About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

What We All Know--And Why We Can't Not Know That We Know It | An Interview with J. Budziszewski, author of What We Can't Not Know: A Guide | Ignatius Insight | May 9, 2011

Print-friendly version

Ignatius Insight: In a nutshell, what is it that "we can't not know"?

Budziszewski: Despite the easy contemporary chatter about morality being relative, we all really know the foundational principles of right and wrong -- for example that good is to be done, that evil is to be avoided, and that it is always wrong to gratuitously harm my neighbor. Moreover we all really know the first ring of precepts that follow from these principles -- deep down even the adulterer knows that he ought to be faithful to his wife, even the murderer knows that he should never deliberately take innocent human life, and even the God-mocker knows the wrong of mocking God.

The best short summary of the things we "can't not know" is the Decalogue, provided that you take it together with what it suggests, what it implies, and what it presupposes. The commandment of spousal faithfulness, for example, presupposes the institution of marriage, and suggests the deep importance of sexual purity in general.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of the key reasons that people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know"?

Budziszewski: Let me begin with a little clarification: I don't claim that everyone knows everything. Genuine ignorance and confusion are possible about the moral details. It is only the moral basics that I claim we "can't not know."

One reason why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that the knowledge is latent. They may never have thought about it. It has to be brought to the surface. Thomas Aquinas remarks that we have a natural "habit" of knowing the first principles of practical reason, but that this doesn't mean we are actually thinking about them.

Another reason why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that morally careless ways of life make moral knowledge fuzzy and indistinct. I've claimed that even the adulterer knows the good of faithfulness, but I don't claim that he knows it clearly. His way of life dims his moral vision. To him it seems a dim abstraction. A host of other things are in clearer focus, crowding it out.

The most troubling of all reasons why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that we sometimes work very hard to convince ourselves that we don't know what we really do know. We are trying not to let their guilty knowledge rise to the surface, not to think about it, not to draw its implications -- because it would accuse us. The suppression of guilty knowledge takes a lot of energy, and a whole set of symptoms betray the effort. I may compulsively confess, to everyone who will listen, every sordid detail of what I did except that it was wrong. Or I may pour myself into constructing elaborate excuses for it. Or I may ruin my own life and destroy my relationships in a false bid for atonement -- paying pain after pain, price after price, all because I refuse to pay the one price demanded, a contrite and broken heart.

Ignatius Insight: In the Preface to the new edition of What We Can't Not Know, you speak of three general "historical phases" of the natural tradition, and write that we are now entering a fourth. What, in short, are four phases?

Budziszewski: Phase one belonged to the philosophers. Ancient thinkers like Aristotle discovered that beings have natures, and tried to develop intellectual tools for thinking about them. Others thinkers suggested that the principles of these natures could be expressed in terms of laws, real laws, which were somehow the work of the divine mind.

Phase two belonged to the theologians. Jewish thinkers worked out the implications of the ancient tradition that before God gave Torah to the "sons" or descendants of Abraham, He had already given commandments to the sons of Noah, which means to the whole human race. Islamic thinkers of the now much less influential Mutazilite school maintained that good and evil are embedded "in things," in the structures of creation. Christian thinkers explicitly appropriated the whole philosophical tradition, and worked out a complete theology of the different modes of law, including the natural law.

Phase three was dominated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. For various reasons -- in some cases religious skepticism, in others fear of religious wars -- they tried to sever the connections between religion and philosophy, between faith and reason. Their aim was to make natural law theory theologically neutral -- a body of axioms and theorems which any intelligent, informed mind would consider obvious once they were properly presented -- in fact equally obvious no matter what religion or wisdom tradition the mind followed, or whether it followed any at all. This, alas, was impossible, and for a while the whole idea of natural law was discredited.

In the fourth phase, which we are entering just now, natural law thinkers are beginning to follow a different path. While retaining the idea of a universal ethics, they have abandoned the Enlightenment fallacy of neutrality. Is there a common ground? Yes, because there is a single human nature. But is the common ground a neutral ground? No, because not all views of God, not all views of the structure of reality, not all views of human nature itself are equally adequate, and some make it harder to see and stand upon the common ground.

Ignatius Insight: Why is that fourth phase important? What difference will it make?

