And so we must give up the project of mere natural law. There is no such thing as natural law made easy. There will never be a book entitled Natural Law for Dummies, unless it is written for dummies. Natural law is as real as falling down the stairs, but that doesn’t make it as simple as falling down them. We had better be ready for complications.
But professor, haven’t you written that there are certain foundational moral principles we “can’t not know”? Have you changed your mind? And didn’t St. Paul claim that the moral basics are inscribed on the conscience, “written on the heart”?
Not a bit. The law really is written on the heart. Our consciences really are inscribed with it. There really are moral truths that we can’t not know. These facts are permanent advantages of moral good.
But we are divided beings. The inscription on our hearts is indelible, but we can read it badly. We can’t not know the moral basics, but we can certainly pretend that we don’t know them. We can even make use of our knowledge of what is right to contrive excuses for what is wrong. These facts are permanent advantages of moral evil.
Case in point: We can’t not know the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life. Even feminist attorney and abortion activist Eileen McDonaugh agrees with me about that. But she says abortion is all right because the fetus isn’t innocent.
The evasions and confusions aren’t all on the other side. I hear strange things from skeptics and semi-skeptics, but I also hear strange things from people sympathetic to the cause of natural law.
The former sometimes tell me things like this: “Yes, I do have a conscience. It really does stand in judgment on me. But sometimes, to do the right thing, I just have to violate my conscience.” The latter sometimes tell me things like this: “It’s so wonderful that the law is written on our hearts. If only I follow my feelings, I’ll always do the right thing.”
I hardly know which remark is more disturbing.
Of course there are good answers to both remarks, but they express errors about conscience. One can’t answer them just by appealing to conscience; one has to discuss what kind of thing conscience is and isn’t. More’s the pity, the people most likely to say such things are the ones who find the explanations most difficult and least intuitive.
Nor do the difficulties end with conscience. Inevitably one has to discuss things like why our creational design is authoritative (why not change our nature?), natural teleology (what are our natural powers for?), and the natural consequences of things (if I could evade its natural consequences, could I make a wrong act right?) Each discussion promises the possibility of lighting up a dark corridor and making it luminous. But each opens more corridors to illuminate.
I am not complaining. I am a teacher. Whether or not I live up to it, explaining things is my vocation. Having made a great many mistakes along the way, I think I have some qualification to talk about the making of them.
As in most things, there are two opposite ways to go wrong, and there is a mean between these extremes. One way to go wrong is to oversimplify, to quarantine the topic of natural law from philosophical complications, to turn the law written on the heart into a glib set of formulae (“just read this tract and you’ll be convinced”).
The other way is to overcomplexify, to make the topic of natural law into something that only philosophers can understand, to forget that the theory must bow down before fact, and that we have some inside knowledge of the facts. The law really is written on the heart.