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Edward Feser, David Bentley Hart, and Natural Law

Edward Feser administers a much needed corrective on the subject of natural philosophy and natural law in this response to David Bentley Hart. Before Dr. Feser’s article, the original piece from Dr. Hart was mostly applauded by other noteworthy names like Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs, and Peter Leithart. We will not reproduce all of Dr. Feser’s argument, but we will highlight a few key points to show how he demonstrates that these critics are actually confused about the basic points of the natural law position. And in their confusion, these critics end up furthering the modernist cause they seek to defeat.

Dr. Feser begins by pointing out the existence of two schools of natural law: the classical (or “old”) natural-law theory and the “new natural-law theory.” These two schools hold some ideas in common, but they disagree on some important fundamentals. Dr. Feser summarizes:

What the two approaches have in common is the view that objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition. Rather, they can in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments. Where the two approaches differ is in their view of which philosophical claims, specifically, the natural law theorist must defend in order to develop a system of natural law ethics. The “old” natural law theorist would hold that a broadly classical, and specifically Aristotelian, metaphysical picture of the world must be part of a complete defense of natural law. The “new” natural law theorist would hold that natural law theory can be developed with a much more modest set of metaphysical claims – about the reality of free will, say, and a certain theory of practical reason – without having to challenge modern post-Humean, post-Kantian philosophy in as radical and wholesale a way as the “old” natural law theorist would. Both sides agree, however, that some body of metaphysical claims must be a part of a complete natural law theory, and (again) that these claims can be defended without appeal to divine revelation, scripture, etc.

The problem with Dr. Hart’s critique, among other things, is that he conflates the two schools. He seems to affirm the truth of the “old” natural-law theory, but then he uses modernistic assumptions, those held by the “new natural-law theory,” to explain why the old theory, while still true, has no persuasive power. In doing so, however, he must grant that some of the new positions are also true, or at least true enough not to publicly contest, which is all very strange and self-contradictory.

Dr. Feser explains how Dr. Hart’s practical skepticism is itself incoherent:

[He] supposes that even if our nature directs us to certain ends that constitute the good for us, reason could still intelligibly wonder why it ought to respect those natural ends or the good they define. But this implicitly supposes that reason itself, unlike everything else, somehow lacks a natural end definitive of its proper function, or at least a natural end that we can know through pure philosophical inquiry. And that is precisely what classical natural law theory denies. In the view of the “old” natural law theorist, when the metaphysics of intellect and volition are properly understood, it turns out that it cannot in principle be rational to will anything other than the good.  The fusion of “facts” and “values” goes all the way down, without a gap into which the Humean might fit the wedge with which he’d like to sever practical reason from any particular end. Hart simply assumes that this is false, or at least unknowable; he doesn’t give any argument to show that it is. And thus he has offered no non-circular criticism of the classical natural law theorist.

Here we see that so many of the new classicists, many of whom write for First Things and Pro Ecclesia, are themselves still thorough-going modernists. Individual reason, even if only for the sake of criticism, is the one thing privileged enough to critique contextualization. Thus the criticisms of Hume and the alternatives of Kant are mostly accepted. But then, in modernism’s wake, classical philosophy and theology are held up as an aesthetically-attractive anchor to the subjectivist dilemma, but, importantly, one still subjective in nature. In other words, these Christian philosophers choose to hold to classical positions, but they acknowledge that this is a subjective value whose utility is only truly discernible after the fact.

This leads to very pressing problems, namely a basic relativism and its apocalyptic solution which is invariably utopian and violent. Dr. Feser explains how the first dilemma results from an equivocation:

Sloppy popular usage aside, “supernatural” is not a synonym for “metaphysical” – as Hart himself implicitly acknowledges with the phrase “supernatural (or at least metaphysical),” quoted above. What is supernatural is what is beyond the natural order altogether, and thus cannot be known via purely philosophical argument but only via divine revelation. Metaphysics, by contrast, is an enterprise that Platonists, Aristotelians, materialists, idealists, philosophical theists, atheists, and others have for millennia been engaged in without any reference to divine revelation.

The classical natural law theory asserts a specific metaphysical framework, to be sure. And it acknowledges that this is controversial, as Dr. Feser also does. But it does not acknowledge, and has not acknowledged, that the project of metaphysics itself is wholly “supernatural,” dependent on some sort of apocalyptic intervention into the normal order of things. To do so would make metaphysics dependent upon special revelation, which would make it non-rational and subjective at bottom. Such a position fits perfectly within postmodernism, but it is directly at odds with the earlier tradition. That tradition said that certain metaphysical truths were self-evident and necessary for all other rational discourse. “The contrary” was, to borrow a phrase from other Christian transcendentalists, “impossible.” Certain truths have to be the case in order for reason to be coherent, and since reason itself is necessary to dispute reason’s coherency, those truths’ existence is itself necessary or self-evident. Thus objective truth is itself self-evident and capable of being appealed to. For Dr. Hart to consign metaphysics to supernatural revelation is to forfeit this claim of objective reality.

Dr. Feser does not miss the fact that this postmodern Christian philosophy is itself a product of secularist advances. He writes, “Notice also the rich irony of a thinker who urges us to trust in divine revelation rather than natural reason, and who appeals to a secularist philosophical argument in order to make his case!” Instead of defeating secularism, which Dr. Hart has claimed to at least attempt, the result is actually a furtherance of the secularist foundation. The practical result is actually more identity politics with the claim that “Christians” or “religious people” are a class-in-miniature who have something rich to offer the larger market of ideas. One will see this same phenomenon replicated in Neo-Orthodoxy, Radical Orthodoxy, and certain forms of “worldview” thinking. Instead of argument, we will see appeals to “apocalyptic” transformation through a sort of event-metaphysics.

All of this leaves us with the hopeless contest of competing ultimate worldviews. While it is true that only persuasion will bring a person from one competing position to another, reason has traditionally been the vehicle, or at least one of the primary vehicles, which enables persuasion to be compelling. Apart from it, we are left with fideism or, worse, coercion. Dr. Feser illustrates the futility of the “apocalyptic” methodology:

And then there is the question of why anyone else should accept the revelation – of the missionary activity that, as I’m sure Hart would agree, the Christian is called to. If you are going to teach an Englishman Goethe in the original, you’re going to have to teach him German first. If you’re going to teach him algebra, you’d better make sure he already knows basic arithmetic. And if you’re going to preach the Gospel to him, you’re going to have to convince him first that what you’re saying really did come from God, and isn’t just something the people you got it from made up or hallucinated. That’s why apologetics – the praeambula fidei, the study of what natural reason can and must know before it can know the truths of faith – precedes dogmatics in the order of knowledge, and always will. The theologian who thinks otherwise is like the Goethe scholar who screams in German at his English-speaking students, telling them what idiots they are – and deriding those who would teach them German as engaged in a “hopeless” task.

All one can say to this is Amen. John Warwick Montgomery made the same point in his essay “Once Upon an A Priori.” Without some inescapably common reason, call it what you will, all we are left with is a shouting match. Or perhaps, as in the current case, what we’ve got is simply marketing.

We will have much more to say about this topic in later essays. For now we will leave our Christian readers with this reassurance. One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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