Texas A&M’s James R. Rogers recently penned an essay at First Things regarding the natural law and St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, arguing that the portion of Paul most often cited by natural lawyers demonstrates far less about man’s natural moral knowledge than such thinkers would claim. The verses in question are Romans 2:14–15:
When the Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…
Rogers contends that the scope of this passage is severely limited, and that Paul’s words jive better with Rogers’ own so-called “Swiss-cheese theory of natural law,” which posits that there can be gaping air pockets of ignorance in man’s basic moral knowledge. While some of Rogers’ conclusions are quite correct—though he is mistaken in thinking that these ought to be stumbling blocks for classical natural law theorists—still others of his arguments are severely misguided, failing to harmonize with the present Pauline verses, moral common sense, or the remainder of Scriptural revelation.
Beginning with the former, I wholeheartedly affirm Rogers’ claim that trespassers—both Christian and non—can offer rationalizations for their transgressions until they are blue in the face. But such excuses do not give us reason to doubt their awareness of the natural law, which St. Thomas Aquinas rightly identifies as “common to all both as to knowledge and as to rectitude.” On the contrary, it is only because the wrongdoer has moral knowledge that he is able to craft excuses in the first place. The abortionist can argue all he likes that he is not deliberately taking innocent human life—by denying his deliberateness, or by challenging that his act is a taking, or by claiming the child is not innocent, human, or alive. But the abortionist can make these arguments only because he already knows that deliberately taking innocent human life is wrong.
Thus like hypocrisy, rationalization is an homage vice pays to virtue, or so says J. Budziszewski, professor of government and philosophy at Rogers’ rival University of Texas. In his book What We Can’t Not Know, Budziszewski argues that the evildoer’s attempts to justify himself do not disprove the universality of moral knowledge, as Rogers contends, but rather that they witness to two universals simultaneously: first, to man’s knowledge of morality, and second, to man’s determination to play tricks on such knowledge. “A law written on the heart of man,” says Budziszewski referencing Paul, “but it was everywhere entangled with the evasions and subterfuges of men.” Thus no natural lawyer needs fear the rationalizations of fallen man, for these excuses give us every reason to believe that he knows the law after all, even if he would rather act as though he did not.
Another point on which Rogers is spot-on is that all men at some times—and perhaps some men at all times—lack guilty feelings when violating the law of God. But yet again, this gives us no reason to question the condition of their consciences or their comprehension of the natural law. For conscience is not an affective capacity for moral judgment, but a rational one. The claim of natural lawyers is not that every wrongdoer feels bad for his transgressions, but simply that he knows the foundational principles of morality well enough to recognize blatant transgressions as transgressions.
All people know that murder is wrong, even if they do not all feel guilty when they murder, and regardless of whether they lack those feelings because of biological impediments or because they have dulled their affections by continually violating the natural law in this way. Indeed, the deadening of such guilty feelings after repeated infractions itself witnesses to the natural law, as this is a natural consequence of its continual violation, signaling that something is amiss in the act itself. As Paul would have it in Galatians, “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”—and so again Scripture gestures towards the natural witnesses to the natural law, here the witness of natural consequences.
Rogers is likewise correct that people make mistakes in moral reasoning, and frequently. Indeed, even well intentioned Christians often disagree about some of the thornier moral questions of our time, such as embryo adoption and craniotomies. But the classical natural law tradition does not suppose that man’s natural knowledge contains every ethical conclusion under the sun, just that it accounts for the moral basics. The point is not that, for instance, all men apply the prohibition against stealing without error in all situations, or even that they can all articulate it coherently, but just that all grasp its essential point: I may not take from another against his reasonable will.
Finally, from the perspective of the Christian natural law tradition, Rogers is also right to say that moral knowledge depends upon God. No natural lawyer would be so foolish as to deny this. What Rogers overlooks is that the preservation of our created nature despite the Fall is not something apart from God's grace, but is precisely an act of His grace. So of course our moral knowledge is a grace; for after all, everything is a grace. (Sola gratia is the one Reformation slogan that even Catholics can get behind, even if we think the Reformers’ misunderstanding of divine transcendence led them to incorrectly pit sola gratia against other Catholic doctrines, like those regarding Creation’s causal efficacy.)
Besides, to say that it is God who causes us to know the moral law is not to deny that we know the moral law—precisely the opposite! Nor is it to deny that such knowledge is natural, for that supernature causes nature does not negate nature’s naturalness—otherwise we would all be forced into pantheism.
