Preface – The Line Through the HeartJ. BUDZISZEWSKI
The suicidal proclivity of our time, writes J. Budziszewski, is to deny the obvious. Our hearts are riddled with desires that oppose their deepest longings, because we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. Why? And what can we do about it? Budziszewski addresses these vital questions in his persuasive new book, The Line Through the Heart.
One excuse for connecting them is that the study of politics is a branch of the study of ethics. This old claim strikes most people as impractical and unrealistic, not to say bizarre. On the contrary, it is utterly hardheaded. What could be more impractical and unrealistic than to imagine that a bad man can be a great statesman, or that a people can have a wholly different government than it deserves?1 We may look at the matter from another side too. Ethics is the study of the good, and even a corrupt government rests on some corrupt idea of the good – for example, that the good is gaining power, amassing wealth, or protecting the position of the privileged. The politics of an age may rest on a crumbling foundation derived from a mistaken ethics, but it will have an ethical foundation.
The second excuse for the structure of the book is that it offers a connecting term between its two parts: the concept of law. The foundational principles of good and evil are the natural or moral law; of regime design, constitutional law; and of day-to-day legislative enactment, ordinary law. Some people will consider this emphasis a good and timely thing. After all, despite what Pope Benedict XVI has aptly called the dictatorship of relativism, the natural law tradition is enjoying a certain renewal and refreshment. Other people will consider it a bad and untimely thing. I cannot help that; with two short exceptions, which I take up shortly, the rest of my excuse must be the rest of the book. But this brings us back to the chapters.
Part II turns to politics – politics in the broadest sense, the organization of our common life. Aristotle recognized that one of the first questions of our common life is, "Who is a citizen?" But one must be a person to be a citizen, and so the more fundamental question is, "Who is a person?" This controversy, the topic of the sixth chapter, "Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Whom?" has obsessed two generations. One of my own teachers, lo these many years ago, held that the state may intervene to protect a born child, but not to protect a fetus. His reasoning was simple: If a child is not properly cared for, then when he grows up he will be incompetent to function as a citizen. By contrast, aborted fetuses present us with no such problem, for the simple reason that they will never grow up. I never understood why my teacher cut his argument short. Why restrict it to fetuses? Since his sole stated object was to keep from having to deal with incompetent adults, he should have reasoned that although we should not mistreat people who are already grown up, it would be perfectly licit to kill infants, toddlers, and adolescents. Today, those who take his side of the question go even further. The fashion is to say that although we may not deliberately take the lives of innocent persons, not all humans are persons – not even all adults. The question for them is not who shares in the community of human nature, but simply which of those who share in it shall be suffered to go on living. Not many ordinary people realize that this is already the shape that the question has taken in law courts, hospital ethics boards, and other councils where certain people decide whether others are people at all.
I anticipate that some readers of the sixth chapter may be surprised by the seventh, "Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice." A fashion on my own side of the question of human personhood is to say that it is always wrong to take life – that abortion, capital punishment, just war, and presumably self-defense are each wrong, always wrong, and wrong for all the same reasons. Against this "seamless garment" view, I defend the older tradition that the evil of murder lies in taking innocent life. Abortion, therefore, is different than the others. In particular, capital punishment has a necessary though limited place – not despite the sacredness of life, but because of it. Some thinkers in my own communion mistakenly plead the authority of the Church against this view. On the contrary, the papal magisterium has lately emphasized not that capital punishment is always wrong, but that under rightly ordered institutions it should be rare. And surely this teaching is true. Its much-neglected corollary is the importance of seeing to it that our institutions are ordered rightly. Presently, the various parts of the system of justice work at cross-purposes.
The final chapter, "The Illiberal, Liberal Religion," returns to the problem broached in this introduction, the relation between the City of Man and the City of God. Here especially I risk the charge that I've "left off philosophizing and gone to meddling." According to a certain interpretation of the history of recent centuries, credit for the achievement of relatively peaceful relations among the religions in places like the United States belongs largely to the practice of religious toleration. I don't dispute this claim; indeed I hold that proper toleration and respect for the dignity of conscience are duties of natural law. What I do challenge is a double distortion of history which is usually bundled up with the claim. One side of this distortion concerns who discovered toleration; the other concerns what toleration really is. The idea that this virtue was discovered in modern times is an outstanding example of what happens when celebrities start believing their own press releases (in this case, celebrities in the history of ideas). What modernity did eventually develop was not the virtue of religious toleration as such, but a new, incoherent, and less than candid theory of it – along with certain new modes of religious oppression.
I have little doubt that this preface has already provoked certain objections. Allow me to anticipate two. One is an objection to the book's focus on natural law; the other is to the way the book discusses it.
