Hume is where the Hart is
One of the most surprising things about Hart’s original piece was that it seemed to concede the Humean thesis that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” or “value” from “fact” -- a thesis that does not sit well with the classical tradition in metaphysics that Hart sympathizes with. It is worthwhile quoting the relevant passage at some length, to give context:
[T]he natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.
Thus, allegedly, the testimony of nature should inform any rightly attentive intellect that abortion is murder, that lying is wrong, that marriage should be monogamous, that we should value charity above personal profit, and that it is wicked (as well as extremely discourteous) to eat members of that tribe that lives over in the next valley. “Nature,” however, tells us nothing of the sort, at least not in the form of clear commands; neither does it supply us with hypotaxes of moral obligation. In neither an absolute nor a dependent sense—neither as categorical nor as hypothetical imperatives, to use the Kantian terms—can our common knowledge of our nature or of the nature of the universe at large instruct us clearly in the content of true morality.
For one thing, as far as any categorical morality is concerned, Hume’s bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is” happens to be formally correct. Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise.
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. I know of many a stout defender of natural law who is quick to dismiss Hume’s argument, but who—when pressed to explain why—can do no better than to resort to a purely conditional argument: If one is (for instance) to live a fully human life, then one must . . . (etc.). But, in supplementing a dubious “is” with a negotiable “if,” one certainly cannot arrive at a categorical “ought.”
In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will.
End quote. Now, in the Letters section of the May First Things, Hart responds to critics of these remarks as follows:
I said only that Hume’s argument is “formally correct,” which is philosophical parlance for “given its premises, its conclusions follow.” I was not advocating Hume’s premises.
[A]t no point in my column did I say that moral truths absolutely cannot be deduced from nature… I said only that such truths cannot be deduced from the understanding of nature that modernity presumes, and hence natural law arguments cannot be made from a position that has already conceded the legitimacy of that understanding…
End quote. Now, the first thing to say is that that is in fact not quite what Hart originally said (even if it is what he meant), and his critics were within their exegetical rights in interpreting him as they did. For as the passage quoted above clearly shows, what Hart wrote was that “in neither an absolute nor a dependent sense,” even if we “exhaustively describe the elements of our nature,” the “facts that this description would comprise” would entail no “moral meaning,” would never tell us what we are “morally obliged” to do. Such moral conclusions are, he wrote, “additional” and “adventitious” to the “facts” about nature, are indeed “supernatural” -- where he speaks throughout simply of “nature” or the “natural” (not of “modernity’s understanding of nature”), which gives the impression that he thinks that the natural as such cannot give us moral conclusions, that such conclusions can only come from outside the natural as such.
Moreover, Hart went on in his original article to say that we “find a great many practices abhorrent and a great many others commendable not because the former transparently offend against our nature while the latter clearly correspond to it” but rather because of “uncanny voices that seemed to emanate from outside the totality of the perceptible natural order.” And he says that it would be merely “an exercise in suasive rhetoric (and perhaps something of a pia fraus)” to pretend that these moral judgments reflected an awareness of “natural” truths rather than something “supernatural.” Indeed, he even says that it is only in light of the “apocalyptic” and the “miraculous” that we can see nature as having moral implications.
All of this clearly implies that “Hume’s premises” are correct, that the “facts” about what “is” the case where nature as such is concerned can never in principle tell us what we “ought” to do -- the difference between Hume and Hart being that Hart thinks there is something beyond nature that can tell us this, while Hume does not. If this is not what Hart meant, I am glad to hear it, but he cannot blame his critics for reading him as they did, given what he actually wrote. If they misunderstood him, that is only because he expressed himself in a very misleading way.
