David Bentley Hart is a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian, whose writings I have admired for years. Almost a decade ago, I asked my acquaintance Father Richard John Neuhaus what recent books he’d recommend, and Father Neuhaus responded: “The Beauty of the Infinite, by David Bentley Hart – but be prepared for it to change your life.” I read the book, and Father Neuhaus’s praise was entirely justified: It was a deeply moving and brilliant work of theology.
The late Father Neuhaus’s magazine, First Things, still thrives, and its new issue has a brief (only two pages) but startling article by David Bentley Hart, on an issue of central importance to many conservatives, and especially the ones who are usually called “social conservatives” (some of them prefer “moral conservatives” as a more accurately descriptive phrase; their detractors sometimes employ the derogatory word “theocons”). Hart notes “the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists . . . to import this [natural law] tradition into public-policy debates”:
What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.
As someone who has spent much of my life sympathetic to natural-law reasoning — specifically, in a desire to believe in what St. Paul called laws written on the human heart (Romans 2:15) — I take this as a something like a drenching with ice-water. But Hart’s approach is an important and welcome one, because it challenges the political use of natural law at its most vulnerable point — the shibboleth one so often encounters, usually in a form along the following lines: The moral desiderata of the American political Right are not an attempt to impose religious views in the public sphere, but a desire to make public morality conform to truths accessible to pure reason. But if these truths are in fact accessible to pure reason, why do so many people deny them? There are two possible explanations. The first is the one we find in St. Paul — that the deniers have their minds darkened by sin (Romans 1:21). But this explanation is not permissible in a secular context, and especially not when the accessibility of the truths to non-religious reason is precisely what’s being argued about. The second explanation is that the deniers are just plain stupid. Which fails the laugh test, because in my experience (and probably most people’s) there is no connection between IQ level and specific political and religious views. Name just about any opinion – and the people who believe it span the whole spectrum, from low-IQ to high-IQ.
Hart explains the problem in moving from “is” to “ought”:
In abstraction from religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural-law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness [here he lists a few others]) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health [and a few others]); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however.
It is, after all, simply a fact that many of what we take to be the plain and evident elements of universal morality are in reality artifacts of cultural traditions.
Hart explains the growth of moral intuitions — such as the opposition to cannibalism, slavery, and polygamy — over the millennia as the result of “uncanny voices that seemed to emanate from outside the totality of the perceptible natural order and its material economies”:
One certainly may believe that those voices in fact awakened us to “natural” truths, but only because one’s prior supernatural convictions prompt one to do so. To try then to convince someone who rejects those convictions nevertheless to embrace those truths on purely “natural” grounds can never be much more than an exercise in suasive rhetoric (and perhaps something of a pia fraus).
A couple of quibbles: 1) The account of supernatural experience need not be reflective of “prior” supernatural convictions. St. Paul certainly had no prior commitment to the Christian view when he was knocked off his horse. 2) The phrase “pious fraud” is made only slightly less harsh and unfair by being left in Latin, and qualified by “perhaps” and “something of.” The typical natural-law theorist of my acquaintance is 100 percent sincere in believing that his views are provable by natural reason: If only people thought hard enough, and read Aristotle and Locke (and the other 50 books in the Britannica Great Books series), they’d realize the GOP platform is right on moral issues! If Hart is right, there may be self-deception involved in this view; but I don’t think it’s a case of people trying to deceive others.
Unfortunately, this essay is behind the paywall at First Things. They ought to make it more easily available. I certainly can’t speak for Father Neuhaus, but I have the strong suspicion that he would a) disagree with the essay quite vigorously but b) be very proud that his magazine published it. (I remember, back when he was editor, he published two articles on women’s ordination — one pro and one con. I thought the “pro” side was better, but both essays were far more impressive than the typical discussion of that issue. He wasn’t afraid to have a well-written article opposing his own view.) This is indeed a discussion of “first things” — and that’s something our culture needs, more than ever.
UPDATE: I have amended this post to make clear that the sentence about much morality being a cultural artifact was by Hart, not me, and thus belonged in the indented quote. Many thanks to commenter Maledictorian for the fix.