Untangling the Webs
What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide
reviewed by Jeff McAlister
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott penned these lines two centuries ago, but he could just as well have been describing early twenty-first century America. Some of us have become particularly adept at deceiving ourselves, justifying practices—sodomy, infanticide, even bestiality—that elicited universal opprobrium forty years ago. And the webs weaved in defense of such behavior are, well, tangled. Rationalizations of moral evil abound. Take Peter Singer, for instance, the Princeton University ethicist dubbed “the most influential living philosopher” by the New Yorker. Singer is a utilitarian who holds that pleasure is the only thing that has moral value; all that matters is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Unlike such nineteenth-century utilitarians as John Stuart Mill, Singer takes the philosophy to its logical conclusions. As Professor Budziszewski, the author of this splendid new book, observes, a number of consequences follow:
This book aims to recover what the author calls “the lost world” of objective moral truths, represented in the natural law tradition, which has been clouded by nihilism and other false ideologies. Recovery involves understanding that nature is designed according to specific purposes. Acorns are designed to grow into oaks; the little boy next door, into a man. The chief difference between the acorn and the boy is that while the acorn cannot be at cross-purposes with itself, the boy can; such is the unique situation of human nature. Man is designed to be in harmony with his Creator, and yet he is prone to rebellion against him.
The first two chapters of this book bring to light just what it is we can’t not know, that which the natural law declares, with St. Paul, to be “written on the heart.” Budziszewski turns our attention to the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, which is a suggestive summary of universal moral knowledge. It does not include all that there is, but implies, states, or presupposes a good portion of it. The First Commandment states that God alone is to be worshiped, but it also presupposes knowledge of him and the importance of gratitude. The Sixth Commandment forbids adultery, but it also presupposes marriage and its unique and sacred nature. The author adds that “to elucidate every implication and presupposition of the Decalogue would take more than a chapter, indeed more than a set of books.”
The love of God is spelled out in Commandments One through Four, the First Tablet of the Law, while the love of neighbor is dealt with in the following six, the Second Tablet. Some are offended by the idea that God’s reality, and our duty to him, are knowable, and prefer to acknowledge only duty to neighbor; hence giving rise to what the author calls the Second Tablet Project. Yet the importance of God to the natural law cannot be overstated. Observes Budziszewski: “A godless natural law would revere the laws of human nature only insofar as we continued to be human. Denying that our humanity is a creation, it would have no reason to preserve this humanity, and no objection to its abolition.”
Later chapters probe further into the threads of the natural law’s tapestry. We are presented with four natural sources of moral knowledge: (1) the witness of deep conscience (synderesis); (2) the witness of design per se; (3) the witness of our own design; and (4) the witness of natural consequences. Budziszewski discusses human phenomena that point to our design: interdependency, complementarity of the sexes, subsidiarity (a hierarchy of associations, beginning with the individual and family at the base and rising through neighborhoods, churches, and voluntary associations up to government), and spontaneous order. Chapter 6 addresses objections to the natural law in the form of a conversation between the author and an opponent, and may be the most invigorating section of the book (though all of it is enlivening).
Chapter 7, “Denial”, focuses on the “five furies of conscience”—remorse (the most obvious, though the least of the furies), confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification—and explores the ways in which the guilty conscience, when unrepentant, responds to each of them. Budziszewski’s illustrations here are vivid and to the point. He notes how the need for reconciliation, for instance, caused the Nazi death-camp doctors to seal a bond between each other with “blood cement” (Blutkitt), demonstrating their solidarity. The need for reconciliation also manifests itself in those who campaign for disordered sexuality, which, writes Budziszewski, “cannot be satisfied with toleration, but must propagandize, recruit and convert.”
Chapter 8 explores how the natural law has been eclipsed over the years. A major reason for this is the atrophy of tradition. Healthy tradition is “a shared way of life which molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it. . . . It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things but ways of raising questions about things that matter.” For such tradition to thrive, though, it is important that the generations live close to each other and communicate with each other; communities must exist where people know each other and hold each other accountable. Unfortunately, these conditions have become increasingly rare in our time. In addition we have such phenomena as the rise of the “expert,” the cult of feelings, the return of the sophist and sophistry, the decline of public reflection, the extension of adolescence, the disabling of shock and shame. All of these make difficult a shared moral life in society.
But in documenting these problems Budziszewski does not counsel despair—quite the contrary. He suggests various countermeasures in arguing against what he calls “the public relations of moral wrong.” If people are seduced by false compassion, we are to show true compassion. Those who are honestly confused need reminders of moral precepts that have been forgotten, while those who are willingly confused need someone to call their bluff. And so it goes. One finishes this lucidly written book feeling refreshed and inspired—and grateful that the eternal verities that have been under assault for some time have found a brilliant, energetic, and witty champion. In producing this volume, Budziszewski has done a great service.
Jeff McAlister is a freelance writer living in Longview, Texas.
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“Untangling the Webs” first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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