Friday, December 29, 2006

What We Can't Not Know

The West’s embrace of postmodernism has led to a sort of practical nihilism—the idea that even if objective moral rights and wrongs do exist, they can’t be known to humanity. There is no longer the Truth, only “My truth, your truth.” While this system of philosophy may have once been confined to such places as the universities, this philosophy has spread into other areas of life, including governments and churches throughout the west. So pervasive is this postmodernist philosophy that it may be considered the zeitgeist of our present age.

However, the ubiquity of this philosophy neither ensures its unanimity nor its correctness. Standing opposed to postmodernist nihilism is the natural law tradition. “However rude it may be these days to say so, there are some moral truths that we really all know—truths which a normal human being is unable not to know [author’s emphasis].” So begins Professor J. Budziszewski in the first chapter of his book, “What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide.”

Natural law philosophy explains that not only is there a one true morality, but it can be known to us. This flies in the face of the postmodern philosophy, but natural law goes a step farther: not only does an objective morality exist which is true for everyone—it is also known to some extent by everyone. Budziszewski notes that “Certain moral principles are not only right for all, but at some level known [sic] to all. They are the universal common sense of the human race….they are right for all; otherwise there would be nothing for moral reasoning and persuasion to be about….they are known to all; otherwise…moral reasoning and persuasion…could never get started.”

But what is the natural law? What is it that we can’t not know? St. Paul notes that it can be found written on the hearts of man, but there does exist a written summary of the natural law: the Ten Commandments. Budziszewski notes that the Decalogue “does not include all of our natural moral knowledge, but it either states, implies, or presupposes a good deal of it.” For example, the sixth commandment, “Neither shall you commit adultery,” states that adultery is wrong. However, in order to understand adultery, one must have in place a concept of matrimony, that it implies something special about married people separating them from unmarried people, that sexual relations between married people are thus elevated in some way above those between unmarried people, and thus that there exist a more broad sexual morality that merely to refrain from adultery.

It is possible to know of the natural law because there exist four witnesses to it. These witnesses include: “the witness of deep conscience, the witness of design as such, the witness of our own design, and the witness of natural consequences.” Each witness contributes in its own unique way in illuminating knowledge of the natural law. Deep knowledge is that which can’t no be know, and “includes knowledge of inviolable goods like friendship, formal norms like fairness, and everyday moral rules like ‘Do not murder.’” The witnesses of design as such and of our own design serve as sorts of corroborative witnesses to the first witness. They explain why we ought to care what our consciences have to tell us at all, and they confirm that deep conscience is telling the truth. The witness of natural consequences tells that there are “inbuilt penalties of wrongdoing.”

The witness of deep conscience cannot itself lie, but it is only one component of the human conscience. There also exists a surface conscience, which is “what we derive from the foundational principles [deep conscience], whether correctly or incorrectly, by means honest or dishonest [author’s emphasis].” The surface conscience is the conscious part of conscience, and can be deceived in a variety of ways: there are at least nine, from insufficient experience or skill to sloth, passion, and corrupt custom; and from fear or wishful thinking to depraved ideology and malice.

Even when the surface conscience has been fooled into wrong conclusions, the deep conscience is inerrant; the surface conscience causes us to have guilty feelings, but the deep conscience gives us guilty knowledge. “We sometimes imagine that to lack guilty feelings means to lack a conscience, but deep conscience is knowledge, not feelings, and guilty knowledge darkly asserts itself regardless of the state of the feelings.”

The conscience has three modes of operation. The first two are well-known: the cautionary mode, in which “it alerts us to the peril of moral wrong and generates inhibition against committing it,” and the accusatory mode, in which “it indicts us for the wrong we have already done;” this second mode generates remorse. However, even if we ignore remorse, an agent of the surface conscience, “guilty knowledge generates objective needs” for confession, to admit the wrongdoing that we have done; atonement, to repay the debt due to our wrongdoing; reconciliation, to restore those bonds with the community that have been broken by our wrongdoing; and justification, to return to the right after our wrongdoing. “And so it is that conscience operates…in a harrowing third mode: The [sic] avenger, which punishes the soul who does wrong but who refuses to read the indictment.”

