Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How Natural Law Becomes the Ally of Relativism

5/12/2010—I have just read an article by George Weigel in the magazine First Things entitled “Truths Still Held” (the magazine cannot be accessed online without a subscription). The article is an examination of John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. I agree with a great deal that Murray said and much that Weigel writes as well. But Weigel is not really interested in Murray. Instead, he is only interested in a narrow political agenda and is perfectly willing to sacrifice potential consensus around Murray to achieve it. Thus his partisanship creates the perfect climate for the growth of relativism he purports to oppose.

Murray presented the American Proposition as embodying three substantive truths. As Weigel rightly says, Murray believed that “[t]hese are truths built into the world and into us… .”

The first truth is that “we are a nation under judgment”. That meant to Murray that God is sovereign but it also means that we are subject to “the judgment of those moral truths inscribed by nature’s God”. In other words, it is not necessary to believe in God to hold to this truth, only to believe in the power of truth itself.

Weigel rightly says that it is not atheism that conflicts with this truth but, at its root, “postmodernism’s skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty”. Here, Weigel is in complete agreement with the atheist Austin Dacey in his book The Secular Conscience.

Murray’s second truth is that just governance exists by and with the consent of the governed. But here Weigel’s partisanship rears its head. He says consent is threatened by the “judicial usurpation of politics.” But surely Murray would have agreed with Lysander Spooner that “All governments ... that profess to be founded on the consent of the governed, and yet have authority to violate natural laws, are necessarily frauds. It is not a supposable case, that all or even a very large part, of the governed, can have agreed to them. Justice is evidently the only principle that everybody can be presumed to agree to, in the formation of government.” [The Unconstitutionality of Slavery] Insofar as the courts protect fundamental human rights, they do not usurp the genuine content of politics. Roe v. Wade may not reflect the protection of human rights, but that is then the issue and not an attack on the courts in general. Nor is Weigel’s professed fear of the criminalization of criticism of homosexuality as hate speech anything but his own inflated partisan rhetoric. There is no such threat in America.

The final truth is that the state is distinct from society and limited. But Weigel uses the absurd example of gay marriage as a threat to this proposition, claiming that it “is not within the competence of the state to define marriage.” This is simply tendentious and confuses two different senses of marriage. In terms of Catholic doctrine, the conferring of the rights of marriage by the state (such as covering one’s partner with one’s medical benefits) has nothing to do with genuine marriage. Marriage is an institution that predates the state. That is certainly true. The state cannot alter the definition of marriage from this perspective because the state has no power over marriage in this sense. But the state certainly does have the power and the right to determine the general terms of civil life. Protection of gay partners falls well within that legitimate state authority and if the state mistakenly calls this state of affairs marriage—mistakenly as Weigel sees it—that is no threat to role of limited government.

By insisting that the entire doctrine of natural law necessarily justifies Weigel’s own political positions, Weigel politicizes natural law and ensures that it cannot serve as the consensual basis of American political life. If he really wanted allies he could easily find them.


  1. Oliver Wendell Holms on natural law:

    It is not enough for the knight of romance that you agree that his lady is a very nice girl—if you do not admit that she is the best that God ever made or will make, you must fight. There is in all men a demand for the superlative, so much so that the poor devil who has no other way of reaching it attains it by getting drunk. It seems to me that this demand is at the bottom of the philosopher’s effort to prove that truth is absolute and of the jurist’s search for criteria of universal validity which he collects under the head of natural law.
    The jurists who believe in natural law seem to me to be in that naive state of mind that accepts what has been familiar and accepted by them and their neighbors as something that must be accepted by all men everywhere.

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