By Edward Feser
Natural law theory makes a very limited, but very important claim—that there is common ground between all human beings, and particularly between religious believers and non-believers, on which moral disagreements can be rationally adjudicated.
In the March issue of First Things, theologian David Bentley Hart was highly critical of natural law theory. The piece got a lot of attention, some positive, some negative. R. J. Snell responded critically here at Public Discourse. I was another of Hart’s critics, and replied to him in an online article for First Things. In the latest issue of First Things, Hart has responded to my criticisms—quite aggressively, though not, it seems to me, effectively.
Before I respond to Hart’s mistakes, let me first clarify several things.
First, natural law theorists make a very limited, but very important claim—that there is common ground among all human beings, and particularly between religious believers and non-believers, on which moral disagreements can be rationally adjudicated. For there are, the natural law theorist claims, objective moral conclusions that can be derived via purely philosophical arguments from premises that in no way presuppose any special divine revelation, religious tradition, or scriptural or ecclesiastical authority.
Second, natural law theorists nevertheless in no way deny that their arguments are controversial, especially in a society that is religiously and philosophically pluralistic. Nor do they deny that religious, aesthetic, and cultural sensibilities shape most people’s moral thinking and practice more than philosophical arguments do.
Third, natural law theorists don’t deny that some moral truths might only be knowable through revelation; nor do they deny that grace may be needed for some to grasp moral truths; nor do they deny that revelation, religious tradition, and ecclesiastical teaching may be necessary to correct some people’s erroneous moral thinking.
That said, allow me to turn to Hart. In my first piece, I claimed that Hart was guilty of several fallacies. His new article repeats some of the same (though he pleads innocent). Worse, where Hart’s arguments are non-fallacious, they are also nonexistent. The article is full of unsupported assertions, put forward in prose so purple that its imperial gravitas is evidently supposed to stand in place of argument.
But assertions without arguments to back them up are like spitballs: Anyone can make them; anyone can fling them; and while they can annoy their target, they draw no blood whatsoever.
Whose Natural Law? Which Revelation?
Perhaps the most glaring of Hart’s fallacies is equivocation. As I noted in my initial reply to Hart, two crucially different approaches today bear the “natural law” label. There is, first, the traditional or “old” natural law theory, which grounds ethics in an Aristotelian metaphysics of formal and final causes and rejects David Hume’s fact/value dichotomy (where one supposedly can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”).
And there is, second, the “new” natural law theory, which doesn’t appeal to a specifically Aristotelian metaphysics and accepts the modern Humean dichotomy. To which approach does Hart object? The old? The new? Both?
In his original piece, Hart referred to “a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory.” It would seem then that he targeted all natural law theorists.
But then he claimed as his specific targets those natural law theorists who have “attempted in recent years . . . particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture” and in “the context of the modern conceptual world.” Naturally, then, we might suspect that he has in mind “new natural law” scholars such as Robert P. George and John Finnis, who have recently been the most visible proponents of natural law in America, and who have accepted aspects of modern philosophy that “old” natural law theorists do not.
Yet Hart also focused his criticisms on those natural law theorists who emphasize that “nature is governed by final causes,” and whose position is at odds with Hume’s fact/value dichotomy—a characterization of natural law theory that fits the “old” approach but not the “new” one. So who exactly was Hart targeting? He assured us that “names are not important,” but for the reasons I gave in my original response, names are in fact crucial, because Hart’s objections seem to have force only if one ignores the differences between the “old” and the “new” approaches to natural law.