In The Line Through the Heart you remind your readers that “A truly adequate theory of the natural law will not always be turning into metatheory of the natural law, a theory about theories.  It will resist that tendency.”

But you also comment about why that tendency is so pervasive.  We quarrel about natural law not because it isn’t obvious, but because we don’t like it.  Instead of trying to understand how we are made, we waste time pretending that we aren’t really made that way.

What I think you’ve just described is an apologetics problem, and I face it all the time.  I struggle with how to reply and interact with those for whom conversation seems to so quickly turn into the game that someone has called "Everything you can do I can do meta."  Pick a meta -- any meta. 

Could you suggest questions I could use to suggest to my friends that one's epistemology ought to be the handmaiden of what we know, instead of a way to deny what we know?


You may have in mind a conversation about the natural law itself, and in another post I’ve given an example of that sort of thing.  But I think you have in mind something different – the Peter Rabbit game in which you ask a concrete moral question about, say, abortion, marriage, or euthanasia, and instead of answering it, and your friend, casting you in the role of Mr. McGregor, hides under the flower pot of metaquestions:  “How do we know whether anything is right?”  “Who is to say what the nature of anything is?”

Don’t misunderstand me:  Such questions are important.  But the proper place of such questions is to help find things out, not to run away from finding them out -- to become wise, rather than exercise our cleverness.

First, then, here’s how not to respond when someone hides in the flower pot.  Don’t open a discussion of how epistemology ought to be the handmaiden of what we know.  You’re right – it should be -- but you’re playing the other fellow’s game.  He retreated from questions to metaquestions, and you’ve responded by retreating from metaquestions to meta-metaquestions.  The obvious move for him now is to pose a meta-meta-metaquestion.  “You say P is the handmaiden of Q, but how are we to decide the priority of one inquiry to another?”  You see?  You are trapped in an infinite regress.

So when your friend tries to jump into the flower pot, don’t follow him.  Instead, grab his ankle and pull him back out to the original question.  He will either allow himself to be pulled back, or he won’t.  If he does allow himself to be pulled back, then you discuss the question.  If he doesn’t, then he forfeits -- and you have to make that clear.  For example:

You:  “So are you saying that taking the lives of unborn babies is morally right?”

Him:  “Ah, but that is the question, isn’t it?  What is a baby?”

You:  “Are you saying that since you don’t know what babies are, killing them should be allowed?”

Him:  “Who am I to say what should be allowed?  Who is anyone to say what a baby is?”

You:  “Have you noticed that you aren’t answering my questions?”

Him:  “I am trying to point out that many, many other questions would have to be answered before I could answer your question.”

You:  “I propose that while we are engaging in that interminable inquiry, we let the babies live.  Do you agree?”

Him:  “That raises an interesting quandary about the epistemological requirements of practical decision.”

You:  “Let’s suspend our discussion of the abortion question until some time when you are actually willing to answer it.  In the meantime, you have my own answer:  Let them live.”