So I agree with Rogers that wrongdoers rationalize, that guilty fellows may lack guilty feelings, that even the well-meaning make moral miscalculations, and that the natural law is a grace (indeed, the first grace). I simply disagree that these observations pose any threat to the universality of man’s knowledge of the natural law. Yet there are other conclusions Rogers puts forward to which I cannot assent even in part.
The prime mistake of the Swiss-cheese theory lies in its “huge air pockets of amoralism,” that extreme ignorance of moral basics that Rogers argues fallen man may possess. For as Budziszewski has argued, the moral shortcomings of man arise not primarily from moral ignorance but rather from moral self-deception: “Our problem is not that there isn’t a common moral ground, but that we would rather stand somewhere else.”
The difference between suppressing a conscience and not having any conscience to begin with is vast, rather like the difference between not knowing that God exists, and knowing He does but dishonestly pretending otherwise. While many today would claim to fall into the former camp, Scripture calls their bluff, just one chapter before the “written on the heart” verses in dispute:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against… men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them… Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature… has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
It is the same with moral knowledge, as St. Paul goes on to argue a few sentences later after cataloguing a series of sins: “Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.” Thus the self-proclaimed moral ignoramus is—like the man of Psalms 14 and 53 who has said in his heart that there is no God—simply a fool. Comments Budziszewski, “It doesn’t call him a fool for thinking it, but for saying it even though yet deeper in his mind he knows it isn’t true. From this point of view, the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I know, having been one—is that he is not being honest with himself.” Likewise with the moral wreck: Deep down he knows his actions are wrong, but only tells himself he does not.
Rogers is rightly worried by some contemporary natural lawyers who would overlook the reality of suppressing conscience. Such oversights worry me as well. But antinomian theories like the Swiss-cheese one here overlook something too: You cannot suppress something that is not there to be suppressed.
That our moral “ignorance” is not ignorance at all but rather moral ignoring is supported by empirical observation in addition to Sacred Scripture. For the constant effort to keep guilty knowledge from surfacing has vivid consequences, which simply not having a conscience would not. Budziszewski calls these the five furies: remorse, confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. They are the attempts of conscience to make its bearer right the wrong committed.
But when the wrongdoer is unwilling to repent, the furies exact their dues in more pernicious ways, which are all too familiar in our postlapsarian world. Think of the adulteress who avoids travelling to the spot of her infidelity at all costs (remorse), of the murderer who compulsively declares every detail of his crime except its immoral element (confession), of the prostitute who repents of every scrupulous infraction in her life except the one at its center (atonement), of the thieves who band together in order to simulate the intimacy they have broken with the rest of society (reconciliation), of the blasphemer who excuses himself by citing ad nauseum all of the reasons he has to be angry with God (justification). All of these phenomena witness to guilty knowledge struggling to be suppressed, and none of them would be intelligible if the sinner had not, at some level, known of this immorality ex ante.
Rogers also errs in his exegesis of Romans 2. It would make little sense in this passage, which—as Rogers rightly notes—is primarily concerned with guilt, for Paul to claim that Gentiles only know the law when they obey the law. Were this true, as Rogers supposes, then the Gentiles would not be legally guilty for their transgressions at all, as one cannot be held legally blameworthy for a crime one had no reason to know was criminal.
Thus promulgation takes on such a central role in the Thomistic definition of law, so that if a law were created but kept hidden, properly speaking it would be no law at all. The very nature of guilt presumes knowledge and freedom, so to make sense of pagan guilt before the law, we must presume pagan moral knowledge—a presumption reinforced for us by Scripture, Tradition, and painful experience.
About this Rogers and I agree: Fallen man does some morally atrocious things, and he is expert at evading the law that waits to accuse him, at least for now. Where we disagree is about the degree to which, and about the means whereby, he understands such moral atrocities as atrocities in the first place.
Budziszewski drives home the position of the classical natural law tradition when he writes, “A child without the rudiments of synderesis could not be taught the meaning of the word ‘wrong’ for the same reason that a child without sight could not be taught the meaning of the word ‘red’ and a child without the power of comparison could not be taught the meaning of the word ‘same’.” Precisely so—we men are predisposed by grace working through nature to learn moral truth. By the point of maturity, the foundational principals of this truth are on some level known to all, try as we might to keep them down and escape their reach. Thus although it is correct in some aspects, still the Swiss-cheese theory is full of holes, which it needs the classical natural law tradition to help fill in.