Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.