Thursday, March 23, 2006

Darwinian Conservatism and Natural Law: A Reply to J. Budziszewski

Many conservatives regard natural law as the moral ground of their conservatism. Against moral relativism or subjectivism, they believe that there are some natural standards of right and wrong, good and bad, which are universal because they are rooted in human nature. Some conservatives look to the medieval tradition of natural law defended by Thomas Aquinas. Others look to the Aristotelian tradition of natural right defended by Leo Strauss.

In developing my Darwinian conservatism, I agree with this conservative reliance on natural law or natural right. But I argue that this ethical naturalism can be defended as grounded in the natural desires of the human species as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. In an article in Social Philosophy and Policy (Winter 2001), I elaborated this idea under the title "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right."

But some of the conservative proponents of natural law regard my position as preposterous. For example, J. Budziszewski has attacked me in a paper entitled "The Rivalry of Naturalism and Natural Law." The paper was first published in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, edited by William Dembski (ISI Books, 2004). Recently, the paper has been published again in another book edited by Dembski (with a Foreword by Senator Rick Santorum)--Darwin's Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (Inter-Varsity Press, 2006). Both books are part of the "intelligent design" movement, and Budziszewski's paper shows how important it is for the proponents of "intelligent design" to reject Darwinian conservatism.

Budziszewski makes many points worth discussing. But his main idea is that for "natural law," one must "regard nature as the design of a supernatural intelligence." By contrast, for "naturalism," one must "regard nature (in a physical or material sense) as all there is." What I defend, he argues, is not "natural law" but "naturalism." And he criticizes me for my "determined attempt to make natural law safe for atheists."

First of all, I should stress that I have never defended atheism. On the contrary, in all of my writings--including Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism--I have argued that religious belief--particularly, Biblical religion--is both morally healthy and intellectually respectable. The religious appeal to God as the uncaused cause of nature cannot be refuted by reason. All natural explanations of the world--including Darwinian science--must assume that ultimately the order of nature is the final ground of explanation. But there is no way to deny the possibility that nature itself is the contingent product of nature's God.

And yet in our moral experience, we can appeal to a natural moral sense that does not depend upon religious belief, although religious belief can often reinforce that moral sense. When Thomas Aquinas defends the natural law as distinct from the divine law, he explains that natural law as "that which nature has taught all animals," because it is rooted in the "natural inclinations" or "natural instincts" of human beings and other animals. The divine law of the Bible can reinforce the natural moral law. But that natural law can stand on its own natural ground, and thus it can be known even to atheists. Darwinian science confirms this by explaining how this natural law could have evolved naturally to become what Darwin recognized as the natural moral sense implanted in human beings.

Budziszewski rejects this, because he believes that Thomistic natural law depends upon belief in God as the supernatural designer of nature. But if this were so, then there would be no distinction between divine law and natural law. This would deny the whole point of natural law reasoning, which is that human beings can agree on certain natural moral principles even when they cannot agree about religion. This has been a fundamental idea for conservatives who believe in religious liberty. We can tolerate religious diversity as long as we are confident that we share a natural moral sense that does not depend upon religious doctrines.

In criticizing my position, Budziszewski contradicts what he said in his book Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997). In that book, he wrote that natural law is "a standard for believers and unbelievers alike," and that's why it is "especially pertinent to politics," because it provides a moral standard that all human beings can know because it is "written on the heart" (p. 11).

Far from absolutely depending upon the divine law of the Bible, our natural moral sense allows us to correct the moral mistakes in the Bible. For example, Budziszewski says that recognizing "the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life" is part of the natural law. And yet, according to the Bible (Genesis 22), Abraham showed his faith in God by being willing to obey God's commandment to murder his son Isaac. Christians such as Kierkegaard have seen this Biblical story as teaching us "the suspension of the ethical" in our faith in God. We must obey God's commands even when they seem unethical. But most people see this Biblical teaching as wrong, because we recognize the wrongness of killing innocent children, and thus our natural moral sense corrects the Bible.

Another example would be the wrongness of slavery, which Budziszewski says is part of natural law. Darwin and others could condemn slavery as contrary to our natural moral sense. And yet in every Biblical passage where slavery is specifically mentioned, it is endorsed. Saint Paul taught slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). In the debate over slavery in the United States, the slaveholders in the South quoted the Bible in their defense. As Eugene Genovese indicates in his book The Mind of the Master, the Southern slaveholders had a much better Biblical case for their position than did the abolitionists. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States--The Southern Baptist Convention--was formed to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. So, here again, we can correct the Bible because we can see that slavery violates our natural moral sense.

As I argue in Darwinian Conservatism, conservatives see traditional religious belief as important for supporting traditional morality. But they can also recognize the moral mistakes in religious beliefs that violate our natural moral sense.


Anonymous said...

It seems this blog needs a captcha. Or you need to weed the grass periodically. (See the comments above. Blogspam - ain't the Internet great?)

(Greetings from Freeperland! Is CSPAN ever going to cover your book? (Or has it already?))

Tony Bartl said...

Dr. A,
I was in J.B.'s office at UT a few years ago when applying to Ph.D. programs. Your name came up, and he described you as an unapologetic atheist. I replied, "atheist, perhaps; unapologetic, never."

Larry Arnhart said...


If an atheist is someone who is convinced that God does not exist, then I am not an atheist. As far as I can tell, the question of First Cause and ultimate explanation points to a fundamental mystery that leaves an opening for God's existence.