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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

“Principles have to be discovered, not chosen”

Alasdair MacIntyre on natural law and contemporary culture

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

“Principles have to be discovered, not chosen”

On Volume 124 of the Journal, we featured an interview with R. J. Snell about his book The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode. Our conversation about his book began (as did his book) with a recollection of a 2013 article written in First Things by David Bentley Hart called “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.” Hart’s article focused on the attempt by various philosophers, theologians, law professors, and others to import this tradition into public policy debates, in a way amenable to modern political culture. “What I have in mind,” Hart explained, “is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”

Hart went on to explain why he believed it to be hopeless, if well-intentioned. Hart may have understood before he wrote the first sentence of this brief article that persuading his adversaries that they were wasting their energies was an equally hopeless cause (although the tone of the article suggests that this wasn’t likely to cause him to lose much sleep). 

Midway through the essay, Hart summarized what I took to be the most important point in his argument:

The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way.

The piece concluded on a similar note:

Our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions. And, in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self, nature’s “laws” must appear to be anything but moral.

I think it’s important here to recognize that the supernatural or metaphysical convictions Hart refers to need not be consciously, systematically, or consistently held for them to exert a controlling influence on what we think about natural matters. That’s why Richard Weaver refers to the governing power of a “metaphysical dream of the world,” an intuitive sense of the ultimate shape of things. As Hart has written elsewhere, modern culture nurtures and protects the metaphysical belief in “the unreality of any ‘value’ higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end.” His main argument in this article was that, in such a cultural setting — a setting that is fundamentally nihilistic — appeals to natural law quite simply make no sense.

There are, Snell’s book explained, other ways to frame natural law theory, other ways to make arguments about moral ends that set to one side metaphysical questions about the relationship between natural and supernatural realities. There are in fact many ways to defend the idea of natural law. The question remains as to how fruitful any of these approaches can be in overcoming the nihilistic prejudice that is so thoroughly embedded in modern culture. (I would be very interested to read some conversion accounts.)

In musing about these issues since talking with Snell, I came across an essay by Alasdair MacIntyre called “Natural Law in Advanced Modernity.” It was featured in an anthology entitled Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000). Given the urgency that many Christians rightly feel about the difficulty of making public arguments about moral absolutes, it’s worth attending to MacIntyre’s argument in some detail.

He begins by emphasizing the differences between our cultural backdrop and that of earlier ages in which natural law arguments had a more compelling power.

[W]e find a remarkable difference between how matters are or were conceived by the exponents of these older views of natural law and the beliefs dominant in modern cultures. It follows that we should not expect those older conceptions of natural law to continue to flourish in the modern world. And they do not. What we find instead, for the most part, are very different theories of natural law, theories that have come to terms in greater or lesser degree with cultural modernity.
I’m going to argue that these latter theories all fail and that they fail in just those respects in which their adaptation to what is distinctively modern in modern culture is most evident.

MacIntyre then summarizes the principal objectives of all theories of natural law.

Every account of natural law, no matter how minimal, makes at least two claims: first, that our human nature is such that, as rational beings, we cannot but recognize that obedience to some particular set of precepts is required, if we are to achieve our good or goods, a recognition that is primarily expressed in our practice and only secondarily in our explicit formulation of precepts; and, second, that it is at least one central function of any system of law to spell out those precepts and to make them mandatory by providing for their enforcement.

Later in the essay, MacIntyre discusses the new natural law theory as put forth by John Finnis and Germain Grisez.

This theory was originally developed in part as an interpretation of the thought of Aquinas. But its differences from Aquinas’s standpoint, especially as that standpoint has been understood by most modern Thomists, are as noteworthy as its resemblances. It [the new natural law] does not, for example, rely upon an Aristotelian conception of essential human nature, defining goods in terms of the flourishing of such a nature and of the satisfaction of its various, hierarchically ordered inclinations. Instead it defines integral human fulfillment in terms of respect for and the achievement of a set of basic goods. It does not understand human individuals as essentially parts of larger wholes — of the family and of political community, for example — wholes apart from membership in which the human individual is incomplete. According to the Grisez/Finnis theory, individual goods are not understood in terms of a prior notion of the common good. Instead their theory defines the common good in such a way that the common good is nothing other and nothing more than one aspect of the set of fundamental human goods.

At this point in the essay, MacIntyre returns to the question of the cultural setting in which natural law arguments are to be made, a setting characterized by a deeply held misconception of human nature and the nature of the good.

Just as functioning well for human beings partially consists in individuals understanding themselves in a particular way, as engaged together with family, friends, and others in a shared discovery of what their individual goods and their common good are, so the malfunctioning of human nature is characteristically expressed in some kind of systematic misunderstanding. In the cultures of advanced modernity, and most notably in contemporary North America, the form often taken by this misunderstanding is one in which the individual is misconceived as someone who has to choose for himself what his good is to be. This conception of the sovereignty and central importance of individual choice is generated by several different but mutually reinforcing features of our dominant contemporary social and moral modes.

Here, MacIntyre underscores a key corollary to the historic understanding of natural law: that the shape of moral order can only be properly perceived by those who have benefited from some healthy moral formation. Systematic misunderstanding of the nature of moral order is now institutionalized; the instruments of moral perception have been retuned to play only in certain keys, recalibrated to detect only certain phenomena.

On a Thomistic view, it is to be expected that under certain social conditions in which adequate moral education is unavailable, the place of individual choice in the moral life will be misunderstood in precisely the way it has been misunderstood in the dominant cultures of advanced modernity.
The exercise of individual choice thus understood, that is, not choice as governed by principles but choice as prior to and determining our principles, is often identified in the contemporary world with the exercise of liberty. Liberty is therefore thought to be threatened whenever it is suggested that the principles that ought to govern over our actions are not in fact principles that are up to us to choose, but principles that we need to discover. But since a Thomistic understanding of natural law commits those who possess it to asserting that human nature is such that rational practical principles are antecedent to and govern choice in rational well-functioning human beings, and that therefore those principles have to be discovered, not chosen, any defense of a Thomistic understanding of natural law is very easily construed as a threat to liberty.

The arguments made by MacIntyre, Hart, and others stress the obstacle erected to any revival of natural law ideas — or any shared vision for the common good or “human flourishing” — by the zealous veneration of a modern view of freedom. That is the one subject that seems off-limits in public debate about moral matters, but I think it is the idol that must be toppled before any substantive moral content can be restored to public deliberation about public life.

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