The Second Tablet Project
J. Budziszewski | Fall 2006
Editor’s Note: This October, the first Ichthus lecture was delivered by J. Budziszewski in Emerson Hall on the topic of Natural Law. Budziszewski is a professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, and has written extensively on the subjects of politics, ethics, philosophy, and theology. He has written several books, including The Revenge of Conscience and How to Stay Christian in College. The following article originally published in First Things (Aug/Sept 2004) is reprinted with the permission of First Things and the author. The argument of the article is further developed in J. Budziszewski’s book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence Publishing, 2003). We are honored to welcome Professor Budziszewski to our pages.
According to the mainstream of the natural law tradition, the reality of God and of our duty to Him are among the things everyone really knows. They are part of “general” revelation; we have natural knowledge not only of the Second Tablet of the Decalogue, but of the First. Needless to say, some people find this claim scandalous. They deny the natural knowledge of God, deny the natural knowledge of the First Tablet of the Decalogue, and deny the natural knowledge of the first precept of the Summary of the Law. Apart from direct or “special” revelation, they think ethics should acknowledge neighbor only. Passions run high among such thinkers. A book reviewer angrily declares that “God does not belong” in discussions of how to live. A scholar of my acquaintance devotes the last phase of his intellectual career to what he calls “pushing God out of the natural law”—or at least, he says, “into the wings.” This goal is widely shared. Insofar as it wishes to get by on the Second Tablet without the First, we might call it the Second Tablet Project.
The Second Tablet Project is probably more popular among lukewarm religious believers who wish to make the moral law palatable to nonbelievers than it is among nonbelievers themselves. Nonbelievers who want to get rid of the First Tablet usually have doubts about the Second too—and for the same reasons. God, they think, is a dubious proposition, but why should morality be less dubious than He? Aren’t both matters equally dim? As to the notion of “things we can’t not know,” they do not believe that there are any—we have only a grab bag of incompatible opinions about God and how to live, all of them equally controversial because none of them can be known to be true. Under the circumstances, they think, the only sensible thing to do is to eject the whole lot of these opinions from the public square. This is the mentality that finds it scandalous to post the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall. The argument seems to be, “Because we don’t agree with each other, you must do as I say”—for if anyone should protest, “But your opinion that these norms are not common knowledge is far more controversial than the norms themselves,” they respond, “See what I mean?” Or perhaps, like John Rawls, they respond that their opinion should have special privileges because it is “political, not metaphysical.” Here the argument seems to be, “The ultimate truth of things is unknowable, and that’s why you must do as I say.” Of course, any view of what is knowable or unknowable presupposes something about what is, so that is another sleight of hand.
For those who do believe in natural law or general revelation, the fact that the Second Tablet Project so often turns into a No Tablet project raises an important question. What difference does it make to the knowledge of the moral law that we do have some knowledge about God? If we didn’t have that knowledge, then could we retain knowledge of morality? And if we could retain it, would it be different?
The inquiry requires two parts, because there are two ways to know about God: the vague, partial, natural knowledge of God that is available to every human being, and the additional knowledge of God that is offered (for those who accept it) in the biblical tradition of direct revelation. Though my emphasis is on the first way, I will comment on the second as well. To be sure, the Bible is not included in the things one can’t not know. But every perspective for discussing what we can’t not know is some perspective for discussing what we can’t not know, and my perspective is biblical.
By the first way to know about God I mean the sensus divinitatis, the spontaneous awareness of the reality of the Creator. I do not exclude the clarity that philosophy can add to this awareness; I only wish to point out that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God do not start from nowhere. However complex they may be, they merely elaborate pre–philosophical intuitions, such as the everyday idea that anything which does not have to be requires a cause. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question that anyone can ask.
As to the second way of knowing about God—the biblical tradition of direct revelation—I use the qualifier “biblical” advisedly. Other religions have traditions too, but traditions of direct revelation are quite rare. Every major religion that claims to record God’s direct revelations to human beings in actual historical time accepts at least part of the Bible; this includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No major religion outside of the biblical orbit claims to record God’s direct revelations to human beings in actual historical time.
Part one of the inquiry, then, is this: Apart from any consideration of an alleged direct revelation, what difference does it make to the natural law that we naturally have knowledge of God? It seems to make not one difference, but at least four.
The first difference has to do with what C. S. Lewis called the “abolition of man.” If God has designed and endowed us with our nature—this is not a question of how He did it or how long it took, only of who is responsible—then we can be confident that we have the nature that we ought to have in accord with His good purposes. This premise in no way slights the Fall; even a crushed foot remains a foot. The proposition that we are in conflict with our nature has nothing to do with the proposition that it is not, in fact, our nature.
