The Law Written on the Heart

A Review of Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law by J. Budziszewski (InterVarsity Press, 1997)


Phillip E. Johnson

Paul wrote in Romans 2:15 that gentiles who know nothing of Moses or Christ may nonetheless show by their deeds "that the requirements of the Law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." J. Budziszewski, who teaches in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, and whose work frequently appears in First Things and other journals, explains that this law is what philosophers call the "natural law." It is the bedrock moral understanding that we can't not know, however hard we try to evade that knowledge, because our consciences bear witness to it.

When our consciences accuse us, and we are unwilling to repent, all we can do is to smother our knowledge with rationalizations and recruit others to vice. As Paul said in Roman 1:32, "Although [depraved people] know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." Just as misery loves company, sin craves social approval.

Most of Written on the Heart consists of a highly readable and stimulating survey of the history of natural law thinking from Aristotle to the present. Aristotle, who knew nothing of the Judeo-Christian God, developed his common sense ethical philosophy by examining the actual practices of people who were reputed to be wise and happy. Thomas Aquinas melded Aristotelian ethics with Roman legal scholarship and Catholic doctrine to create a synthesis that still has a powerful attraction for those who study it sufficiently to master Thomas's categories. John Locke, who meant to find a stronger basis for law, unintentionally undermined the project by grounding knowledge on sense experience exclusively. Eventually his empiricism led to utilitarianism, which attempted to rebuild moral philosophy on a dismally inadequate foundation, namely our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. Utilitarianism led inexorably to pragmatism and relativism, in reaction to which some Roman Catholic natural law philosophers (especially Germain Grisez and John Finnis) have attempted to revive natural law theory on a secular basis.

I would have added another major figure to this historical survey: the immensely influential American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Mr. Justice Holmes thought of law as a science that, like the natural sciences, rigorously excluded such irrelevancies as morality and metaphysics. "If you want to know the law and nothing else," he wrote in The Path of the Law (1897), "you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct... in the vaguer sanctions of conscience."

From the standpoint of the practicing lawyer, Holmesian law is nothing more than "the prophecies of what the courts will do in fact." The bad man and the good man alike will guide their conduct by such prophecies, because neither wishes to come into conflict with the organized force of the state. From the standpoint of the rational judge or legislator, the rules which the prudent bad man observes are themselves derived from policy sciences like economics and psychology. The ultimate purpose of law is to achieve whatever goals (such as prosperity and safety) the public sees fit to endorse through the political process. Whether people's inclinations are good or bad is of little concern, because bad and good alike can be made to obey the law.

Holmes downgraded tradition as a source for law, famously remarking that "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was so laid down in the time of Henry IV." He had an even lower regard for notions of morality, regarding them as unscientific relics of outdated religious traditions. He conceded that a law which too blatantly transgressed a community's moral standards might be unenforceable, but then trivialized the point by illustrating it with the comment that "I once heard the late Professor Agassiz say that a German population would rise if you added two cents to the price of a glass of beer." Never one to pull his punches, Holmes mused that "I often doubt whether it would not be a gain if every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether, and other words adopted which should convey legal ideas uncolored by anything outside the law." In place of the moral law written on the heart, Holmes gave us state coercion based on science. That's about as far away from Thomas Aquinas as you can get.

Such nihilism also puts the political community and the pirate gang on the same moral footing, since both are based on pragmatism and coercion. It is no wonder that people continue to search for a new kind of natural law that agnostic modernists can accept, but the immediate prospects are not promising. Germain Grisez postulates that there are seven basic forms of the good, including justice, friendship, holiness, life (including procreation), knowledge, and skill. Each of these is said to be "irreducible," so that it is forbidden, for example, to sacrifice one basic good to achieve another. Budziszewski's brief critique of this complex theory is devastating: its rules are arbitrary, and they threaten to turn the easy questions (like whether it is permissible to adopt a celibate lifestyle in order to pursue holiness or knowledge) into unresolvable dilemmas.

James Q. Wilson's 1993 book The Moral Sense asserts that "we have a moral sense [and] most people rely on it even if intellectuals deny it, but it is not always and in every aspect of life strong enough to withstand a pervasive and sustained attack." That may sound like the law written on the heart, which can be obscured but never erased. As a scientific materialist, however, Wilson cannot ground the moral sense in anything more solid than "feelings," meaning emotional reactions which he deems to have been created by natural selection. The well-known problem with this approach is we have many conflicting feelings, some of which (like avarice and lust) hardly qualify as moral. Wilson has to distinguish the truly moral feelings from their "wilder rivals," much as the utilitarian John Stuart Mill tried to distinguish the higher pleasures from the lower ones. These moves invoke an objective moral law by which feelings or pleasures can be evaluated, but where is such a law to be found?

The best part of Written on the Heart is Chapter 13, where Budziszewski provides a brilliant "Christian Appraisal of Natural Law Theory." Natural law is not in any sense a substitute for divine revelation or saving grace. For a Christian the Bible is the paramount authority on moral questions, but the Bible itself teaches that God has a witness (general revelation) to the pagans. Indeed, the heartfelt admission that there is a moral law and that we have violated it is often the first step that brings the unbeliever to faith. C.S. Lewis's apologetic in Mere Christianity takes exactly this approach. Of course the law written on the heart is obscured by what psychologists call "denial," and modernists far surpass the ancient pagans in inventing strategies for denial. In Budziszewski's words: "With a head filled with false sophistication that tells him that right and wrong are invented by culture and different everywhere, the new sort of pagan mistrusts his own conscience and views guilt as a sign of maladjustment that therapy will remove."

Most modern ethical thinking, Budziszewski explains, goes about matters backwards. Modernists assume that the problem of sin is mainly cognitive -- that we don't know the moral law and are doing our best to find it out. Unfortunately for us, the problem is mainly volitional. We know well enough the difference between right and wrong, but we obscure our understanding so we can do as we please. That is why the primary task of Christian natural law philosophy is not to prove the existence of the moral law, but to expose the devices of the heart by which we conceal the truth from ourselves.

The concept of natural law makes sense only if our lives have a purpose. Consider two influential statements of the human condition. The first, by the neo-Darwinist George Gaylord Simpson, states that "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." This is modernity's official doctrine of creation, and it provides no foundation on which moral reasoning can build. As accidental by-products we might as well do whatever gratifies our strongest feelings, or helps us to get whatever it is that we happen to want. All else is pious humbug.

Now consider the famous words of the Westminster Catechism: "Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever." From that statement we know that a moral law exists, and it consists of those precepts that teach us how to achieve our chief and highest end. If we start there, we can read what is written on our hearts.