prof. Hart and his work. But this latest article is not his finest hour. Not to put too fine a point on it, by my count he commits no fewer than five logical fallacies: equivocation, straw man, begging the question, non sequitur, and special pleading.
He equivocates insofar as he fails to distinguish two very different theories that go under the “natural law” label. He also uses terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” as if they were interchangeable, or at least as if the differences between them were irrelevant to his argument.
These ambiguities are essential to his case. When they are resolved, it becomes clear that with respect to both versions of natural law theory, Hart is attacking straw men and simply begging the question against them. It also becomes evident that his conclusion—that it is “hopeless” to bring forth natural law arguments in the public square—doesn’t follow from his premises, and that even if it did, if he were consistent he would have to apply it to his own position no less than to natural law theory.
Let’s consider these problems with Hart’s argument in order. ...
- 03/07/13: Why Natural Law Is ‘Hopeless’, by Samuel Goldman. The American Conservative.
- 03/07/13: Dylan Pahman – Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience: An Orthodox Response to David Bentley Hart, by Dylan Pahman:
On the one hand, I am sensitive to Hart’s critique—morality is more than solely what can be deduced by a properly reasoning mind, as some seem to believe. Nevertheless, while I would not necessarily describe myself as a Thomist (like Hart, I am an Orthodox Christian), I take issue with his critique for (1) failing to account for the role of conscience in traditional natural law theory and for (2) confusing the role of reason in natural law theory as a result. ...
- 03/08/13: Natural Law, Bentley Hart, Feser, Et Al. Winged Keel and Crumpet:
In rejecting a shared, universal rationality, how can Hart and others of his and Milbank’s ilk not avoid, in Steven Wedgeworth’s words, a ”hopeless contest of competing ultimate worldviews.”
I think Hart’s answer would be a broadly MacIntyrean one: rationalities are always already traditioned and particular, and this precisely does not mean the hopeless end of true dialogue, but rather its beginning. Rival traditions, as MacIntyre argues, will show their superiority by appeal to their own–to coin a bad phrase–particular universality. A tradition will succeed by explaining its rivals’ aporias better than they can themselves, which is quite different to an Enlightenment appeal to universal reason. ...
- 03/14/13: Hart Has Reasons That Reason Cannot Know, by Thaddeus Kozinski. Ethika Politika:
What is at the heart of the debate over Hart? It is this: both the classical and new natural law schools are wrong if they think that the natural law can be known, lived, and legislated in abstraction from tradition and culture, which is, at heart, theological. The classical view of metaphysics, at least as articulated by Edward Feser, presupposes an extrinsicist understanding of the relation of nature and grace, and reason and Faith, and is, therefore, not Thomistic. It’s as if Feser has not read, or just not digested, the work of John Milbank, Tracey Rowland, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Of course, the error of the new natural law theorists is grave compared to such extrinsicism, namely, the adequacy of practical reason alone to ground and explain ethical theory and practice. But I think David Hart is pointing to the need to transcend both the classical, dare I say, rationalist natural law school, and the Grisezians. In my view, both the classical and the new traditions neglect these four realities: 1) the mutually dependent relation of speculative and practical reason; 2) the subjectivity-shaping role of social practices; 3) the tradition-constituted-and-constitutive character of practical rationality; and 4) the indispensability of divine revelation in ethical inquiry and practice.
- Nature Loves to Hide, by David Bentley Hart. First Things May 2013:
... There is an old argument here, admittedly. Somewhere behind Feser’s argument slouches the specter of what is often called “two-tier Thomism”: a philosophical sect notable in part for the particularly impermeable partitions it erects between nature and grace, or nature and supernature, or natural reason and revelation, or philosophy and theology (and so on). To its adherents, it is the solution to the contradictions of modernity. To those of a more “integralist” bent (like me), it is a neo-scholastic deformation of Christian metaphysics that, far from offering an alternative to secular reason, is one of its chief theological accomplices. It also produces an approach to moral philosophy that must ultimately fail.
- Sheer Hart Attack: Morality, Rationality, and Theology, by Dr. Edward Feser. Public Discourse April 24, 2013:
In my first piece, I claimed that Hart was guilty of several fallacies. His new article repeats some of the same (though he pleads innocent). Worse, where Hart’s arguments are non-fallacious, they are also nonexistent. The article is full of unsupported assertions, put forward in prose so purple that its imperial gravitas is evidently supposed to stand in place of argument.
But assertions without arguments to back them up are like spitballs: Anyone can make them; anyone can fling them; and while they can annoy their target, they draw no blood whatsoever. ...
See also: Discerning Thoughts and Intents of Hart 04/29/13:
In the Letters section of the May issue of First Things, he makes a number of other remarks intended to clarify and defend what he said in his original article on natural law (which I had criticized here). The section is behind a paywall, but I will quote what I think are the most significant comments. Unfortunately, they do nothing to make Hart’s position more plausible, nor even much clearer. ...
- Purpose and Function, by David Bentley Hart. First Things August / September 2013. [Note: article behind subscriber's paywall].
- Hart Stopping, by Edward Feser. July 17, 2013:
... I do not have any satisfying explanation for Hart’s persistent ambiguity. He has read his critics and knows that this is one of their complaints (indeed, perhaps their chief complaint). It would be very easy for him to say something like “Let me make it clear that I am only criticizing the ‘new natural law’ of Grisez, Finnis, George, et al.” (if that is indeed the case) or “I am criticizing both approaches, but I realize that the same criticisms don’t apply to both, so let me first raise some criticisms of the ‘new’ approach and then some separate criticisms of the ‘old.’” As it is, he does not even acknowledge his critics’ repeated complaint about his failure clearly to distinguish the “old” and “new” approaches to natural law, much less respond to it.
Could it be that Hart does not understand the differences between the two approaches? That is hard to believe, given not only how well-read he evidently is, but also how clearly and frequently the differences have been harped on by his critics. One thing is plain, and that is that if Hart were to disambiguate his position, his main objection to natural law theories would entirely collapse. For that objection -- which the new article essentially restates -- has consistently been that modernity’s conception of nature is too metaphysically desiccated for natural law theorists to be able glibly to appeal to nature’s purposes in arguing about morality with secularists. And the problem with this -- to repeat a point I’ve now made many times, in several articles, but which Hart has never answered -- is that it is directed at a straw man.