Let us imagine someone who denies divine design. He admits that human beings have a nature, just in the sense that certain ways of living go against the grain; he only refuses to allow that we were endowed with this nature by God. Paraphrasing George Gaylord Simpson, we are to regard the direction of the grain as the result of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind. I think it follows that had the process gone a bit differently—had our ancestors been carnivores instead of omnivores, had they laid eggs instead of borne live young, or had they never left the oceans for the land—then we would have had a different nature. Given the nature that we do have, certain things go against the grain, hence a certain natural law. Honor your father and mother. Do not kill. Do not covet. Given some other nature, different things would have gone against the grain—hence a different natural law. It might have been anything. Supplant your father. Chase away your mother. Eat your neighbor and covet his mate. What strikes our nature as distressing would for that nature be the norm.
The entire basis of morality, on this account, is the particular nature that we have at the moment. There would be nothing wrong with having a different nature and thus a different natural law. We just don’t.
But what if we could? What if we could change our nature? According to those who hold this view, we already have. Our ancestors were as different from us, they say, as a prosimian is different from a man. Generation by generation, the ur–men of the long–gone past adapted to a changing environment. Our great–grand–primates were the products of adaptation to a life in the branches of trees. Our grand–primates were the products of adaptation to a life on the savanna. Our parents were the products of adaptation to the practice of agriculture. And our descendants will be the products of adaptation to the most enduring features of our own environment, whatever those turn out to be. Perhaps television.
Notice that on this theory, some of the circumstances to which our ancestors adapted were the results of their own prior actions. It was they who came down from the trees, and had therefore to adapt to the savanna. It was they who invented agriculture, and had therefore to adapt to a different diet. In a sense, then, we have been influencing our own evolution all along. We have already changed our nature. We just didn’t know that we were doing it.
If there is nothing wrong with having a different nature—and if we have already changed our nature without knowing—then why shouldn’t we take the process in hand? Why shouldn’t we deliberately change ourselves as we wish to be changed? Why shouldn’t we determine the nature of our descendants?
Such proposals are no longer idle talk. In October 2000, news leaked that an American company named Biotransplant and an Australian company named Stem Cell Sciences had successfully crossed a human being with a pig by inserting the nuclei of cells from a human fetus into the pigs’ eggs. Although the embryos were destroyed when they reached the thirty–two–cell point, they would have continued to grow had they been implanted in the womb of a woman—or a sow.
According to J. Bottum in the Weekly Standard, “There has been some suggestion from the creators that their purpose in designing this human pig is to build a new race of subhuman creatures for scientific and medical use. . . . Then, too, there has been some suggestion that the creators’ purpose is not so much to corrupt humanity as to elevate it.” His comments are worth quoting at some length:
It used to be that even the imagination of this sort of thing existed only to underscore a moral in a story. . . . But we live at a moment in which British newspapers can report on nineteen families who have created test–tube babies solely for the purpose of serving as tissue donors for their relatives—some brought to birth, some merely harvested as embryos and fetuses. A moment in which Harper’s Bazaar can advise women to keep their faces unwrinkled by having themselves injected with fat culled from human cadavers. . . . In the midst of all this, the creation of a human–pig arrives like a thing expected. We have reached the logical end, at last. We have become the people that, once upon a time, our ancestors used fairy tales to warn their children against—and we will reap exactly the consequences those tales foretold. Like the coming true of an old story—the discovery of the philosopher’s stone, the rubbing of a magic lantern—biotechnology is delivering the most astonishing medical advances anyone has ever imagined. But our sons and daughters will mate with the pig–men, if the pig–men will have them. And our swine–snouted grandchildren—the fruit not of our loins, but of our arrogance and our bright test tubes—will use the story of our generation to teach a moral to their frightened litters.
Plainly, Bottum is not pleased with what the researchers have done. As he writes, it makes no difference whether they plan to create subhumans or superhumans, for “either they want to make a race of slaves, or they want to make a race of masters. And either way, it means the end of our humanity.” The evil is not that the experiment might turn out badly. It is that our nature would be abolished.
But our atheist will ask: What exactly is the objection to abolishing our nature? Why not abolish it? We won’t be around to mind. Our descendants won’t mind either, because we can build into their natures that they are satisfied with the natures they get. If we like, we can make an entire graded set of natures, along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World. “I’m glad I’m a Beta,” say his Betas. So why should we reap the consequences that the tales of old foretold? Why should the pig–men use the story of our generation to teach a moral to their frightened litters? Why should these litters be frightened by what, to them, would be the story of Genesis?
