This reader hails from down under.  Although it’s student letter day, I’m not certain that she is a student -- but I do think students will enjoy her question.


I have been listening to your online lectures about Natural Law and conscience, and a question, or an objection, has come to mind.  Sociologists have pinpointed three types of worldview cultures: innocence/guilt-based (Christians, Jews), fear-based (pagans, some tribal cultures) and honor/shame-based (other tribal cultures, Islam, the ancient Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad, etc).

You say that everyone has a conscience that points to Natural Law, e.g. not to harm others, but this is only true with innocence/guilt cultures, not honor-based ones.  Honor-based warriors do not feel guilt if they kill someone: they are only concerned with honor.  So appeals to Natural Law would not be universal.  What are your thoughts on this, please?


Thank you for your question.  Natural law thinkers use the word “conscience” for moral knowledge.  The sociologists who distinguish among guilt cultures, fear cultures, and shame cultures are using the term “conscience” for moral feelings.  What we know expresses itself in what we feel, but knowledge and feelings are not the same thing.

The claim of natural law thinkers is that people of all cultures know the moral basics:  Honor your parents, do not murder, be faithful to your spouse, and so forth.  Whether people of all cultures feel the same way when they act in violation of the moral basics is another question.  (Even in what you are calling a guilt culture, persons who have guilty knowledge don’t always have guilty feelings -- though I think they do show other signs of guilty knowledge.)

Since natural law thinkers are speaking of knowledge, and the sociologists to whom you refer are speaking of feelings, the sociologists are not actually refuting the claim of the natural law thinkers; they are talking about something else.  Does this help?

If you’d like to know more about how guilty knowledge works, you can find a more complete discussion in my book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide .