I recently gave a talk on relativism and its relation to sexual issues, and in conversation afterward a gentleman asserted that Catholics are fighting a losing battle by using natural law arguments to support certain moral positions. Because our culture is so emotionally driven, he argued, our appeal to logic is futile.
The American journalist (and, might I add, fellow Louisianian) Rod Dreher, a convert to Catholicism who later became Orthodox, is known for making similar claims. He did so in a 2013 piece to which philosopher Edward Feser offered a robust critique. Recently, Dreher has been at it again.
In an article for The American Conservative, Dreher argues that natural law arguments are “impotent” in our modern world. Although he doesn’t deny the truth of natural law arguments, he does deny their efficacy, saying that such arguments are “not going to change a thing.” Dreher quotes Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in support of his view, concluding it’s a "hopeless cause.”
Is it really? Dreher gives several reasons why he thinks it is. But when we think them through, we discover that his reasons don’t justify a shying away from natural law arguments. In fact, avoiding natural law arguments is actually a bad thing to do.
Nothing we can’t overcome
One reason that Dreher gives is that most people take moral arguments to be statements only about how a person feels about a thing (this is called emotivism). Although it’s true that many people think this way, this doesn’t justify the rejection of natural law arguments.
Dreher draws a parallel between using natural law arguments and trying to explain color to someone who has lost his sight, or music to someone who has lost the ability to hear. But what if it were possible to restore that person’s powers of sight and hearing? Shouldn’t we then proceed to explain color and music to him?
That moderns are emotivists tells us only that we need first to help people see the absurdity of thinking that all moral arguments are merely statements about feelings. We can do this by showing how emotivism is self-defeating and that it undermines logical reasoning itself.
Another reason that Dreher gives is that clear thinking for moderns is difficult, especially since the modern world has lost the sense that truth is something outside ourselves that we can discover through reason (a worldview called relativism). But, like emotivism, this sort of worldview is self-defeating. We just need to help people see this.
Dreher also argues that, for modern man, choice is the end-all-be-all and has lost the classical sense that we are ordered to choosing the good. This is true. But, once again, this only shows that we need to help folks understand that choice is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to morality, especially sexual morality. There is more to the story.
Don’t sheathe your sword
Give Dreher credit for pointing out the obstacles that stand in the way of natural law arguments. But all this shows is that we have a difficult task of preparing the way for the natural law. And difficulty is not something that should make a Christian sheathe his sword.
John the Baptist had a difficult task of preparing the way for Jesus. It got him killed. But that didn’t stop him. Why? Because the truth of Christ was worth it.
This line of thinking didn’t deter Our Lord either when he taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-71). John tells us explicitly that both the Jews (v. 52) and Jesus’ disciples (v. 60) had a difficult time believing it. Some of his disciples even abandoned him over it (v. 66).
Furthermore, Christ sent the first-century Christians to proclaim his teachings to a world that was just as hostile and far removed from the truth as is our current world (Matt. 28:19-20). I’m sure Christ was unaware of the difficulty that lay before them.
Proclaiming the truth to unbelievers is always going to be difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on the Great Commission to preach to “all nations” what Christ has taught us (Matt. 28:20). Similarly, the fact that appealing to the natural law is difficult in our modern times doesn’t mean that we should give up on it. Its truth makes it worth the effort.
A self-defeating project
This leads me to a final observation: to give up on the natural law is to accomplish the very thing we’re trying to avoid—namely, moral decay. Let me explain.
Dreher rightly points out that we’ve “lost much of our metaphysical and moral foundations” and as a result “we are adrift, and rapidly losing the capacity for self-government.” But it’s precisely for this reason why we can’t give up on the natural law. The natural law is the metaphysical and moral foundation. It tells us what the design of human nature is, and what is truly the human good given our inherent faculties (the powers by which we do things) and the ends for which they exist.
If we abandon the natural law in public discourse, there is nothing on which to ground the human good and consequently nothing on which to ground morality. Any morality that is not determined by the ends set for us by our nature (natural law) is an arbitrary and non-objective morality. The philosopher Yves Simon puts it this way:
Without a nature of his own that would determine what is good and bad for him, man has no other choice but to let his imagination create his own “values.” . . . In a world devoid of finality, all values must of necessity be both subjective and artificial (The Definition of Moral Virtue, 107).
To say that we shouldn’t appeal to the natural law—the order of our human nature—in evaluating moral behavior is to pull the rug of objective morality out from underneath our feet. And a non-objective morality is simply no morality, since all moral beliefs would be reduced to mere taste or opinion.
One might respond that this line of reasoning might be true if we stayed in the realm of reason alone, but not if we considered divine revelation. Of course, God’s revelation does provide a ground for the human good and objective morality. But the appeal to revelation in the public square would be even more inefficacious than an appeal to natural law. At least the natural law is an argument that we can make to “all men of good will” (Humane Vitae 34), not based on faith but accessible to all who accept the authority of reason.
So, if the moral mess in which we find ourselves is due to our modern culture’s rejection of natural law, which Dreher acknowledges, and it would be inefficacious to appeal to religious authority, it stands to reason that the solution to cleaning up the mess is to reintroduce the natural law to modern culture, not to give up on it.
I can appreciate Dreher’s diagnosing of the mental illnesses that prevent modern man from seeing the truth of the natural law. But such illnesses can be remedied, and we need to work to apply the remedy.
We don’t want to enable the modern conceptual world by refusing to challenge its views in the public square. The lack of challenge has led to the moral confusion in which we find ourselves. But the mantle of reason is ours to be worn. Let’s take it back, and not be afraid to help people think it through.