Genesis, I think, is the crux of it: not the text of Genesis, but its idea of creation. To abolish and remake human nature is to play God. The chief objection to playing God is that someone else is God already. If He created human nature, if He intended it, if it is not the result of a blind fortuity that did not have us in mind—then we have no business exchanging it for another. It would be good to remember that Genesis contains not only the story of creation but the story of Babel, of the presumption of men who thought they could build a tower “to heaven.”
Here then is the first difference that the knowledge of God makes to the natural law. A godless natural law would revere the laws of human nature only insofar as we continued to be human. Denying that our humanity is a creation, it would have no reason to preserve this humanity, and no objection to its abolition.
The second difference it makes to have natural knowledge of God concerns what we might call “oughtness.” A moment ago we spoke of a godless natural law. But in what sense can a godless mind revere the laws of human nature at all? The early modern Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius famously remarked that even if there were no God (as he conceded that it would be impious to believe), the natural law would still have a kind of force. What seems to impress most people who read this remark is that Grotius thinks it would have a kind of force. More interesting is his qualifier: it would have a kind of force. The suggestion is that it would not have the kind that it would have if God were real.
Taken with that emphasis, the remark of Grotius might be true. Although a godless natural law would lose the force of “oughtness,” it would retain the lower force of prudence. But perhaps it would lose that force too. Let us consider further.
The argument for saying that the natural law would lose the force of oughtness but retain the force of prudence runs like this. If there is no God, then the universe is not a creation. One immediate consequence is that I owe nothing to anyone for the fact that I am in it. If there is a reason to keep the moral laws, it cannot lie in honoring the one who made us. Another consequence is that the universe has no meaning beyond itself. The patterns in it just are; they do not reflect the goodness or the intentions of a Designer.
And this makes a difference. A theist who attributes the order of nature to God can say things like this: “I see that the sexual powers cause conception, and that the fact that they do so is part of the explanation of why human nature has been endowed with such powers in the first place. This tells me that conception is a purpose of the sexual powers, a part of what they are for. When I employ them, I ought to respect this fact; I ought not to use them in ways that are incompatible with their purpose.” Adding inference to inference in this fashion, he gradually works out a comprehensive account of the right use of the sexual powers and the respect that is owed to the natural institutions which direct and contain them, and he can reason similarly about the other natural powers and institutions.
But an atheist might reply like this: “I use the word purpose too, and I am even willing to concede that you use it correctly. If one thing causes another, and that’s part of the explanation of why the first thing occurs, then the second thing is a purpose of the first; even a Darwinist like me can concede that much. So what? How do you get from ‘One of the purposes of the sexual powers is procreation’ to ‘I should not use the sexual powers in ways that are incompatible with procreation’? So far as I can see, the only thing that follows from the connection between procreation and sex is that when I do have intercourse, it would be prudent to watch out.” Stretching a point a bit—taking into account the entire set of things there are to “watch out” for (not only conception, but jealousy, emotional emptiness, loss of trust, and so forth)—perhaps a purely prudential justification of marriage and family and so forth could be developed. Perhaps a purely prudential justification for each of the other natural laws and institutions could be developed in the same way. And perhaps that is the sort of thing that Grotius had in mind.
Unfortunately, a truly oughtless prudence would have nothing to say to free riders. Anyone who thought he saw a way to obtain the benefits of these laws and institutions without their costs—or who was willing to accept the costs of transgressing them—would do so. To speak again of marriage, some men prefer seducing married women. Others say they can do very well without trust. Still others, that although they fear exposure, they would rather risk it than forgo their pleasures. Some even enjoy the risk; for them, it isn’t a cost.
To be sure, the oughtless sort of prudence is rather thin. The thicker prudence of the natural law tradition would point out that free riders sacrifice greater goods for lesser ones; they ought to desire better for themselves than they do. But they have no ought—remember? In their sort of prudence, the good is nothing but the desirable, and the desirable is nothing but what they actually desire. From their point of view, the good for which they feel the greatest desire is the greatest good—just because they desire it most.
Some people would say that the thinness of the oughtless sort of prudence is a problem only for the naive sort of atheist. With a little more sophistication, the atheist can reply that in the same way things just do have causal and functional properties, so they just do have moral properties. The argument saves oughtness by sheer fiat—or so it seems. But does it really save anything at all? In one way, it makes the atheist’s moral case even weaker, because it concedes the arbitrariness of the universe in which he thinks he is living. So we come to the third difference it makes that we have natural knowledge of God: it determines whether we can expect the universe to make any sense at all, morally or otherwise.
In the colloquy between theist and atheist presented above, both parties assumed that the universe is causally and rationally patterned: this causes that, that explains this, such–and–such is a reasonable explanation of so–and–so. But what right has the atheist to this assumption? Why should there be any patterns whatsoever? If the universe just is, then why shouldn’t the things in it just happen? There is no reason to expect them to yield to reasoning, no explanation of why they should even have an explanation. Moreover, we are not out of the woods even if we do find patterns in the universe, for if these patterns too just are, then there is no warrant for assuming that they are more than local, accidental, superficial, inconsistent, and ephemeral. The sun may not rise tomorrow morning. Fire may not burn this afternoon. Two plus two may equal now four, now six, now one. For me, conception may not be caused by sexual intercourse (that seems to be how some teenagers think). Even if today I am myself, next week I may be someone else (that is how postmodernists think). So why should the natural law have even the force of prudence, much less oughtness? Why should there even be logic? Why should I “watch out” for anything? How could I?
But perhaps the only problem with our sophisticated atheist is that he is not sophisticated enough. If without God he has no right to assume Pattern, very well: let him be a sort of Platonist, and posit that Pattern itself is God. Of course Pattern would not be what the theist means by God, but it would be God in the impersonal sense: the deepest reality, the underlying principle of everything, that on which all else depends.
But if he is to be a sort of Platonist, then what does he make of Plato’s problem? There are a great many patterns, not just one. This raises the question of what organizes them, what binds them all together, in a unity, a Design. We know of only one thing that is capable of Design, and that is mind—intelligent agency. It is not enough for the universe to resemble a mind in having design; let us have no tricks, like calling the patterns “ideas” when we have not earned the right to do so. Behind the universe there must be a real mind that is capable of the things that real minds do, like designing. That brings us back to God—God as the theist means God, God with a mind, God in the personal sense.
If our atheist accepts this implication, then he is back in the fold; he is no longer an atheist. But if he denies it—then it will not help him even if Pattern really is the deepest reality, because in that case “Pattern” is merely a fancy name for “patterns,” and plurality of patterns without Design is merely chaos; “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” After all, Plato merely gave names to the ways things hang together; he never explained why they had to hang together, where there was any necessity to it. For example he said that all good things participate in a sort of super–pattern, or transcendental, called Goodness, and in token of the fact he assumed an underlying unity among the virtues—courage, wisdom, justice, moderation, and all the rest. But with nothing to bring these good virtues into unity, there is no reason why they should be in unity. Perhaps cowardice is the fount of justice, wisdom comes only to the wanton, and courage makes fools of us all. Perhaps righteousness and peace have not kissed each other, as the Psalmist claims, but tear each other daily into pieces. Don’t many people think this way?
Another of Plato’s convictions was that Goodness is but one of the transcendentals. He supposed there were two more, Truth and Beauty. Even supposing this true, it doesn’t help matters, it only makes them worse. For why should the three transcendentals hang together? Why shouldn’t Goodness be ugly, Beauty lie, and Truth be inimical to the good—not because they have come apart, as they seem to in this fallen world, but because they must come apart, because that is how they are?
Natural selection gives no reason; a clash between, say, Truth and Goodness would not keep an organism from passing on its genes. In fact there is no reason—unless there is something else at work, Someone else at work, Whom Plato may have known but did not name. In the end we find that the sophisticated sort of atheist is no better off than the naive sort. His universe is just as mad, and perhaps more terrifying still. It may contain just as much oughtness as he likes: but what ought to be, what charms us, and what is are all at war, and the house of Ought is divided against itself.
Our question has been what difference it makes to the natural law that we naturally have knowledge of God. So far I have been treating this question as though it meant, “What difference would it make to the natural law if we didn’t have such knowledge?” But there is another way to take it: “What difference would it make to the natural law if we do have such knowledge but tell ourselves we don’t?” In other words we may ask about the consequences of lying to ourselves about Him. One of these consequences might be called moral “metastasis”—as in the growth of cancers. This is the fourth way it matters to have natural knowledge of God.
Do we not lie to ourselves about ordinary right and wrong? The desire to know truth is ardent, but it is not the only desire at work in us. The desire not to know competes with it desperately, for knowledge is a fearsome thing. So it is that we often groan about how difficult it is to know what is right even though we know the right perfectly well. Every honest person can confirm this from his own experience. Just how much lying goes on was recently confirmed during the high–level political scandals of the late ’90s, when everyone from television interviewer Geraldo Rivera to comedian Jerry Seinfeld seemed to agree that “Everybody lies about sex.” As Seinfeld put it in interview with Michael Blowen, “Truth and sex don’t go together.” Presumably he had in mind not only our lying to other people but our lying to ourselves, because one just can’t do that much lying without rationalizing it to oneself somehow.
But the problem of lying to ourselves goes far beyond sex. Along with the mainstream of the natural law tradition, I have suggested that one of the things about reality and goodness that we know perfectly well is the reality and goodness of God. Biblical tradition agrees: when Psalm 14 remarks, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God,’” 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 is that he is not being honest with himself. He knows that there is a God; he only tells himself that he doesn’t.
One need not take this from a theist like me. Consider the remarks of the Harvard population biologist Richard Lewontin—an atheist who thinks matter is all there is—in the New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997): “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just–so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.” He continues, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”
What Lewontin is admitting here is that he and those who think like him are only selective skeptics. They are hostile to belief in God because of a prior commitment to a dogmatism that excludes God—a dogmatism about which they are not skeptical at all, which they accept not because of the evidence but in spite of it, and to which they will cling even when it forces them into absurdities. For another example, consider the remarks of the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book The Last Word. The purpose of the book is to defend philosophical rationalism against subjectivism. At a certain point Nagel acknowledges that rationalism has theistic implications. For the moment, the important thing is not whether that is true, but that Nagel thinks that it is. Note well what he says next. After suggesting that contemporary subjectivism may be due to “fear of religion,” he writes, “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well–informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Nagel adds, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. . . . Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.” If Nagel is right, then those who say that theism is a crutch have got it backwards. For our contemporary intellectual culture, it is atheism that serves as a crutch. It couldn’t have been easy to admit that.
So it seems that these men come close to agreeing with me. To be sure they don’t agree that God is real. But they agree that there is something not quite honest in their rejection of Him—something driven either dogmatically, as in Lewontin’s case, or emotionally, as in Nagel’s—rather than forced upon them by the evidence. The view that the atheist is not being honest with himself—that he knows that there is a God, but only tells himself he doesn’t know—is looking better and better. If this apparently preposterous view is true—as I think it is—then it changes everything. For then the important question is not, “Is there a God?”, but “Can I concede one part of my moral knowledge while holding down another?”, or “Can I admit to myself that I know about, say, the goodness of love and the evil of murder, while not admitting to myself that I know about the goodness of God and the evil of refusing Him?”
One certainly can do that—lots of agnostics do—but one can never do it well. The gambit slips from one’s control because, at bottom, it is a lie, and lies metastasize; the universe is so tightly constructed that in order to cover up one lie, we must usually tell another. This applies with just as much force to the lies we tell ourselves as to the lies we tell other people. One could imagine a universe so loosely jointed that lies did not require the support of more lies, but the one we live in is not like that. In this one, deception begets deception, and self–deception begets more self–deception; the greater the lie, the greater its metastatic tendency. This tendency is strongest precisely in the case of the greatest self–deception, pretending not to know that God is real, because there are so many things one must not think of in order to not think of the reality of God.
One cannot predict in advance what stories people will tell themselves to make believe that they do not know the reality of God and their obligation to Him; every agnostic and atheist devises a different set of plausibility gambits, a different pattern of omissions, of forgettings, of avertings of gaze. But it is extraordinarily difficult—I think impossible—for such self–deceptions not to slop over at some point into what one admits about the moral law. Our minds won’t go like that.
We have been asking how it matters that we have natural knowledge of God, and we have found that it makes four differences: as to whether man may be abolished, whether morality has oughtness or only prudence, whether we have reason to expect the universe to make any moral sense at all, and whether, having lied to ourselves about God, we can be honest about the rest of our natural knowledge.
Part two of the inquiry is how Scripture illuminates our understanding—how it matters that there is a biblical revelation over and above the natural knowledge of God. This revelation makes at least three differences, and the first difference has to do with forgiveness.
Clear vision of the moral law is crushing, because the first thing that an honest man sees with this vision is how far he falls short of it. He cannot escape the awareness of a debt that exceeds anything he can pay. Apart from an assurance that the debt can somehow be forgiven, such honesty is too much for us; it kills. The difficulty is that without a direct revelation from the Author of the law, it is impossible to know whether the possibility of forgiveness is real. Therefore we look away; unable to accept the truth about ourselves, we might keep the law in the corner of our eye, but we cannot gaze upon it steadily. Apart from an assurance that the debt can be forgiven—an assurance which transcends what human reason can find out on its own—no human being dares to face the law straight–on.
