Interview with J. Budziszewski, author of
The Line Through the Heart
Your book is about natural law - natural moral law, so we're not talking about Newton's Laws of Motion. Would you please explain what "natural law" means? Is it really natural, and is it really law?
Is natural law really law? Certainly. A law is a rule and measure of action, addressed to the mind, directed toward the common good, made by legitimate authority, and promulgated or made known. Take the precept never to deliberately take innocent human life. It is not just a whim, but something the mind can grasp it as right; it isn't for a special interest, but for the universal good; it was made by the public authority of the universe, who "enacted" it by making life good; and since He has designed that part of His creation we call our minds in such a way that we can recognize it, it really has been promulgated. Is natural law really natural? Yes again. We aren't speaking here of "nature" in the sense of the infamous pop lyric, "You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." Natural law is "natural" in the deeper sense that it is rooted in the creational design, including the design of our intellects and the rules for the flourishing of creatures of our kind, mammals who aren't just mammals but much more.
What would be a good summary of the natural law?
The best summary I know is the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. The fact that it is part of revelation makes it divine law, but the fact that the mind can recognize it as right independently of revelation makes it natural law. It is only a good summary, though, if we pay attention to its spirit, not just to its letter. Literally, the command against bearing false witness prohibits only lying to get my neighbor in trouble, but it presupposes institutions for public justice and it suggests a broader norm of truthfulness. Literally, the letter of the command against adultery prohibits only unfaithfulness to my spouse, but it presupposes the institution of marriage and it suggests a broader norm of sexual purity.
You say that natural law provides all human beings with a moral common ground. But you also say that it's a slippery common ground. Why is it slippery?
The first thing that makes it slippery is latency: I might know something about natural law without knowing that I know it. Another reason is denial: I might know something about natural law and yet tell myself that I don't. A third reason is rationalization: I may make excuses for doing wrong, not because I don't know that it is wrong, but just because I do. In fact, the knowledge of right and wrong provides the very material for our excuses.
Can you give me an example of this slipperiness? Maybe from law or politics?
For an example of latency, consider the complementarity of the sexes. I might never give it a thought, but as soon as someone calls it to my attention, I say "I knew it all along." That might serve as an example of denial, too, because these days we are all under pressure to pretend that we don't notice that men and women are different, and to pretend we don't notice that they need each other. For another example of denial, consider how hard we try to convince ourselves that we don't know that abortion is wrong, even though we concede that it is always wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. For an example of rationalization, consider the argument of one feminist lawyer that abortion is all right because babies in the womb aren't innocent -- that they are aggressive intruders who "make" their mothers pregnant against their wills. Notice that rationalization makes use of moral knowledge (in this case, the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life) even while playing tricks on this knowledge (I have to pretend that I don't know that babies are innocent). This does terrible violence to the intellect.
Just now you were talking about moral evasion and subterfuge, about all the ways we try to fool ourselves, pretending that we don't know what we really do know. Does that have something to do with the title of your book, The Line Through the Heart? By the way, is that your own phrase?
The ways that we deceive ourselves have everything to do with the title. I've addressed moral evasion and subterfuge before, but in this book I press the discussion much farther and into new territory. The phrase "the line through the heart" comes from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote that "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
I see that your book has a subtitle: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction. "Fact" I get it's really real. "Theory" I get we have to describe the fact carefully and work it out. But why "Sign of Contradiction"? What's that all about?
Natural law is about the design of creation, but as Benedict XVI has remarked, "Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the opposite tendency away from God. ... This paradox points to a certain inner disturbance in man, so that he can no longer simply be the person he wants to be .... There is a collective consciousness that sharpens the contradiction .... [T]he stronger the demand made by the law, the stronger becomes the inclination to fight it." You might say, then, that my book explores not only the natural law itself, but also the inclination to fight the natural law.
How do we find out what the natural law is? At one point you talk about "the four witnesses." Do you mean something like four pieces of data, or pieces of evidence? What are the four witnesses? I hope they aren't four experts.
No, not four experts. I'm speaking of witnesses built into the very design of creation, where they are available to everyone. The famous line in Psalm 19, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," calls attention to what might be called the witness of "designedness." Another witness to natural law -- another way that we become aware of it and learn about it -- is the details of the creational design. In my answer to one of your previous questions, I've already mentioned one such detail, the complementarity of the sexes. Another detail is so important that I treat it as a witness in its own right: The deep structure of the moral intellect, which we call conscience. The final witness is the natural consequences of violating natural law, the fact that we reap as we sow. Sometimes we can push the consequences of our actions onto other people or other generations -- for instance my generation have pushed the worst consequences of our sexual revolution onto our children -- but these consequences pile up, and eventually there comes a reckoning.
I see that the book has two parts. Part I is about ethics, about how to live. Part II is about law and politics, about how to live together. What are some of the subjects you deal with in Part I?
One question I explore is how much we can know about good and evil without knowing about God. Another is how the knowledge of God deepens the knowledge of good and evil. Still another is the mystery of how things that seem to run against the grain of human nature can become 'second nature.' That's a big one, and if you don't believe it, just listen in on the sexuality debates, in which it is common for someone to say that a practice that used to be called unnatural is "natural for me." Finally I ask whether natural law can be reconciled with Darwinian evolution. Yes, yes, we all know that the Darwinian mechanism explains things like the length of finch beaks, but that is not the question. Some people, convinced that the mechanism explains everything about us, proclaim a new day of "evolutionary ethics." Are they wonderfully right, or dreadfully wrong?
What are some of the subjects you deal with in Part II?
Turning to politics, I take up such topics as who counts as a human person, whether human dignity is compatible with capital punishment, what courts have made of the United States Constitution, and how an ersatz state religion can be built in the name of toleration. In various ways, each of these questions sprouts from the subject of natural law, and they are also related to each other.
Why should people want to read this book?
People should want to read this book because of the suicidal proclivity of our time to deny the obvious. They should want to read it because our hearts are riddled with desires that oppose their deepest longings, because we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. Why? And what can we do about it? We need to understand these things just because we are human beings.