Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Natural Law: The Four Witnesses

[Number five in a series]

This continues to look at the concept of natural law - primarily tied to ideas presented in What We Can't Not Know, by J. Budziszewski (J Bud from here out).

J Bud lists four "witnesses" (he says "at least" so there may be more) that tell us of the content of natural law, or as C.S. Lewis called it in Mere Christianity: the law of human nature or decent behavior. Very little of what follows, quoted or not, isn't a direct quote or paraphrase from J. Bud's book. I will try to make it clear when I depart from that - so that I do not put my words (or someone else's) in J. Bud's mouth.


"Classical education taught its pupils that there was some real moral knowledge in the universal common sense of plain people; the task was not to get free of it but to refine it. By contrast, modern education teaches its pupils to distance themselves from this common moral sense, to call it not knowledge, but "belief". A person of modern education wants to know how we know before deciding what we know; he demands a critique of the faculty of knowing before conceding he knows anything at all.

This suspicion is partly reasonable and partly unreasonable. The reasonable part is that, up to a point, we can certainly investigate how we know things. The unreasonable part is that in order to do so, we have to know something already - otherwise we have no equipment for the investigation. There must be some first principles that are not derived from other principles, some first knowledge that comes to us without prior investigation. It isn't because we are taught ethics that we know we have duties to other people; and if we didn't already know it, we couldn't be taught ethics."

He goes on to point out that this "underived" knowledge is not all of natural law; and it is the most fundamental part - and the most disturbing. It is disturbing because, since it is underived, "the investigation of how we know is mostly descriptive". We just know, and the mechanism for that cannot be defined.

What are the four witnesses?

The Witness of Deep Conscience
According to theologians of the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), the conscience is divided into two parts. Synderesis (probably a misreading of suneidesis) is the faculty in human beings that knows God's moral law; this faculty remained unaffected by the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Conscientia is the faculty by which human beings apply the moral to concrete cases; it dictates what should or should not be done under particular circumstances. Whereas synderesis cannot err, conscientia is fallible (Encarta)
Synderesis, or deep conscience: Cannot be erased, cannot be mistaken, and is the same in every single human being. The only way to tamper with it is by self-deception - to tell yourself you really do not know what you know. It includes the knowledge of inviolable goods like friendship; of formal norms like fairness; and everyday moral rules like "Do not murder".

Deep conscience is the reason a person who says they do not believe in right and wrong may shrink from murder; why even a man who murders may have pangs of remorse; and why even if the man has deadened himself to remorse shows other symptoms of deep-buried guilty knowledge.

Conscientia, or surface conscience: J Bud gives "at least" nine ways surface conscience can be blurred or err (and asks you to compare Aquinas's Summa Theologica, Prima Secundæ Partis, Question 94, Articles 4 and 6):
  1. insufficient experience: we do not know enough to reach sound conclusions;
  2. insufficient skill: we haven't learned the art of reasoning well;
  3. sloth: we are too lazy to reason;
  4. corrupt custom: it hasn't occurred to us to reason;
  5. passion: we are distracted by strong feeling from reasoning carefully;
  6. fear: we are afraid to reason because we might find out we are wrong;
  7. wishful thinking: we include in our reasoning what we are willing to notice;
  8. depraved ideology: we interpret known principles crookedly; and
  9. malice: we refuse to reason because we are determined to do what we want.
J Bud points that underneath the results of this bad reasoning is still the witness of deep conscience, no matter how "twisted and falsified on its path into current awareness". In a later part of this series, I will look at deep and surface conscience, and the implications of violating them.