Yet we can’t quite wipe the law from our intellects. It is woven into the deep structure of our minds, as experts on linguistics say the threads of language are. Unable to make it go away, we use every means we can devise to pretend that we are really being good. Evasions and rationalizations spread through our intellects like the mycelium of a fungus in its host. That is why the ancient world was brutal, as we of all people should understand. Not even the greatest of the pagans could admit what was wrong with infanticide, although they knew that the child was of our kind. Neither can we admit what is wrong with abortion and a host of other evils.
It is hard enough to face the moral law even with the possibility of forgiveness. It offends our pride to be forgiven, terrifies it to surrender control. Without this possibility it would be harder still: How could we ever face how wrong we had been about anything? How could we bear to change our minds? The history of ethics would be a history of digging in against plain truths. Consider how many centuries it took natural law thinkers even in the Christian tradition to work out the implications of the brotherhood of master and slave. At least they did eventually. Outside of the biblical orbit, no one ever did—not spontaneously.
It may seem that the possibility of forgiveness matters only on the assumption that there is, in fact, a God—that without the lawgiver, there would be no law, and therefore nothing to be forgiven. The actual state of affairs is more dreadful, for the Furies of conscience do not wait upon our assumptions. One who admits the Furies but denies the God who appointed them—who supposes that there can be a law without a lawgiver—must suppose that forgiveness is both necessary and impossible. That which is not personal cannot forgive; morality “by itself” has a heart of rock. And so although grace would be unthinkable, the ache for it would keen on, like a cry in a deserted street.
The second difference it makes to acknowledge biblical revelation has to do with providence. Self–interest is not the only thing that tempts us to commit injustice. One of the strongest motives to do wrong is to make everything go right, for sometimes justice requires allowing bad things to happen to other people. If we forbid hanging innocent men, the mob may break out in a riot. If we forbid bombing noncombatants, the war may be prolonged. If we forbid giving perjured testimony, the murderer may go unpunished. Surely it isn’t right, we reason, that there are riots, longer wars, and murderers free in the streets. Let us do evil for the sake of good. It doesn’t seem just to do justice.
Christian faith undercuts the urge to fix everything on our own through conviction of the final helplessness of man and confidence in the providence of God—through certainty that only God can set everything to rights and faith that in the end, He will. Man can merely ameliorate, not cure; but there will be a Judgment, and there will be a hand that wipes every tear from the eyes of those who mourn.
The final helplessness of man to fix himself may seem fatuously obvious after a century that killed hundreds of millions of people, all with the idea of improving human life. If it is a fatuity, however, it is an unbearable fatuity, one that we persistently refuse to accept. I commented earlier on the idea that one may play God if no one is God already. What we have in view here is the conviction that one must play God if the Creator is not Judge and Healer too. Immanuel Kant thought that morality would be undermined without a belief in divine judgment, but Kant did not say the half of it. The wrongs of the world would not merely dismay the desire to do right. They would taunt, torture, and drive men to a despair that could be relieved only by committing yet greater wrongs, on the principle that if God does not save us then we must save ourselves.
There may be some few who could resist this terrible conclusion. I have not met them. It is no accident that not even the Stoics, who invented the very term “natural law,” ever rose to the idea of principles which hold without exception, principles which may not be violated even to prevent violations. The problem was not that they failed to find these principles written upon their hearts, but that they could not bring themselves to attend closely to the inscription. It would have been too awful to believe that the goodness of the ends did not justify the wickedness of the means, because how else could the ends be achieved? The same people who said Fiat justitia ruat caelum, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” also said Salus populi suprema lex, “The safety of the people is the supreme law”—and as they understood these mottoes, the second unraveled the first. Have the Germans begun another uprising? Then raze their villages, rape their virgins, and show them what the Pax Romana means. All for justice, all for order, all for peace.