These are the so-called “five Furies,” and they ultimately can’t be ignored. Budziszewski notes that “if the Furies are denied their payment in wonted coin, they exact it in whatever coin comes nearest….We flee not from wrong, but from thinking about it. We compulsively confess every detail of our story, except the moral. We punish ourselves again and again, offering every sacrifice except the one demanded. We simulate the restoration of broken intimacy, by seeking companions as guilty as ourselves. And we seek not to become just, but to justify ourselves.” Thus, even when ignored, the spurned conscience will have its revenge.

Despite it power as found in the deep conscience, western culture has all but forgotten the natural law. Budziszewski notes that it is not well understood how the natural law could be forgotten by an entire civilization, but he points to a few likely causes occurring in western civilization. These include, among others, the atrophy of tradition, in which tradition, the vehicle of the education about, the clarification for, and the reinforcement of natural law, is smugly pushed aside by a generation too self-confident to care about the wisdom of generations past; the return of the sophists, who are the postmodernists, relativists, and anti-foundationalists, denying that there is an objective truth which can be known to man. The sophists in turn are reinforced by a society content to be ruled by emotion and slow to spend time in intellectual reflection preferring television to books as the chief mode of entertainment, while knowledge of particular subjects is left to the experts of each respective field. Then there is the disabling of shock and shame, in which society has been desensititized to the immorality of gratuitous violence, promiscuous sex, and a host of other moral wrongs.

The ignorance of the natural law has brought our civilization to where it is now. In America alone there have been over 40 million abortions since the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton decisions in January of 1973; Oregon allows for doctor assisted suicide, and the gay lobby is pressing on all sides for the recognition of “gay marriage.” Other western nations have “progressed” even further down the path away from the natural law.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep at one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” So it is with western civilization today. So it is with entire civilizations: unable to condemn abortion, we will soon have to make peace with infanticide; having been unable to resist the temptation of voluntary euthanasia, we may soon face it involuntarily, as has happened in every other nation to take that first step; and unable to refuse the homosexual lobby, we can not long deny the proponents of pedophilia, incest, polygamy, and a host of other sexual immoralities.

Writing within the Christian framework, Professor Budziszewski gives a nice discussion of those things that we can’t not know. More importantly, he affords us a look at what happens when we try to ignore these things in our deep conscience, both as individual and as a society. In neither case are the consequences pleasant, and the future portrayed, dark as it is, can be seen playing out even now before our eyes.

Yet even with this dark future looming over us, Professor Budziszewski is able to state that there is still hope for the future: “To predict human future is to deny human nature, for men and women are endowed with the perilous gift of free will. We can turn and go back the other way….Whence come the strength to do these things, to turn from tangled hopes and twisted visions, the Four Witnesses do not say….If once the Turn is made, then just as there is a momentum to evil, so there is a momentum… to repentance. As there is something in our design like Furies to drive us down, so there is something in our design like angels to help us up.”
Update: Ignatius Press has recently released a revised and expanded edition to this book. Also of interest is Professor Budziszewski's newer The Line Through the Heart, published by ISI books, which I reviewed here. And for those who are interested, I have also reviewed his shorter The Revenge of Conscience here. I can say that Professor Budziszewski is a great writer, and a great thinker, and a great speaker. This is because he is a great person who has, since I have known him, done his best to pursue what he believes to be true, and not merely what he wants to be true.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Love and Responsibility

In these postmodern times, the utilitarian view of love is prevalent in society. This amoral interpretation reduces love to the way two people feel about each other, generally in the context of their physical attraction to each other. Love is but a side effect of attraction, a desire to be with another and a feeling of strong affection; in short, it is desire to use another person, to enjoy him or her. Each person is thus reduced to an object to be utilized as a means to the final end of attaining pleasure for oneself.

Not so, contends Karol Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility, one of his essays on the subject. The man who was eventually to become Pope John Paul II, the Great, presents a different view of love in which two people view each other not as other objects for use but rather as subjects with their own wills. He notes that “A human being cannot be solely or mainly an object to be used… [being] the means to an end determined by a different subject is contrary to the nature of a person.”

Humans by nature have what Wojtyla refers to as an “elemental need of the good.” Thus, one aspect of love is to desire what is good for the other person. As a result, man’s capacity for loving is limited by “his willingness to seek a good together with others, and his willingness to subordinate himself to that goodness for the sake of others, and to others for the sake of that good.” Each person must consider the good of the other person as having an equal or greater value than his or her own good.

