J. Budziszewski on
the 4 Ways of Knowing It
AUSTIN, Texas, 1 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT).
Legal scholars and theologians debate over the details of natural law,
but an expert in the field believes that the fundamentals are something
that we can't not know.
J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the
University of Texas and author of several books, including most recently,
"What We Can't Not Know: A Guide" (Spence Publishing).
Budziszewski shared with ZENIT the four God-given witnesses of natural
law: deep conscience, the designedness of things in general, the
particulars of our own design, and natural consequences....
Q: Your many books and articles in publications such as First Things have
expressed the importance of recovering the moral truths of natural law.
Briefly, how have you developed this thought over your academic career?
Budziszewski: At the beginning of my academic career I would have agreed
with George Gaylord Simpson that man is the result of a meaningless and
purposeless process that did not have us in mind.
When I acknowledged God, I was forced to acknowledge that the process has
been neither meaningless nor purposeless; natural law expresses both
"nature," the human design, and "law," the Designer's command.
In order to think clearly about these things one must unlearn a variety of
errors and intellectual vices, and sometimes it seems this is all I do. On
the other hand, the culture as a whole has to do the same thing, so
perhaps it is not such a bad thing for some of its intellectuals to carry
on their unlearning in public.
Q: What is it about natural law that attracts you to the topic? How have
your studies of natural law been affected by your own pilgrimage of faith?
What conclusions have you come to?
Budziszewski: In the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul
makes an interesting remark about the pagans. Their problem isn't that
they ought to know about the Creator but don't; it's that they do know
about the Creator but pretend that they don't, worshipping created things
In modern language, they aren't ignorant, but in denial. It seems to me
that this is our problem not only with God but also with his basic moral
requirements, and that the natural law tradition needs to wrestle with
this problem more seriously. That is what most of my work is about.
Do these matters have anything to do with my own pilgrimage of faith? Yes,
certainly. In the old days, when I said there was no God, was no good, and
was no evil, it was my way of putting my thumb in his eye, because, like
all of us, I really knew better.
Having been redeemed despite myself, I think I've gained some insight into
these processes of denial, and in gratitude, the least I can do is write
Q: Why do you say that natural law is written on the heart? Isn't the law
of grace what is written on the heart? Or are they really the same?
Budziszewski: The phrase comes from St. Paul's remark in the second
chapter of the book of Romans that when gentiles who do not have the law
of Moses do what the law requires, they show that the "works" of the law
are written on their hearts.
Traditionally, this has been considered a reference to the natural law,
but it refers to grace, too. As the Catechism explains, "the preparation
of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace," and as my
friend Russell Hittinger has written, the natural law is the first of
The metaphor of writing on the heart is deeply embedded in Scripture.
Jeremiah 17:1 declares that the sin of the people is written on their
hearts. Proverbs 3:3 and Proverbs 7:3 exhort the people to write the law
on their hearts.
In Jeremiah 31:33, quoted in Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16, God promises
to write the law on their hearts more perfectly. And Romans 2:14-15
declares that the "works" of the law, meaning the commands without this
promise of further grace, are written on the hearts of everyone already.
Q: How is the natural moral law different from the physical laws of
nature, like gravity?
Budziszewski: Strictly speaking, law is an ordinance of reason for the
common good, promulgated by the one who has care of the community.
It is addressed to a mind that can understand what is demanded and act
accordingly. Principles like gravitation are "laws" only in an analogical
sense. They certainly result from God's governance, but the falling apple
is not freely and rationally aligning its behavior with a rule that it
knows to be right.
Q: How is it even possible to know the natural law, considering how
disputed its contents are?
Budziszewski: I hear much about this supposed dispute, but I don't believe
People who talk about the natural law pretty much agree about its basic
don't murder, don't commit adultery, honor your parents, and so on. They
are the same things you find in the Decalogue. Moreover, these precepts
even if only in their breach
societies in every time and place.
Disagreements concern not the basics but the details; as C.S. Lewis put
it, the peoples of the earth may disagree about whether you may have one
wife or four, but they all know about marriage.
Even the cannibal knows that it is wrong to deliberately take innocent
human life; what he claims is that the people in the other tribe aren't
human. I strongly suspect that deep down, even the cannibal knows better.
Why else does he perform elaborate expiatory rituals before taking their
Q: How then do we know the natural law?
