The natural law debate revisited
Friday, March 13, 2015
Reasons of the Hart
A couple of years ago, theologian David Bentley Hart generated a bit of controversy with some remarks about natural law theory in an article in First Things. I and some other natural law theorists responded, Hart responded to our responses, others rallied to his defense, the natural law theorists issued rejoinders, and before you knew it the Internet -- or, to be a little more precise, this blog -- was awash in lame puns and bad Photoshop. (My own contributions to the fun can be found here, here, here, and here.) In the March 2015 issue of First Things, Hart revisits that debate, or rather uses it as an occasion to make some general remarks about the relationship between faith and reason.
The natural law debate revisited
I cannot help but comment briefly on Hart’s summary of his side of the debate of two years ago. He writes:
I took my general point to be not that natural-law theory is inherently futile, but rather that its proponents often fail to grasp just how nihilistic the late modern view of reality has become, or how far our culture has gone toward losing any coherent sense of “nature” at all, let alone of any realm of moral meanings to which nature might afford access. In our time, any argument from immanent goods to transcendent ends must be prepared for by an attempt to “recover the world,” so to speak: a deeper, wider tuition of sensibility, imagination, and natural reverence.
Well, I for one know full well that that is what Hart was saying. And as I pointed out many times two years ago, the problem with Hart’s criticism -- now, as it was then -- is that it rests on a fatal ambiguity. Is Hart’s target the “new natural law” theory of people like Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert P. George, and Chris Tollefsen? Or the “old natural law” theory of people like Ralph McInerny, Russell Hittinger, David Oderberg, and me? Hart’s criticism might seem to have force to someone who doesn’t know the difference between these two views. But once one disambiguates them, Hart’s criticism collapses entirely.
The problem is this. Hart’s point is that natural law theory, even if correct, rests on a classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, Scholastic) metaphysical conception of “nature” that is simply rejected, and indeed not even understood, by most of its modern critics. Hence there is little point in arguing for moral conclusions on the basis of that conception of nature until one has first done the hard work of showing, to a modern audience, that that conception of nature is still plausible. But this objection is aimed at a straw man. All natural law theorists are very well aware that the classical conception of nature is a tough sell for most contemporary readers. They deal with this problem in one of two broad ways.
The approach of the “new natural law” theory is to eschew any appeal to the traditional classical metaphysical conception of nature, and to ground its approach instead on an account of practical reason which, it is argued, should be intelligible and acceptable even to someone who does not accept the classical conception. (This is why the “new natural law” theory is new.) The approach of “old natural law” theorists, by contrast, is to reaffirm that natural law theory must be grounded in a classical metaphysical conception of nature (which is why the “old natural law” theory is old). But they recognize that, precisely because they are committed to this older conception, they have a lot of work to do in order to show that that conception is as defensible today as it was in Aquinas’s day. That’s one reason they write books like this one and this one.
What you don’t ever see is any natural law theorist who both (a) grounds his position in a classical metaphysical conception of nature while (b) blithely assuming that that conception is any less controversial today than the natural law conclusions he derives from it are. Certainly Hart has never been able to identify any specific natural law theorist, “new” or “old” -- not one -- who does this. Exactly who is actually guilty of the charge Hart raises against what he refers to as “most natural-law theory in today’s world”? Exactly who actually evinces what Hart calls “a boundless confidence in reason’s competency to extract moral truths from nature’s evident forms, no matter what the prevailing cultural regime”? Hart has persistently refused to tell us, persistently refused to explain whether he has “new” or “old” natural law theorists in mind, persistently refused to answer the objection that his charge rests entirely on the ambiguity in question. Hart laments that the controversy of two years ago indicates that it is “perilous to express doubts” regarding the persuasiveness of contemporary natural law theory. But he could have avoided peril had he simply refrained from attacking a straw man. Just sayin’.
