book review – What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide.

What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. J. Budziszewski. Revised and Expanded Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2013.

People still have an inarticulate inkling that it is wrong to murder, wrong to cheat, wrong to steal. St. Paul (Romans 2:15) says this is because God’s law is “written on our hearts”; the conflicting thoughts of our consciences naturally “accuse or excuse” us. University of Texas at Austin professor of government and philosophy J. Budziszewski says this built-in, God-given, universal knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil, called “natural law” is What We Can’t Not Know. Budziszewski, a Roman Catholic of the Thomist tradition, wrote this helpful book “to bolster the confidence of plain people” like you and me in the rational foundations of our inarticulate moral inklings (p. xx).

What We Can’t Not Know is also, as the subtitle says, A Guide, offering a foothold to those who want to defend natural law against moral relativism and anti-foundationalism in today’s public square. Budziszewski explains, “We are passing through an eerie phase of history in which the things that everyone really knows are treated as unheard-of doctrines, a time in which the elements of common decency are themselves attacked as indecent” (p. 10). “My morality, your morality” is the language of everyday life, and the reigning platitude is, “You shall not impose your morality on anyone else” (8). Budziszewski wrote this book to “achieve firmer alliance” in our defense of natural law against those not persuaded (p. xx).

Contra anti-foundationalism, natural law is a matter of first principles, that is, foundational propositions that cannot be deduced from any other propositions. Budziszewski illustrates: “If we asked someone why he crossed the street, and he gave a reason, asked him why that was a good reason, and he gave a reason, asked him why that was a good reason, and he gave a reason, eventually he would reach first principles, and then he could go no further” (p. 85). Natural law is made up of foundational unprovables from which our moral reasoning is built.

Budziszewski proffers four witnesses that serve as the sources of our knowledge of natural law. The first witness is “deep conscience,” also termed “synderesis,” which is the interior source of our moral inklings. Budziszewski says, “Deep conscience is the reason why even a man who tells himself there is no right and wrong may shrink from committing murder” (p. 87). The second witness is “The Witness of Design as Such,” which is our recognition that “nature requires an explanation beyond itself, that the things in nature are designed, that design requires personal agency,” namely God (p. 91). As St. Paul says, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20).

The third witness is “The Witness of Our Own Design,” which is the recognition that everything in our design has a purpose and is well used when it is used for that purpose. The fourth witness is “The Witness of Natural Consequences,” which is the recognition that when we act against the purposes for which we and the world were designed, there are natural consequences. Budziszewski repeatedly zeroes in on the Sexual Revolution, which separated sex from procreation within marriage. The consequences are numerous: single moms, poverty, adolescent violence, venereal disease, child abuse, abortion.

The key insight of the book is the following: “Everything bad puts something normal to abnormal use” (p. 185). Budziszewski explains that immoral “new moralities” are not new moralities, but only perversions of the old natural law. Immorality’s strategy is to select one moral precept of natural law, exaggerate its scope and importance, and use it as a club to beat down the other moral precepts of natural law (p. 200). Budziszewski illustrates: “The old morality commands compassion and prohibits murder. The new morality of euthanasia justifies murder in the name of ‘compassion.’ … A single precept is first distorted, then wielded against the rest of the moral law” (p. 132).

Budziszewski teaches that the countermeasure we can practice is (1) to recognize which moral principle has been distorted and (2) to recognize which moral principles have been shoved aside (p. 228). Budziszewski advises that persons who are honestly confused about a moral wrong often only need simple clarification on these two points, but persons who willfully shut their eyes to the moral principles they are ignoring need someone to call their bluff and get under their skin (p. 229). For the reader who wants to get serious about defending natural law in the public square, Chapter 6, titled “Some Objections,” offers anticipated objections and clever answers in a conversational format, common in Budziszewski’s books.

Christians will appreciate What We Can’t Not Know. Budziszewski is forward about being a Christian and holds that natural law is best taught in religious and philosophical traditions that celebrate it. He finds in the Ten Commandments “an unparalleled summary of those foundational moral principles which are both right for all and at some level known to all” (p. 237). He asserts that Christian confidence in the providence of God undercuts the urge to fix everything on our own. A Christian may “do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences” (p. 74).

Being created in the image of God, Budziszewski defines, means having the possibility for communion with God (p. 36). The imago Dei ontologically protects human beings from contemporary secular ethics that define and are willing to eliminate persons based upon their capacity to fulfill utilitarian functions (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, infanticide) (p. 75). Lutherans will laud Budziszewski’s distinction of Law and Gospel. He notes two clues man has to the meaning of the universe: (1) the knowledge of the law that he did not make but is obligated to keep and (2) the knowledge that he does not and cannot keep the law. Not natural law, but only a special revelation from the Author of the law can teach us that forgiveness is real (p. 26).

Rev. Dr. David Lawrence Coe
Associate Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, Fremont, Nebraska

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