Thus, love has an element of goodwill to it. “Goodwill is the same as selflessness [author’s emphasis] in love: not ‘I long for you as a good,’ but ‘I long for you good’, ‘I long for that which is good for you.’.” This desire for the good for another is fundamental to love. It is, in fact, “…as close to the ‘pure essence’ of love as it is possible to get.”

What, then, is this abstract “good” that one loving person properly desires for another? Certainly, the happiness of the other person can be encompassed by what is “good” for that person. Here does the utilitarian once again enter into the question of love. A person can for selfish reasons hope that another person is happy; or at the least, he can desire that his partner is content and will thus continue to allow him to use her, and vice versa.

While happiness can be an important part of the interpretation of love, it falls well short of the true and ultimate good. There is something more, something greater than a general desire for the happiness of another in a relationship. The desire for happiness (or contentment) alone can quickly lead into sin and perversion, when it becomes the pursuit of mere pleasure. “A woman and a man… can be for each other the source of various enjoyments. However, mere pleasure, mere sensual enjoyment is not a good which binds and ties people together for long.” The desire for good must thus be more than for happiness alone—for a more complete wellbeing.

Of highest importance to this wellbeing is the spiritual wellbeing, hinted at by an aversion to the entrance of sin into the relationship. Hence when a person truly loves another, and truly wants what is good for the other, he must then desire God for that other person. This means, in essence, that he must desire for God to be present as a party to the relationship, and that the relationship must thus be structured around God.

Here it is that marriage enters into the picture. It was marriage that was sanctified by God and ordained for the purpose of joining a man and a woman together. “If a person can never in any circumstances be a mere object of enjoyment for another person, but can only be… the co-subject… of love, the union of a man and a woman needs a suitable framework…. Such a union is, of course, called marriage.” The purpose of marriage is to strengthen, reinforce, and further develop the love between two people, so it is necessarily monogamous and is indissoluble. “We must accept that in their conjugal life, a man and a woman unite as a person and that their union therefore lasts as long as they live.”

A part of this uniting of man and woman is the procreative element of marriage and the sexual relationship. Thus, “Willingness for parenthood is an indispensable condition for love.” This does not, however, mean a desire per se for parenthood—only an acceptance of the possibility of becoming a parent as a result of such relationships. Here the future pope makes an important distinction, noting also that “There is no reason to hold that sexual intercourse must necessarily have conception as its end…. We cannot therefore demand of the spouses that they must positively desire to procreate on every occasion when they have intercourse.”

As the Creator is invited into a truly loving relationship, it must also be justified by Him. As Wojtyla notes, “Love presupposes justice.” Thus, the “whole sexual behavior of man” must be justified “in the eyes of God.” The procreative element of the relationship is a part of this justification, but there is indeed more. Marriage is, in the terminology of the Church, a vocation—a way of life. It is a part of, even an important part of, who a (married) person is.

This vocation must by necessity be directed towards God if it is to be justified by Him; in a sense, it must show “justice towards the Creator.” As God is also a personal being, He too can be shown justice. Wojtyla again notes that “Justice towards the Creator, on the part of man, comprises as we see two elements: obedience to the order of nature, and emphasis on the value f the person…. Man can only be just to God if he loves his fellows [author’s emphasis].” The first element is thus realized through such things as the procreative nature of marriage, while the second element is essentially based on the commandment found in the Gospels to love God and one’s neighbors.

Love and Responsibility provides a sound and thorough refutation to the utilitarian view of love and sex. Wojtyla’s scholarly philosophical and theological treatment of the topic is both deep and insightful. Once the refutation of the sexual revolution, it is still invaluable today as a reminder that love means more than merely desire for sex: properly understood, it is a desire for God.

If you like this post and want to read more, here are some related posts:
The Sanitary, Sterilized Life
The Revenge of Conscience (Book Review)
Love and Lust:  How Porn Undermines a Marriage (Catholic America Today)
Procreation and Commitment As Characteristics of Christian Marriage (Thirty Minute Musings)
Truth and Tolerance:  A Review
Jesus of Nazareth:  a Review
My review of Three to Get Married (Nicene Guys)