Mondays are reserved for the perplexities of students.
If the most general principles of the natural law are at some level known to everyone, why is it so incredibly easy to disobey them?
You’re onto something: Conscience tells everyone the wrong of cheating, the right of marital fidelity, the wrong of injustice – yet there is cheating, unfaithfulness, and injustice. It’s no good to pretend that we are naturally doers of evil, for isn’t conscience part of human nature too? But our hearts are divided against themselves. The law is still written on them, but we try to cover up the inscription. What is going on?
I don’t think secular writers have a good answer to your question. In the Christian tradition, the answer is that although the natural law tells us the true conditions of human flourishing, we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. This perversity has a history: From earliest times, we have wanted to be gods instead of images of God. Why should that make a difference? Because we weren’t made to function properly without Him, and He is our ultimate good.
Trying to be our own gods has natural consequences, just as surely as trying to eat sand instead of food. What consequences? One is that when the mind declares independence from its maker, the passions and desires declare independence so to speak from the mind. They seem to have a mind of their own; they resist the rational direction with which they are meant to cooperate, as though the horse wanted to ride the man instead of being ridden by him. Another is that we begin lying to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that we don’t know what we really do know, and that our wrongs are really right. Because we are rational beings, bad reasoning takes on a life of its own and drives us into further wrong acts.
So what happens to conscience? It’s still working, but we have to remember that conscience has more than one mode of operation. In the cautionary mode, it alerts us to the peril of moral wrong and generates an inhibition against committing it. In the accusatory mode, it indicts us for wrong we have already done. In the avenging mode, it punishes the soul who does wrong but who refuses to read the indictment. Although many writers have tried to explain concience away, none of these efforts have succeeded. Conscience is just what it presents itself as being: An interior witness to a real law.
I’ve written about some of this in an article called “The Revenge of Conscience” and a blog post called “What Conscience Isn’t.” If you’d like to know more, you can dig up my book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide.
Tomorrow: A Dialogue on Natural Law, Part 1
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