Budziszewski: There seem to be at least four different ways that "what we
can't not know" is known. In the spirit of St. Paul's remark that God has
not left himself without witness among the nations, these might be called
the Four Witnesses.
First, and in one sense the most fundamental, is the witness of deep
the awareness of the moral basics that has traditionally been called
synderesis. Although it can be suppressed and denied, and must be
distinguished from conscious moral belief, it continues to operate even
Second is the witness of the designedness of things in general, and
consequently of the Designer, which some people have called the "sensus
In another sense this is even more fundamental than deep conscience,
because unless deep conscience has been designed to tell us truth, there
is no reason to take deep conscience seriously. That, by the way, is the
cardinal problem of so-called evolutionary ethics.
Third is the witness of the particulars of our own design. An example is
the complementarity of the sexes: There is something missing in the makeup
of the man which can be completed only by the woman, and something missing
in the makeup of the woman which can be completed only by the man. Don't
we all really know that?
I cannot be completed by my mirror image; I am made for the Other. A
Christian, of course, suspects that this prepares us for intimacy with
God, for whom we were also made, but who is even more Other.
Last is the witness of natural consequences. Those who cut themselves
bleed; those who abandon their children have none to stroke their brows
when they are old; those who suppress their moral knowledge become even
stupider than they had intended. And so it goes.
We may think of this witness as the teacher of last resort, the one we are
forced to confront when we have ignored the other three.
Q: I understand that you and your wife are to be received into the
Catholic Church at Easter. Did your study of natural law lead to your
decision to become Catholic?
Budziszewski: No, but it had something to do with it. I will always be
grateful for what I learned in evangelical Protestantism, among other
things its fierce loyalty to the truth and authority of the Bible.
If you do believe that the Bible comes from God, however, then you have to
believe that the natural law comes from him, too, because the Bible so
plainly presupposes and points to it.
In particular, it confirms all Four Witnesses: Consider for example its
confirmation of the witness of deep conscience in Romans 2:14-15, which I
have mentioned already, and its confirmation of the witness of natural
consequences in Galatians 6:7. For this reason, I was deeply perplexed
that Protestantism did not teach the natural law, and that some
influential Protestant writers even condemned belief in natural law as
unbiblical and pagan.
Of course I couldn't help wondering why the only place where this deeply
biblical doctrine was preserved in its purity was the Catholic Church.
This was especially unsettling because, according to Protestant prejudice,
the Catholic Church does not take holy Scripture seriously.
Q: It seems that after a long period of skepticism, Protestants have begun
to embrace the natural law tradition in recent years. What accounts for
Budziszewski: This welcome change is more a return than a reversal,
because the earliest Reformers believed strongly in natural law.
John Calvin remarked: "Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we
call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that
conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this
equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to
be the aim, the rule, and the end of all law."
Martin Luther made similar remarks. This is one of a number of Catholic
beliefs that Protestants used to accept but have over the years given up.
What happened in recent years to bring conservative Protestants back to
natural law is that the culture became biblically illiterate. In former
generations, Protestants could speak with their neighbors about shared
concerns in the language of holy Scripture, because their neighbors knew
the Bible and respected it.
Today that is impossible. The new situation requires quoting the Bible
less, but following its apologetical example more closely.
Consider the example of St. Paul. When he broached Christian topics with
pagans, he didn't pull Scripture verses from his pocket. Instead he
appealed to things they knew at some level already.
More and more, Protestants are finding that they must now do as Paul did.
In the broadest sense, however, what Paul was following was the method of
natural law. ZE04040123
J. Budziszewski on Latency, Denial and Rationalization
AUSTIN, Texas, 2 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT)
U.S. courts have been giving short shrift to natural law for the past
century, says a professor of government and philosophy.
J. Budziszewski, a professor at the University of Texas and author of
several books, including "What We Can't Not Know: A Guide" (Spence
Publishing), shared with ZENIT why he thinks many modern courts, thinkers
and members of society unfairly, and unwisely, ignore the basics of
Q: What is the moral significance of natural law and how can it most
effectively shape the laws enacted by governments?
Budziszewski: The natural law simply is the moral law. We may think of it
this way. Everything God made has a nature. However, not everything he
made is subject to him in the special way called natural law.