In fairness to Hart, he does also indicate at a couple of places in his original piece that whether we see nature as having moral implications depends on our “metaphysical” convictions, and at the end of the article says that an appeal to nature is not going to have force “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.” In isolation such remarks might be read as leaving it open that given a different, non-mechanistic metaphysics, nature might have moral implications even apart from the “supernatural,” the “apocalyptic,” or the “miraculous.” But in the context of the article as a whole, and especially in the context of the remarks quoted above, the reader can certainly be forgiven for reading Hart as endorsing the Humean thesis that nature as such as no moral implications -- especially given that while at one point Hart seems to distinguish the “supernatural” from the “metaphysical,” in the rest of the article he seems to assimilate them.
Moreover, what he gives us with one hand in the May First Things Letters section, he soon takes back with the other. For having initially said that he was “not advocating Hume’s premises,” nor “say[ing] that moral truths absolutely cannot be deduced from nature,” he then goes on to write:
[S]ince there seems to be some question as to my own view of natural law theory, as such, I may as well be forthcoming on the matter (and confirm my critics’ worst suspicions). My view is that natural law as a moral concept makes sense only if one starts from the presupposition that nature is a supernatural dispensation…
Nature loves to hide, and left to herself she is too capricious and protean to provide us any sort of moral grammar that is truly binding upon us…
However rich the tradition of moral and metaphysical reflection there is behind the language of natural law, I believe that most of the arguments it produces are formally incorrect (that is, even if both their premises and their conclusions should happen to be true, the latter do not actually follow directly from the former, and so some adventitious mediation -- such as the synthesizing action of a supernaturally illuminated conscience, where the law is “written on the heart” -- is required to bring them together).
End quote. This makes it sound like Hart does after all think that moral conclusions (or “most” of them) cannot validly be derived from premises about nature alone, even given the proper “metaphysical reflection,” but require something “supernatural” or beyond nature. And that (minus the reference to the supernatural) sounds pretty close to the Humean view, or perhaps something even stronger than the Humean view (since a Humean might allow that an “ought” could follow from an “is” given a metaphysics sufficiently different from anything Humeans would find plausible). So Hart’s purportedly clarifying remarks in fact clarify little.
A second problem with Hart’s remarks about Hume in the Letters section is that it is simply too glib to assert matter-of-factly that the Humean position follows even given a non-classical metaphysics. For as it happens, Hume’s position is controversial even among philosophers who do not endorse classical (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics. For instance, John Searle and Hilary Putnam are two major contemporary non-classical, analytic philosophers who have criticized the Humean position. Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson, while embracing a kind of neo-Aristotelian ethics, do not do so in a way that tries to challenge a broadly naturalistic metaphysics. Other examples could be cited. That does not mean that Hart is wrong to think that a purely naturalistic, mechanistic conception of nature is not at the end of the day going to give you objective morality; indeed, I think he is right about that much. The point, though, is that he is just wrong if he thinks that contemporary philosophy has gotten so far away from the classical tradition that there is no longer significant common ground by reference to which the classical natural law theorist might engage the other side.
This brings us to a third problem with Hart’s remarks about Hume, which is that if all Hart was saying in his original piece is that “given [modernity’s metaphysical] premises, [Humean, anti-natural law] conclusions follow,” then his point was either completely banal or utterly question-begging. It is completely banal if his piece was directed at the classical or “old” natural law theory, for (as I noted in my earlier replies to Hart) “old” natural law theorists are all well aware that their position works only given classical metaphysics, that they need therefore to defend classical metaphysics if they are going to derive moral conclusions from premises about nature, and that doing so in the contemporary intellectual context is a tall order. On the other hand, Hart’s point is utterly question-begging if directed at the “new” natural law theory, since part of the very point of that theory is to show that natural law arguments can be defended even given a non-classical metaphysics and Hume’s strictures about “is” and “ought.” Hart says absolutely nothing to show that the “new natural lawyers” are wrong to think this; he simply assumes that they are.