Perhaps the most interesting reason for considering it untimely to discuss natural law goes back to a terse, fascinating, and widely misunderstood article written a half-century ago by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe.5
In brief, Anscombe argued that modern moral philosophers had backed themselves into a corner. On the one hand, they thought of morality as law. On the other hand, few of them believed in all the other things one must believe in order to speak of law coherently.6 It makes no sense to propose a moral law unless there is a moral lawgiver, and not many philosophers of that time believed in God. Anscombe thought that such incoherencies were at the root of the various other difficulties that plagued the theories then current, such as utilitarianism and Kantianism. It was as though people were trying to theorize about sums without believing in addition, or about ribs without believing in bones.
What she proposed to these skeptics was not that they abandon moral philosophy, but that they carry on the enterprise in a different way. Henceforth they would admit that they had no business talking about morality as law; instead they would content themselves with describing the psychology of the moral virtues. They would allow themselves to say "This is what it means to have honesty" or "This is the sort of person we admire as being courageous," but they would not indulge in the conceits that "Be honest" and "Be courageous" are moral laws. This suggestion prompted a great revival of philosophical reflection about virtue.
I am all for thinking about virtue. But there are several difficulties with the philosophical agenda "all virtue, all the time." First, it isn't what Anscombe meant. She didn't oppose talking about moral law; she believed in it herself, and for her this was perfectly reasonable, because she believed in all the presuppositions of law, such as the lawgiver. Her suggestion to stop talking about moral law was only for those who didn't.
Second, there are two different ways for a thinker who believes in law without a lawgiver to escape incoherency. Anscombe mentions one: Abandon belief in the law. But as her own case shows, there is another: Believe in the lawgiver. In fact, the natural law tradition is not the only thing enjoying a renaissance. Since Anscombe's time, so is theism. To be sure, a certain kind of atheism is still the unofficially established religion of the opinion-forming strata of our society – the courts, the universities, the news media, the great advertising agencies, the whole pandering sector of the economy. The kind of atheism that these boosters favor is practical atheism. They don't really care whether people believe in a God; what disturbs them is belief in a God the existence of whom makes a difference to anything else. Theoretical atheism, by contrast, ran out of ideas quite a while ago. Notwithstanding certain recent highly promoted pop culture books peddling atheism of the crudest and most ill-considered sort,7 all of the new and interesting arguments are being made by theists8 – and the sort of God whose existence they defend makes a difference to everything there is.
Third, talking about law and talking about virtues aren't mutually exclusive. Every complete theory of moral law requires a theory of virtue. In fact, I suspect that every complete theory of virtue requires a theory of moral law. Even Aristotle, who is supposed to be the paradigm case of a moral philosopher who talked only about virtue and not about law, talked about law. He holds that the man of practical wisdom acts according to a rational principle; this principle functions as law. He holds that virtue lies in a mean, but that there is no mean of things like adultery; this implies that there are exceptionless precepts, which also function as law. He holds that besides the enactments of governments and the customs of peoples there is an unwritten norm to which governments and peoples defer; this norm too is a law. Consciousness of law creeps in through the back door even when it is pushed out the front, and Aristotle wasn't even pushing.
But another objection can be offered to this book. Granted that one must drag ethics into politics, granted that one must drag natural law into ethics, granted even that one must drag God into the discussion of natural law – still, why it is necessary to drag in theology concerning God? Why not just nice, clean philosophy? In the most ancient meaning of the term, theology was a branch of philosophy, "first philosophy," systematic reasoning about God, the supreme cause and principle of all things. And it is quite true that a certain thin sort of natural law theory can get by with first philosophy alone. Today, though, the term "theology" is used for systematic reasoning about revelation concerning God. Must the cat be allowed to drag that old thing through the door?
We may as well admit that the cat has already had his way. Philosophy is full of questions and notions that it borrowed from theology and then forgot that it had borrowed. Consider but a single example, the concept of "personhood," on which I have touched already. It turns out that the very idea of a "person" – of a rational who with moral attributes, the ultimate possessor of his acts and even his nature – originates in Christian theology. If we purged philosophy of its theological acquisitions, it would look as though moths had eaten it. Is that what we really want?
Ultimately, a discussion among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, each of whom is invited to discuss his theological premises, will be more rich and interesting than a conversation among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, each of whom is expected to impersonate an atheist. Such a conversation may even be more courteous – just because, for a change, no one is insisting that the others shut their mouths.
J. Budziszewski. "Preface." from The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (Downer's Grove, IL: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009).
Reprinted with permission from the author and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. All rights reserved.
J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1981. He teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Departments of Government and Philosophy where he specializes in the relations among ethical theory, political theory, and Christian theology. The focus of his current research is natural law and moral self deception. J. Budziszewski is a former atheist, former political radical, former shipyard welder, and former lots of other things, including former young and former thin. He's been married for more than thirty years to his high school sweetheart, Sandra, and has two daughters. He loves teaching. He says he also loves contemporary music, but it turns out that he means "the contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach." He deserted his faith during college but returned to Christ a dozen years later and entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2004. Among a number of other books, he is the author of The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students, Ask Me Anything 2: More Provocative Answers for College Students, How to Stay Christian in College, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, and Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. J. Budziszewski is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2009 J. Budziszewski
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