Natural law is a privilege of created rational beings
that includes us
because it is a finite reflection of his infinite wisdom in their finite
minds. This is what Thomas Aquinas means when he defines natural law as
"the participation of the rational creature in the eternal law."
In view of the fact that the natural law specifies the universal
requirements for the common good of human beings, it is the basis for the
human laws enacted by governments.
Ordinary human laws may be connected with the natural law in either of two
ways. These used to be called the way of "conclusions" and the way of
"determinations," but today it might be clearer to call them "inference
from general principles" and "filling in the blanks."
An example of the first kind of connection is that since it is wrong to
harm one's neighbor, the human law should forbid poisoning.
An example of the second is that since we ought to have regard for the
safety of our neighbors, the human legislator must pin down such matters
as whether automobiles are to drive on the right or the left. Sometimes
the "pinning down" is by unwritten rather than written law; this is one of
the ways in which culture is built up.
Q: American courts have often referred to natural law and traditional
notions of "ordered liberty" in their decisions in the past century, but
their decisions seem often at odds with Christian moral truth. How do you
explain this phenomenon?
Budziszewski: I would put it differently: Though American courts have
sometimes referred to natural law over the course of our history, during
the past century they have been more and more loath to do so.
During the same period, their references to "ordered liberty"
a phrase that once upon a time presupposed the natural law
have become more and more incoherent.
We reached the nadir in 1992, when the Supreme Court opined that, "At the
heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of
meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
What the court seemed to be propounding in this passage was a degenerate
theory of natural law
a universal moral right not to recognize the universal moral laws on which
all rights depend. Such liberty has infinite length but zero depth.
A right is a power to make a moral claim upon me; if I could "define" your
claims into nonexistence
as the court said I could "define" the unborn child's
that power would be destroyed.
I have written elsewhere that in such a polity, no one can long be safe.
Indeed, the wonder of it all is how one thing leads to another. Having
declared that the Constitution somehow includes a right to define reality,
the judges must put themselves in its place: If he wishes to survive, any
king who says, "Everything is permitted" must add, "But I decide for
everyone what 'everything' includes."
To take a longer view of the matter, in order to justify violating the
natural law against murder, the court has at last found it necessary to
defy the principle of our own republican government
the balance of powers; the principle of all republican government
that the weak have equal standing with the strong; and the principle of
government as such
that rule is ordained to protect, not destroy.
Q: Why do modern thinkers and modern culture so willingly ignore even the
basics of the natural law, when, according to you, these are matters we
"can't not know?"
Budziszewski: One reason is latency: It's possible to know something
without knowing that you know it. The complementarity of the sexes is like
that; it may not even occur to you until someone calls it to your
attention, when you say, "Of course, that's obvious."
Another reason is denial: It's possible to know something and yet tell
yourself you don't.
Usually, we play such tricks on ourselves either because we know something
is wrong but want to do it very much
or because we've already done it, and conscience is too painful to face.
Denial is a much more serious problem than latency, because a person or a
culture in denial resists being taught.
A third reason is rationalization: We make excuses for doing wrong not
because we don't know it's wrong, but because we do. In fact, the
knowledge of right and wrong provides the very material for our excuses.
For example, the feminist Eileen McDonagh admits that it's wrong to
deliberately take innocent human life, but she says that the fetus isn't
it's an aggressive intruder in the woman's womb. She even compares it with
a rapist. I don't think many women would be able to believe that the baby
in the womb is a trespasser, but a lot of judges might.
Q: What prospects do you see for a renewed appreciation of the natural law
in the courts, the law schools, and the other high places of our culture?
Budziszewski: Here's why your question is difficult. The foundational
principles of the natural law are not only right for everyone, but at some
level known to everyone.
This doesn't mean we can't deny them. What it means is that when we do
deny them, the problem lies less in the intellect than in the will. Your
question, then, becomes "How likely are our elites to repent?" The answer
to that question is hidden in the providence of God.
However, I don't think we need an answer anyway. We know our own duty well
enough. One of the permanent advantages of evil is the temptation that it
offers us to despair. This is a burden.
But we have a permanent advantage in the virtue St. Paul calls hope, for
our confidence, unlike the bravado of our opponents, is not presumption.
It does not rest in our own small strength, but in the strength of the One
whom we serve. ZE04040225