Without confidence in providence, our vision of every Commandment goes askew. For example “Thou shalt not murder” seems to change before our eyes to “Thou shalt keep alive the greatest number possible—at the expense of others, if that is what it takes.” In the novel (and later movie) Sophie’s Choice, a Nazi guard at Auschwitz commands the young mother to choose which of her children will be sent to the ovens. If she cooperates in the crime, the one she selects will be burned; if she refuses, then both of them will be taken to their deaths. After a long, hanging moment, she pushes away her smallest child and cries out that he take her—not the other, not her favorite! Her choice is plainly evil; for the sake of a better result, she has united herself with the sin of the murderer. And in the end her favorite child dies too. But without faith in a God who hears the cries of the suffering, how could she choose otherwise? One day I was surprised to hear one of my seminar students argue that it would have been “selfish” for Sophie to refuse to mark one of her children for death. How so? His reply was that she should have been willing to “sacrifice herself”—by which he meant sacrifice her conscience. It took me some time to realize that although my agnostic student considered “I must promote life” to be a real moral duty, he viewed “I must not have complicity in murder” to be a merely personal scruple on the order of “I am not the sort of person who skips bathing.” He didn’t deny that conscience speaks differently, but for the sake of a “better” result, he thought, Sophie should have been willing to suffer the agonies of its accusations.
And if there is no God, why not? The motto “Do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences” makes sense only on the assurance that He will take care of the consequences. Without that assurance, doing the right thing means taking care of the consequences—or trying to. And so it is that unless there is providence, the urge to do good irresistibly consorts with evil; unless God is just, our judgments become unhinged.
The third difference biblical revelation makes to moral understanding concerns our ability to recognize our neighbors for what they are. To be a person is to be a proper subject of absolute regard—a “neighbor” in the sense of the Commandments—a being of the sort whom the Commandments are about. It is persons whom I am not to kill, persons whom I am to love as I love myself. But what is a person? If we accept the biblical revelation that man is the imago Dei, the image of God, then every human being is a person—a person by nature, a kind of thing different from any other kind, a being whose very existence is a kind of sacrament, a sign of God’s grace. Trying to understand the nature of man without recognizing him as the imago Dei is like trying to understand a bas–relief without recognizing it as a carving of a lion.
The problem with rejecting this biblical revelation is not that one loses the dim, inbuilt sense of awe that clings to human life; we intuit the image of God even if we do not know what it is. The problem is that this inbuilt sense is not enough. We need an explanation of what it is that we are intuiting—of what we experience when we experience the sense of awe. Without this explanation, I may try to hold onto my knowledge of the evil of murdering my neighbor, but I will find it difficult to recognize my neighbor when I see him. It is not impossible; more or less adequate explanations can be constructed from materials accessible to natural reason. But that is the long way around, and most people weary long before they reach the end of it. By and large, the ones who do stay on the trail are the same ones who acknowledge the biblical revelation of the imago Dei.
In contemporary secular ethics, the ruling tendency is to concede that there are such things as persons, but to define them in terms of their functions or capacities—not by what they are, the image of God, but by what they can do. To give but a single well–known illustration, philosopher Mary Ann Warren defines “personhood” in terms of consciousness, reasoning, self–motivated activity, the capacity to communicate about indefinitely many topics, and conceptual self–awareness. If you can do all those things, you’re a person; if you can’t, you’re not. The functional approach to personhood seems plausible at first, just because—at a certain stage of development, and barring misfortune—most persons do have these functions. But to think that they are their functions blows the core right out of the moral code.
Warren offers her definition to justify abortion. Obviously, unborn babies are not capable of reasoning, complex communication, and so on. If they cannot perform these functions, then by Warren’s definition they aren’t persons, and if they aren’t persons, they have no inherent right to life. But it cannot end with abortion. If unborn babies may be killed because they lack these functions, then a great many other individuals may also be killed for the same reasons—for example the asleep, unconscious, demented, addicted, and very young, not to mention sundry other cases, such as deaf–mutes who have not been taught sign language. In Warren’s language, none of these are persons; in biblical language, she refuses to recognize the imago Dei. She does claim to oppose infanticide—but only because any given infant is probably wanted by someone. She does not concede that the infant has an inherent claim to our regard, and if no one does happen to want it, then, she says, “its destruction is permissible.”
The cure for such blindness is not to tinker with the list of functions by which we define persons, but to stop confusing what persons are with what they can typically do. Functional definitions are appropriate for things which have no inherent nature, things whose identity is dependent on our own purposes and interests. Suppose I am building an automobile and I need to keep two moving parts from touching each other. I don’t need an object of a particular natural kind for that; anything which fills the space can be a spacer. Its very identity as a spacer is relative to how I want to use it, or to what function I value in it.