The Witness of Design as Such

If, as Richard Dawkins wrote:
"We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" (Preface to "The Selfish Gene")
then why should we listen to the "witness" of our conscience at all? If our genes are blindly programmed, then our conscience may be part of the program - a means for our genes to direct us by remote control. In that case, a wise man may try to find a way to turn off the remote. Dawkins thinks so:
"Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something no other species has ever aspired to do" ("The Selfish Gene")
J. Bud:
"Unless deep conscience is designed to tell us the truth, there is no particular reason why it should. And so a pre-supposition of regarding deep conscience as a witness - as we all, deep down, know it is - is that it has been designed to tell us the truth by someone wise enough to do so"
As J Bud points out "He has set eternity in the hearts of men" - He has designed us to long for Him, reverence Him, and adore Him. The best evidence for the sensus divinitatus is that we were designed to have it. J Bud states that this recognition of design does three things for our moral knowledge:
  1. It vindicates deep conscience: if Synderesis has been designed by God as a witness to moral truth; then we can trust it to be reliable;
  2. It confirms we have duties not only to neighbor but to God Himself, to whom we owe the possibility of the experience of anything good;
  3. It informs us that just as our deep conscience is designed, so are we.
The Witness of Our Own Design

J Bud points out four ways that our moral design shows itself not individually, but at the level of the species.

interdependence. We are not hive creatures, but we are not self-sufficient either. It shows in a number of ways. We depend on each other:
  1. Physically
  2. Intellectually
  3. Developmentally
  4. Procreatively
  5. For identity
  6. Morally
  7. Politically including public justice
complementarity. Not only do we depend on each other, we depend on each other in a particular way. One illustration is in the natural diversity of our bents and abilities, which is the basis of our division of labor. J Bud posits this not like two fingers working together, but like the fingers opposing the thumb in order to grasp. Our differences are precisely what allows us to work together. J. Bud of course mentions men and women in this area.

spontaneous order. Humans, if left to themselves, quickly form a rich array of associations such as family (this is the central and foundational structure), neighborhoods, villages, businesses, vocational groups, religious societies, and schools. Edmund Burke wrote:
"to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own advantage" ( Reflections on the French Revolution )
Fourth, subsidiarity. Since Aristotle two principles have been seen:
  1. connaturality: culture should develop in partnership with our design filling the outline our first nature provides; and
  2. diminishing spontaneity: as a hierarchy of associations and relationships rise from the individuals and families at the base of the social structure (up to and including government), the higher the rung the less spontaneous it is and the more contrived; or, the higher you go the less help the structure gets from nature and the more help it needs from culture.
These two features imply the risk that though the higher rungs ought to protect and co-operate with the more spontaneous lower rungs - the higher rung's lesser spontaneity means they may not.

This implies a rule, subsidiarity, which was a natural assumption but not put into words until 1931 by Pope Pius XI:

"As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them." ( "On Reconstruction of the Social Order" )
As Pius said, what brought this to the forefront was the industrial revolution, and the danger that between the collectivists on one side, and the individualists on the other, all the "little platoons" between the state and the individual would be destroyed and/or absorbed.

The Witness of Natural Consequences

One penalty of breaking natural moral law is guilty knowledge. There are other consequences:
  • those that give offense to others are hated;
  • those that live by the knife die by them;
  • those that betray all of their friends have none left;
  • those that abandon their children have none to stroke their brows when they are old;
  • those that travel from bed to bed lose the capacity for trust;
  • those that torture their consciences are tortured by them in return;
  • those that suppress moral knowledge become stupider than they intended
J. Bud notes some curious things (which apply to civil law as well as natural law):
  • The consequence is not the reason the act is wrong; it only declares its wrong and disciplines us for committing it. In the United States, there is a penalty for driving on the left because it is a hazard to the public good.
  • The declaration of what is wrong not only announces what is needed for the common good; but partly "determines" it. Driving on the left didn't have to be wrong - we could be in England.
  • The system of penalties is not perfectly efficient; up to a certain degree of corruption in the will of the person subject to the law the penalty discourages violation, but beyond that point it actually provides a motive to go further. The person driving on the left may exceed the speed limit and careen around corners - a greater offense - to avoid capture for the lesser offense.

Next: "Natural Law: The Five Furies of Conscience"

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly