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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
Ignatius Insight: In a nutshell, what is it that "we
can't not know"?
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
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
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?
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?
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
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
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
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?
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?
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
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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