By contrast, if I am a person then I am by nature a rights–bearer, by nature a proper subject of absolute regard—not because of what I can do, but because of what I am. Of course this presupposes that I have a nature, a “what–I–am,” which is distinct from the present condition or stage of development of what I am, distinct from my abilities in that condition or stage of development, and distinct from how this condition, stage of development, or set of abilities might happen to be valued by other people. In short, a person is by nature someone whom it is wrong to view merely as a means. If you regard me as a person only because I am able to exercise certain capacities that interest you, then you are saying that I am not a person. And so the functional definition of personhood does not even rise to the dignity of being wrong. It is incoherent.
Some modern people will bite the bullet and agree with me. They will try to rescue their position not by drawing back, but by pushing further still, becoming “post” modern. “Very well!” they might say. “Let us grant that persons in the merely functional sense are not persons in the moral sense. But in that case there are no moral persons, because the ‘human beings’ whom you call moral persons do not exist. There are no ‘natural kinds.’ There are no ‘natures.’ There is no ‘what–I–am.’ All value is relative because all meaning is relative; all meaning is relative because every definition is contrived to the convenience of the definer. The definition of the ‘human’ is no less contrived than any other.” They have a point. We saw earlier that without God, there is no reason to believe in any sort of pattern in things—“natures” included.
But they escape one incoherency only to fall into a greater one. The former incoherency concerned only how we think of persons. The new one concerns how we think of everything—how we think of reality, even how we think of thinking. A condition of being able to say anything meaningful at all is that not everything is a creature of our own regard for it. There must exist some things that are what they are despite us; their meanings provide the anchors for all other meanings. If all meaning were relative, then even the meanings of the terms in the proposition “All meaning is relative” would be relative. Therefore the proposition “All meaning is relative” destroys itself. It is nothing but an evasion of reality. That seems a high price to pay, even for the privilege of killing people.
A modernist who rejects the greater of these incoherencies is not yet in the clear; one does not have to believe that all meanings slip away to see the meaning of the person slip away. Though a modernist may keep up the pretense that he is still talking about what persons really are, his functionalist method allows him to know only what he wants them to be—and different modernists want them to be different things. One thinker has greater regard for sentience, another for cognition, another for self–awareness. One thinks the important thing is sociality, another the capacity to make plans. With each different criterion of personhood, a different set of beings is welcomed through the gates of others’ regard. This writer says that higher mammals are persons, but human babies not. That one says that human babies are persons, but Grandma not. The one over there says that some human babies are persons, but only if their mothers think they are.
Denial of the imago Dei is something new, and much more dangerous than a simple return to paganism. As Francis Schaeffer once remarked, the worst that could be said of the pagans was that they had not yet heard that man is made in the image of God. Although they naturally recognized the dignity of man and the justice that is due to him, their understanding of this intuition was deficient. By contrast, our thinkers have heard that man is made in the image of God, but deny it. This puts such a strain on the inbuilt structures of moral knowledge that justice flips upside down. Refusing to learn, they finally distort even what they already know.
What shall we say about the Second Tablet Project? Just that it cannot succeed. The Second Tablet depends on the First; whoever denies his duty to God will find, if he is logical, that he can no longer make sense of his duty to his neighbor. Conscience will certainly persist, reminding him of both, but it will seem to him an absurdity in a sea of absurdities. Though he may admit that he has a nature, he will be unable to say why he should keep it. Though he may admit that this nature is governed by certain laws, he will find that their oughtness creeps out the door and that even their prudence slips away. All this will be needless, for he does have the knowledge of God; he merely denies it. But denial only makes his crisis deeper, for lies metastasize, and the greatest lie metastasizes to the greatest degree.
Then should we say that the Two Tablets are enough if only we take them as a pair? More’s the pity, no: not even the pair of them is enough by the light of nature alone. Though natural knowledge is sufficient to illuminate our duty, duty by itself is despair. It cannot assure us of the possibility of forgiveness when we fall short; it cannot assure us of the certainty of providence in the face of evil; and it cannot explain to us the fallen dignity we bear as images of God. In want of the first assurance, we seek refuge from guilt by denying our sins. In want of the second assurance, we seek to make everything go right by doing wrong. In want of the explanation, we find it all too easy to pretend that we do not recognize our neighbors for what they are.
In these senses, moral knowledge is protected and illuminated by the knowledge of God, and the natural knowledge of God is protected and illuminated by the knowledge of His word. Faith and reason contain and depend on each other. May we be spared the illusion of an ethics that stands wholly by itself.
1 I am paraphrasing the formal analysis of purpose developed by philosopher Robert C. Koons
J. Budziszewski is a professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.