Fides et ratio
Anyway, the focus of Hart’s latest piece is the question of the relationship between faith and reason. Hart objects to the charge that he is a fideist, arguing that both fideism and rationalism of the seventeenth-century sort are errors that would have been rejected by the mainstream of the ancient and medieval traditions with which he sympathizes. With that much I agree. I agree too with his claim that the use of reason rests on the “metaphysical presupposition” that there is a natural fit between the intellect and that which the intellect grasps -- an “orientation of truth to the mind and of the mind to truth.” I agree with him when he argues that naturalism cannot account for this fit, that the best it can attribute to our rational faculties is survival value but not capacity to grasp truth, and that this makes it impossible for the naturalist rationally to justify his own position. And I agree with him when he argues that idealism in its various forms also cannot account for this fit -- that if naturalism emphasizes mind-independent truth to such an extent that it cannot account for the mind itself, idealism emphasizes mind to such an extent that it cannot account for mind-independent truth.
All well and good, and indeed a set of points whose importance cannot be overemphasized. What puzzles me, though, is the way Hart characterizes the position he would put in place of these errors -- a way that at least lends itself to a fideist reading, his rejection of the “fideist” label notwithstanding. In particular, he says that the metaphysical presupposition that there is a natural fit between the intellect and that which the intellect grasps is a matter of “trust,” that “there is a fiduciary moment within every act of reason,” and -- most significantly -- that “reason arises from an irreducibly fiduciary movement of the will” (emphasis added).
Now, what exactly is an “irreducibly fiduciary movement of the will”? That certainly sounds a helluva lot like a Jamesian “will to believe” that there is a natural fit between intellect and mind-independent reality, an act of will that is not itself susceptible of rational justification. For if it is susceptible of rational justification, why talk of “will” rather than intellect, and why call the “movement” of the will “irreducibly fiduciary”? And if we must simply will to trust that there is this fit between mind and world without having a rational justification for doing so, why does this not count as a kind of fideism?
Then there is Hart’s characterization of the rationalism he rejects as holding that reason is “capable of discerning first principles and deducing final conclusions without any surd of the irrational left over” (emphasis added). So, is Hart saying that, in any attempt rationally to justify a position, there always is some “surd of the irrational left over”? Again, why wouldn’t this count as fideism?
On the other hand, the objections Hart rightly raises against naturalism and idealism themselves constitute rational grounds for maintaining that there is a natural fit between the intellect and mind-independent reality, a mutual orientation of the one to the other. For Darwinian naturalism, as Hart points out, gives us a view of the mind on which it floats entirely free of truth. Any belief or argument whatsoever could seem absolutely indubitable even if it were completely wrong, if this were conducive to survival. Idealism, meanwhile, tends toward the opposite extreme of tying truth so closely to the mind that it effectively collapses the former into the latter. What is true ends up being whatever the mind takes to be true, so that we save the mind’s capacity to know truth only by making truth trivial. As Hart indicates, it is no accident that in the history of continental thought the sequel to idealism was postmodernism, on which truth is entirely mind-relative.
Now, both of these extreme positions are incoherent. They are both defended by their proponents with arguments, yet each view undermines any argument that could be given for it. We cannot make sense of the practice of formulating and rationally justifying propositions unless we presuppose both that there is a distinction between the intellect and the truths which the intellect grasps, and also that the intellect is naturally “directed” or oriented toward the grasp of these truths. But so to argue just is to give a rational justification of these presuppositions; reductio ad absurdum is, after all, a standard argumentative strategy. In that case, though, the presuppositions do not rest on an “irreducibly fiduciary movement of the will” with a “surd of the irrational left over.” And Hart does indeed condemn postmodernism precisely for making of reason “the purest irrationality, a game of the will.”
So Hart’s position seems ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on an “irreducibly fiduciary movement of the will,” skepticism about the rationalist attempt to eliminate “any surd of the irrational,” and talk of “reason’s faith.” On the other hand, there is the rejection of the “fideist” label and criticism of views which entail “irrationality, a game of the will.” So which is it?
One way to read Hart here is that he tends to sympathize more with the “voluntarist” (Scotus, Ockham) rather than “intellectualist” (Aquinas, Neo-Scholastic) strain in Christian thought, but still wants to resist the fideist and irrationalist tendencies of voluntarism. Another way to read him is that his view is at bottom an “intellectualist” one, but that he has merely expressed himself badly. I suspect that the former interpretation is the correct one. And I have, in recent posts (here, here, and here), given some of the reasons why intellectualism and “rationalism” of a sort (albeit not of a Cartesian or Leibnizian sort) are to be preferred to voluntarism.