Budziszewski: Here is the difference it will make: When Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists speak together in search of common ground, they will no longer all be expected to impersonate the atheists. Enlightenment thinkers believed that we could speak with each other only be setting aside our traditions, and regarding them as irrelevant. The truth is that we must speak with each other from within our traditions, because only these give us something to say to each other. We are going to have to stop being afraid of theology -- and theology will be important not because we don't want to find common ground, but because we do. Paradoxically, for insight into what we hold in common, we must fall back on what we do not hold in common.

Ignatius Insight: Tell me more about that. You write that the Enlightenment's notion of neutrality is a "delusion." Why?

Budziszewski: Because it isn't honest. You can't draw conclusions about how to live by suspending judgment; drawing conclusions is making judgments. The neutralist makes judgments too; he merely disguises them as non-judgments. Count on it: whenever the neutralist pushes other views reality, of God, of what is good for human beings out the front door, he is sneaking in his own views of them through the back door. Since they are the only ones left in the house, he wins -- if his fraud is allowed.

A good and hugely influential example of this sort of thing is the thinking of the seventeenth-century thinker, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes said that there is no point in basing a philosophy on the summum bonum, the greatest good, because no one agrees about it. All we can talk about is the summum malum, the greatest evil, because everyone agrees about that: Everyone wants to avoid death. If you think carefully about this argument, the fraud is not hard to detect. Consider: If death is the greatest evil, then isn't avoiding death, staying alive, the greatest good? So Hobbes is proposing a summum bonum after all; he is only pretending not to. In fact, even on his own terms, it isn't a plausible summum bonum. For do we all really agree that there is nothing worse than death? Obviously not. We may disagree about what is worse than death, or what kind of life we want to preserve, but there is no way to sidestep the disagreements. We will just have to work through them.

With endless variations, ethical and political thinkers still play the neutralist game. They camouflage their premises by pretending to be neutral among competing premises, when in fact they are no such thing.

Ignatius Insight: Writing of the needed conversation about natural law among adherents of various religions, you say, "The great question mark is Islam..."What are the reasons for Islam being so? What sort of authentic dialogue can be carried out with Islam at this time?

Budziszewski: During the middle ages, Muslim thinkers were much more favorable to natural law than presently; today, the Mutazzilite view that good and evil lie in the structures of creation is overshadowed, especially in the Sunni world, by the contrary view that they depend on a divine decree which separates the will of God from the wisdom of God and seems in the end to be arbitrary. Whether this historical tendency can be reversed is an open question. Some Muslim thinkers want to do so, but so far they are a small minority.

Another difficulty is that authentic dialogue about such matters require both sides to be honest with each other. As Christians, especially Catholics, understand the natural law, to say what is not true with the intention of deceiving is always wrong. In Islam the question is more difficult. The problem is not that Islam does not condemn lying; it does. According to the Qur'an, "Allah guides not the profligate liar" and "May liars perish." As we read in the Islamic book Reliance of the Traveller, "Primary texts from the Koran and sunna that it is unlawful to lie are both numerous and intersubstantiative, it being among the ugliest sins and most disgusting faults." Yet various Islamic traditions suggest that it is permitted to lie. The occasion of one of the most notorious such traditions, recorded by the renowned collector of haditha, Muhammad ibn Ishaq, was a proposal to kill a certain Jew: "Muhammad bin Maslamah said, 'O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies.' 'Say what you like,' Muhammad replied. 'You are absolved, free to say whatever you must.'" Reliance of the Traveller cites a far milder hadith: "I did not hear him [Muhammad] permit untruth in anything people say, except for three things: war, settling disagreements, and a man talking with his wife or she with him." But the implication is equally blunt: "This is an explicit statement that lying is sometimes permissible."

Needless to say, all this makes dialogue much more difficult. There has to be a commitment to tell the truth, including the truth about our respective traditions. I have written about the problem at greater length in a chapter on "Natural Law, Democracy, and Shari'a," included in Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, eds., Shari'a in the West (Oxford University Press).

Ignatius Insight: There is much discussion in the world of pundits and the chattering class of the "uncivil" and "negative" nature of public discourse about politics, morality, and religion. But is the problem the tone of the discussion or the content of the discussion? What basic advice would you give to those engaging in popular discourse about natural law, morality, and related issues?

Budziszewski: Sometimes the problem is the tone, certainly. There is a lot of ugly language out there, and a lot of bad behavior like trying to shout down the opponent instead of listening to what he says and answering him.

More often, though, the problem is the content. If you point out that the statement "I'm not pro-abortion, I'm pro-choice" isn't really neutral because it takes sides on whether abortion ought to be allowed and forecloses the "choice" of ending it, some people get angry. If you observe that there is a culture war, some people blame you for the culture war. Insisting that we all pretend that we want the same things, they say "Why can't we all just get along?"

