THE LINE THROUGH
Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
By J. Budziszewski
ISI Books, 2009
243 pages, $25.00
To order: isi.org/books
Natural law and its place in public policy last made headlines almost 20 years ago when some discovered it as the “extremist” redoubt of fanatics like Clarence Thomas and Aristotle.
J. Budziszewski, professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas and frequent First Things contributor, has done yeoman work in reviving interest in natural law and showcasing its relevance for public policy.
The book splits evenly into two parts. The first five chapters deal with theoretical foundations of natural law. The last five deal with its implications for positive law and public policy.
The material that the book covers is impressive. As regards natural law, Budziszewski discusses it as both reality and theory, showing why it’s controversial today. He argues that God is essential to morality, even on the natural-law scale, and shows how people can so distort themselves that the unnatural becomes “natural.”
One of his most interesting arguments is about the “Second Table Project.” Appealing to the traditional depiction of the Ten Commandments as two tablets, Budziszewski argues that natural law is not just about the second tablet, and that we can have a healthy morality with that tablet alone. He maintains that there is no morality without God, not even a natural law morality. (The Church does teach, after all, that God is naturally knowable). Suggesting such “Morality-without-God” efforts are attempts to make morality palatable to nonbelievers, he argues that “the Second Tablet Project often turns into the No Tablet Project.” Or, as Dostoyevsky said, without God man will believe anything.
Budziszewski maintains that atheistic theories of “natural selection” are counterfeit substitutes for natural law. As regards positive law, Budziszewski addresses personhood and the law, capital punishment, constitutional jurisprudence and religious “toleration” as a slogan to push religion out of public life.
Budziszewski is hardly one to avoid controversy: “Chapter 1 begins, some would say, as offensively as possible, by quoting the Pope himself. These days, much less than a quote from the Holy Father is enough to give offense.” His “Afterword” should be moved forward, because it expands on some of the likely most provocative ideas that Budziszewski advances: how natural law and revelation are related. How nature and grace relate to each other is a key problem for good natural law theory. The author rejects a simplistic model that sees nature and grace like two layers of a cake, one simply laid over the other. The model he suggests is that of a two-story house, with basement and mezzanine between the first and second floors. Human nature as actually created by and receptive to grace is on the first floor. Nature actually working with grace is on the mezzanine. Nature revolting against itself because of one’s evil choices is in the cellar. While some might say this discussion is off-target, it’s terribly important, at least for Christians, because nature as we know it is affected by grace, so we should not ignore those connections. (This whole subject needs closer study, because its theological implications are huge and complicated).
At times this book is dense, but it repays the effort. At his best, the author is devastatingly witty in his arguments. Consider his summary of why legalizing homosexual “marriage” is not “tolerant” because there really is no neutral ground in that debate: “Opening the state’s definition of marriage to homosexual liaisons would be no less discriminatory among visions of the good than keeping it closed. It would repudiate the traditional vision, endorsing in its place a different one. To reply, ‘Yes, but even so, men and women could still get married and have children’ is to confess ignorance of how social institutions work. Laws, like ideas, have consequences. The effects of the change in marriage law would ripple outward, first through family law, then through families, as people realized that in the view of the custodians of public order, the vital thing to consider is no longer the interests of children but the sexual convenience of grown-ups. There is no neutral way to define an institution. Whatever definition we adopt, someone’s ox is gored.”
Specialists of natural law, students of philosophy and government and general readers concerned about why American law is “slouching towards Gomorrah” (to borrow the phrase of an author suspicious of mixing natural and constitutional law) should read this book.
John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.