Saturday, July 04, 2009

Nature and Nature's God: Another Reply to Budziszewski

Observing the Fourth of July might remind us of the famous appeal in the Declaration of Independence to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

That phrase provokes questions. Do the "Laws of Nature" depend on some religious belief in "Nature's God"? Does "Nature's God" suggest some kind of natural theology--some conception of the divine that is manifest in nature without need for revelation? Could "Nature's God" suggest a deistic notion of God as the uncaused cause of Nature? Or do we need a more biblical conception of God as a divine person who intervenes in nature miraculously? Does the very idea of "Laws of Nature" imply a lawgiver, who must be God? If natural law requires religious belief, does that mean that a regime based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence must enforce religious belief--at least the minimal religious beliefs suggested by the Declaration with its invocation of God as Creator, Legislator, and Judge? If so, why is the United States Constitution silent about these religious beliefs, even as it declares that there shall be "no religious test" for public office, and no congressional "establishment of religion"?

Some of these questions have come up in the exchanges I have had with J. Budziszewski, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. Budziszewski is an evangelical Christian who writes works of Christian apologetics, which include a defense of natural law reasoning as the basis of ethics. He has criticized my claim that natural law can be rightly understood as a purely natural morality rooted in evolved human nature that can be known to human beings regardless of whether they have any religious beliefs. Against my position, he insists that natural law requires some belief in God as the supernatural ground of natural law.

Budziszewski has developed his critique of my reasoning in an essay that he has published three times. Most recently, the essay appears in his new book--The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (ISI Books, 2009). Three years ago, I wrote a post responding to the earlier version of this essay.

I still believe that Budziszewski's argument is implicitly based on a divine command view of ethics--the idea that we have no natural ground for judging right and wrong independently of God's command. Budziszewski tries to deny this. He writes: "The idea of a divine authority behind the natural law is often misunderstood. Some people imagine that if God had ordained that we rape instead of marry, murder instead of cherish, hate Him instead of love Him, then such things would be right. The absurdity of this idea is considered an objection to God's authority. What the objection overlooks is that a being capable of commanding such things would not be God. God is neither constrained by nor indifferent to the good; He is the good, the uncreated good in which the goodness of created being is grounded" (210-11).

But doesn't this identification of God with the good imply that Budziszewski knows what the good is independently of God's revealed will? For example, since Budziszewski knows murder is wrong, wouldn't he say that the biblical story of God commanding Abraham to murder his son Isaac must be somehow mistaken? Wouldn't he also recognize that Thomas Aquinas was wrong when he concluded that it was right for the Church to sanction the execution of heretics?

Similarly, while the Bible sanctions slavery, Budziszewski knows that this is wrong, and therefore he looks for some way to correct the Bible to conform to his natural moral knowledge that slavery is wrong. In his new book, he writes: "Consider how many centuries it took natural law thinkers even in the Christian tradition to work out the implications of the brotherhood of master and slave. At least they did eventually. Outside of the biblical orbit, no one ever did--not spontaneously" (36). The explicit teaching of the Bible is that the "brotherhood of master and slave" is consistent with preserving slavery as a moral good. But Budziszewski rightly judges that Christians had to correct the Bible by seeing that human brotherhood demands the abolition of slavery as a great moral wrong.


Anonymous said...

Excellent rebuttal. As a former private school student, I'm familiar with how religious zealotry serves as a blinder for logic and reasoning. Clearly, Budziszewski is modifying meanings and passages to suit his prejudices, rather than questioning his orientations based on facts and evidence.

Thanks for this.

Sensible Knave said...

"God is neither constrained by nor indifferent to the good; He is the good, the uncreated good in which the goodness of created being is grounded."

What I take Budziszewski to be appealing to here is the doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

This is a view that makes God's properties essential to him and not 'parts.' That is, there is no property of 'All goodness' independent of God. Hence the ontologically stressed 'is' in Budziszewski. It strikes me that if (and for some it is a big 'if') one finds the doctrine of divine simplicity coherent then one can appeal to it to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma. What God wills and what is good does not 'come apart' under this view.

The alternative positions are to endorse a standard of goodness independent of God by which we judge God (which seems to be what you think Budziszewski is doing) in which case God is subordinate to 'natural morality' or to embrace divine voluntarism: What God wills IS right and our only epistemic access to what God wills is in scripture.

Leaving this aside, I'm not sure we need to have the 'natural' and the 'supernatural' come apart quite so radically as seems to be suggested by this post. Insomuch as one sees the world as created by God's divine command, including our empathetic capacities [and not excluding the creation of such capacities through gradual change] then we can see our moral sense as having some epistemic access to God's commands. However, if one holds that such capacities are flawed and prone to error due to original sin [or attempt to translate in non-religious terms: egoism, ignorance, vanity etc.] then they need instruction, formation and correction from other sources. Revelation, both in scripture and (depending on what flavor Christian you are) proper authority can thus hopefully supply the deficit.