Well, I am all for getting along. But people who say "Why can't we all just get along?" don't necessarily say it because they want to get along. Too often they mean is "Why can't we all get along on my terms?" To put it another way, "Why won't you stop disagreeing with me about fundamental issues, you rude person, and let me have my way?"

In this conflict and bewilderment, and in all the related conflicts about how to live, to die, and to live together, some people use diplomacy itself as a means of war (I deplore the fact, but it is true), and what some people call "civility" is less about true civility than about making fools of the opposition. I believe in civility. But it is not a requirement of civility to pretend that there is no war.

Ignatius Insight: What role did natural law play in your conversion from atheism to Christianity? What is the general attitude of atheists toward natural law? How can it be used for serious, civil conversations with atheists and agnostics?

Budziszewski: Thirty years ago, my change of view about God, and my change of view about natural law, were intertwined. You might say that I was rediscovering the reality of the Creator and the significance of the order built into his Creation at the same time.

Before that, I was a very radical sort of atheist -- really a nihilist. What I mean is that I didn't just deny the reality of God (that is, of any sort of God who could make a difference). I went much further. I denied that there were any rational grounds for distinguishing between good and evil. I denied that we are responsible for our actions. I denied the very reality of persons. Many atheists, however, are far less radical than I was. Quite often I meet atheists who believe, or want to believe, in the natural law. "Why do I have to believe in God," they ask, "in order to believe in the natural law?"

That's a good and welcome question, but it has an answer. Someone who disbelieves in God certainly can believe in the natural law, but he will not find it easy to carry this off. To put a very large problem into just a sentence, how can there be a law without a Lawgiver? One may reply, as some atheists do, that the natural law is "written on the heart" not by God, but by evolution. But if conscience is merely an accidental byproduct of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind, then it isn't truly conscience, is it? For in that case, it isn't a witness to a real law; it is merely another blind impulse, one which, had the process gone differently, might have turned out a different way that would be equally arbitrary. Instead of caring for our young, we might have eaten them, like guppies, and there would be no grounds for passing judgment. It wouldn't be wrong; it wouldn't be right; it would just be.

I think, then, that the atheist who is convinced of the reality of a real natural law has the best of reasons to abandon his atheism, and acknowledge the reality of the Lawgiver. But I hope this open-minded atheist will go further still. Law, by itself, has a heart of stone. It tells us what is required, but it says nothing of the possibility of mercy, of forgiveness, of restoration. By itself, considering the depth of our failings, it gives us more motive to look away, than to look — to avert our eyes from what we know we do not fulfill. But as Christian faith declares, the law is not "by itself." The God who is the author of nature is not an impersonal Something with no interest in us; he is also the author of grace.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Interviews:

Natural Law and Bearing False Witness | J. Budziszewski | From What We Can't Not Know
The Scandal of Natural Law | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.

What We Can't Not Know: A Guide
by J. Budziszewski

Related Products: What We Can't Not Know  - Electronic Book Download

Revised and Expanded Edition

In this new revised edition of his groundbreaking work, Professor J. Budziszewski questions the modern assumption that moral truths are unknowable. With clear and logical arguments he rehabilitates the natural law tradition and restores confidence in a moral code based upon human nature.

What We Can't Not Know explains the rational foundation of what we all really know to be right and wrong and shows how that foundation has been kicked out from under western society. Having gone through stages of atheism and nihilism in his own search for truth, Budziszewski understands the philosophical and personal roots of moral relativism. With wisdom born of both experience and rigorous intellectual inquiry, he offers a firm foothold to those who are attempting either to understand or to defend the reasonableness of traditional morality.

While natural law bridges the chasms that can be caused by religious and philosophical differences, Budziszewski believes that natural law theory has entered a new phase, in which theology will again have pride of place. While religious belief might appear to hamper the search for common ground, Budziszewski demonstrates that it is not an obstacle, but a pathway to apprehending universal norms of behavior.

"In What We Can't Not Know, J. Budziszewski shows that even the most sophisticated skeptics unwittingly reveal their moral knowledge in attempts to justify killing, lying, stealing, committing adultery, and other sins. In the very process of attacking Judaeo-Christian moral principles, they confirm them." -- Robert P. George, Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University

J. Budziszewski, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale University, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books, including The Revenge of Conscience, How to Stay Christian in College, and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius