Magazine | August 13, 2012, Issue


Must We Think of the Author to Read?

I admired Ryan T. Anderson’s review of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (“Written on the Mind,” June 25), but I found one point unclear. Summarizing Justin Buckley Dyer’s views, Anderson writes that Lincoln’s arguments against slavery “require a certain metaphysics of morals,” one according to which moral principles are “binding because of God’s design.” But “Dyer quickly adds that one need not start with belief in God and then work toward morality. Instead, the intelligible order of nature, our ‘grasp of human goods,’ and the ‘distinction we draw between right and wrong’ are themselves ‘evidence for the existence of such a providential God.’”

So people can consider themselves bound by moral law without believing in God. This suggests that, even if it is an intellectual error for such people not to believe in God, a theistic metaphysics is not, after all, required for a political consensus against slavery (although it might make that consensus more likely, by allowing people who do not directly recognize the moral law as law to reason in the opposite direction, from God to morality).

I wondered if Mr. Anderson could clarify Dyer’s and/or his own position on this matter. When he says that the metaphysics is necessary, does he mean that we need explicit agreement on it to bring about the political result? Or does he acknowledge that we might get the result without the metaphysics but hold that, in this case, some of the people who opposed slavery would be failing to recognize one of the consequences of their moral beliefs (namely that God exists)?

Ogden Smith

Ely, Nev.

Ryan T. Anderson replies: Justin Dyer’s view, with which I am in agreement, is that knowledge of the content of the natural law does not require one to know that God exists. But a fully coherent philosophical account of the natural law does require acknowledging a natural lawgiver, God. Political consensus, though proving fragile and insecure, would require only knowledge of the natural law, not the broader metaphysic that makes such knowledge coherent—and binding.

Race to the Finish

Claire Berlinski’s review of David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (“Decline All Around,” June 25) is a model of clarity. My knowledge of demographics is insufficient to challenge Goldman’s thesis that the Islamic world is also in a population decline. But it may not matter.

Perhaps you recall the joke about two hikers who are attacked by a huge bear. They run a short distance, then one sits down on a log and exchanges his boots for running shoes. His companion remarks, “You fool! You can’t outrun a bear.”

The man replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.”

Even if the Islamic world is in a population decline, the Western European population is in a steeper decline, and one that began earlier.

David C. Stolinsky

Los Angeles, Calif.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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