Why Natural Law Arguments Are Necessary
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Why Natural Law Arguments Are Necessary

naturallawA few weeks ago I asked why natural law arguments more persuasive. Natural law advocates intend for such argument to persuade both believers and non-believers, so how do they account for the relative ineffectualness of such arguments? Why don’t more people find them to be persuasive?

In response to my question (as well as questions and criticisms from others), Sherif Girgis proffered a defense and explanation:

Yes. Over the last few years, my coauthors and I have heard from many saying we had convinced them to join the marriage debate by showing them its value (and giving them the moral vocabulary and syntax to discuss it); from others who decided to retire this or that contrary argument; and from still others who switched to our side of the issue. These have included non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics, even a prominent former Marxist thinker. We have often remarked, channeling Chesterton, that the argument for marriage has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found (we’d say feared) difficult and left untried.

Then where are the mass conversions? We freely admit that moral philosophy can’t produce them. It doesn’t convert en masse, because evaluating its arguments takes sustained attention. It requires holding several pieces together; discerning subtle patterns; and generating and testing alternatives by turns, in an always-unfinished process. Philosophy is famously better at knocking down than building up; even the strongest of its affirmative conclusions do not overpower but invite, suggest, recommend. And by itself, philosophy tugs so softly at the imagination and senses that it can pull the head before the heart, leaving readers not so much moved as divided.

Girgis adds that while natural law arguments may not sway the masses, it may change the thinking of the influential elites:

If abstract reasoning doesn’t convert masses of people, it shapes the thought of those who do—in public and higher education, the media, the arts, and law and policy. Glee may inspire a new generation of sexual libertinism. Yet its screenwriters owe their ideas to late-nineteenth century and pre-World War II thinkers who reduced sexual desire to a brute appetite and the value of sex to the sum of its pleasures. Meanwhile, there may well be a causal chain linking every novel that ever inspired virtue in a young reader to one of the lecture notes of Aristotle. We can’t measure philosophy’s effect, for good or for ill, just by counting how many convert upon reading a tract.

What traditional moral causes need, then, is not fewer philosophers but more of everyone: more artists and authors, poets and playwrights, sculptors and screenwriters to reap the fruits of intellectual work for social ferment. I do what I do not because philosophy alone matters, but because my paintings and plays really would move no one. The next generation of true culture-makers, however, will be shaped purely by bad philosophy, only if it goes unanswered. And it can be answered adequately only by better philosophy.

I completely agree with all of Girgis’s points, especially his call for more cultural shapers to “reap the fruits of intellectual work.” I think his response (which includes two other posts, here and here) is helpful, though I think he gives the impression the critics think natural law arguments should be rejected or discarded (we don’t). I think his response will be even more helpful, though, in tempering the expectations of the most enthusiastic natural law proponents. Philosophically based arguments are always necessary, but they are — alas — almost never sufficiently influential.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).