For some years I have been building a case about moral knowledge, moral denial, and the revenge of conscience. In this new series, I will simply and concisely put all the pieces of the argument in one place. It will run only on Thursdays, with posts on other topics several other times a week.
The Same for All
In the Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 94, Article 4, St. Thomas Aquinas – asking whether the natural moral law is the same for all men – makes the very strong claim that “the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.” Let’s unpack this statement to see why it is so astonishing.
To say that the general principles of the natural law are the same “as to rectitude” means that they are right for everyone. For example, just as it would be wrong for me to murder, so it would be wrong for you to murder. This claim is already quite strong, and a good many people in our time consider it pretty dubious. We hear every day that “what’s right for you may not be right for me,” and that this is why we must not “judge” anyone else’s acts by our own standards.
But St. Thomas makes this already-strong claim stronger still. For to say that the general principles are the same for all “as to knowledge” means that everyone knows them. For example, not only is it the case that theft is wrong for everyone, but everyone knows that theft is wrong, even thieves. I take this to mean not only that everyone knows that theft is wrong for him, but that everyone knows that theft is wrong for everyone. Of course we are not speaking of persons incapable of reason; “all men” means everyone with an undamaged adult mind. Nor are we speaking of the remote, detailed implications of the general principles; I may understand the wrong of theft in general, yet be confused about whether it would always be theft to refuse to return property entrusted to me at the time it is demanded. Notice, too, that we are speaking of knowledge of the natural law itself, not the knowledge of the theory of natural law. For example, people in general may not know that “Do not steal” is a natural law; they may not even know that there is such a thing as natural law. They may, in fact, steal. Nevertheless, they know that they ought not steal. This is the claim.
If St. Thomas is correct, then no matter which kind of denier we are speaking of – whether the universal denier, who denies that there are any true moral universals, or the particular denier, who denies particular true moral universals such as the wrong of adultery or murder – the denier knows better. Though he may give seemingly rational accounts of his objections, he is unreasonably resistant to solutions, because the obstacles that prevent him from acknowledging true moral universals lie less in the realm of the intellect than in the realm of the will. He may even desire to concoct intellectual obstacles, because they give him a pretext for refusing to admit to himself that he knows what he does, in some sense, know.
And if this in turn is true, then we have an enormous problem. It implies that a good portion of contemporary ethical and meta-ethical debate is not carried on in good faith.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Here I am worrying about the implications of the proposition that persons who deny true moral universals know better, when I have not even presented any reasons to think that they do, in fact, know better. Some people would say that I am even further ahead of myself than that, because I have not established that St. Thomas really means what I say he means when he states that the general principles of the natural law are the same for all as to knowledge.
Here then is what I propose. First I will reply to possible arguments against my interpretation of St. Thomas’s claim; then I will present objections to his view and offer replies; then a more general argument for thinking that he is right; then why it is so important that he is right. Finally I will return to the question of what to do about all of this.