Hume or Aquinas, John Finnis and Ralph McInerny
That brings us to a second problem with Hart’s articles overall, which is (as I also noted in my earlier replies to him) that he never makes it clear whether it is the “new” natural law theory, or the “old” natural law theory, or both, that he has in his sights. His remarks in the Letters section of the May First Things may initially seem to clarify the matter at last. For he writes:
I said only that [moral] truths cannot be deduced from the understanding of nature that modernity presumes, and hence natural law arguments cannot be made from a position that has already conceded the legitimacy of that understanding (by trying to change natural law theory into either a form of Kantian categorical imperative or some sort of utilitarian calculus).
My column concerned those who make no appeal to [the] desire [of the heart for God], and who consent to secular reason’s decision to bracket the supernatural out of public consideration, and who think that natural law can be demonstrated in a purely naturalistic key…
Hart had claimed in his original piece that “names are not important,” and in the May Letters section he says:
[T]he names I withhold are specifically those of thinkers who do not practice classical natural law theory at all.
[C]lassical natural law theory… was not the topic I addressed.
I underestimated the degree to which what I thought a simple distinction between classical natural law theory and “natural law theory” reconfigured as a form of modern practical reason would prove difficult to grasp.
[It is those thinkers] armed with natural law arguments of an oddly metaphysically denatured kind… [arguing] on the basis of a kind of Kantian appeal to categorical imperatives, scaffolded within a consequentialist account of natural goods… who were the subject of my column.
End quote. All of that seems to imply very strongly that it is the “new” natural law theory alone that he had in his sights. But there are two problems with this interpretation. First, why in that case did Hart go on at such length in his two articles about final causes, Humean strictures about “is” and “ought,” and the like? For again, “new” natural law theorists accept the Humean position and deny that one need appeal to a metaphysics of final causes in order to practice natural law theory. So to insist that Hume’s position makes their approach impossible and that their approach requires premises about final causes to which they are not entitled quite blatantly begs the question against them; indeed, it misses the whole point of the “new natural law,” which is to reconstruct natural law in post-Aristotelian, Humean-friendly terms. (I hasten to emphasize that, as an unreconstructed classical or “old” natural law theorist, I share Hart’s disagreement with the “new natural law” approach. The trouble is that his critique has no force against it whatsoever.)
Second, despite Hart’s apparently clear-as-day insistence that it was only non-classical natural law theorists he had in mind, he goes on at the end of his remarks in the May Letters section to write:
[F]rankly, the whole “What alternative do we have?” question strikes me as one corrupted by fantasy. It is not as if natural law theory, classical or modern, is some sort of effective dialectical strategy that has had any success in the secular realm, or that ever will have such success. Natural law theory is a practice confined to the circles of natural law theorists, because it requires enclosed, conservatory conditions to flourish; in the open air, it quickly withers…
I am in the end quite happy for believers in natural law theory to continue plying their oars, rowing against the current (so long as they do so in keeping with classical metaphysics), but I do not think they are going to get where they are heading; so I shall just watch from the bank for a while and then wander off to the hills (to look for saints and angels).
And to Howard P. Kainz, who asks what “other approach” one should take to “modern moral life,” Hart answers:
I encourage Mr. Kainz to pursue classical natural law theory (which was not the topic I addressed), if he likes. The Great Commission also comes to mind. (Do what you think best.)
End quote. All of this makes it sound as if Hart thinks that classical natural law theory is, after all, not much better than the “new” version, even given its “classical metaphysics.” Moreover, the comments about “saints and angels” and “the Great Commission,” in addition to being smug, seem to imply that classical natural law theory, no less than the “new” version, has little or no force outside of a “supernatural” context. In which case Hart’s remarks in his two articles do seem intended to apply to the “old” natural law theory as well as to the “new.”
It would seem, then, that it is not just nature that likes to hide. Hart’s position on natural law is opaque, and remains opaque even after two attempts at clarification. I hasten to emphasize that this judgment is in no way meant to detract from the admiration and appreciation we owe the author of Atheist Delusions.