A Review of What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, by J. Budziszewski
J. Budziszewski wants to talk about the facts of life. No, not those facts of life. The moral and ethical realities built into the created order – those common truths we all really know about right and wrong that have historically been referred to as the natural law. To suggest the existence of such a thing as a ‘moral fact’ in postmodern company may be taken as more scandalous than bringing up the other facts of life at a dinner party. But a created moral order exists as certainly as does a physical one, and Dr. Budziszewski has produced an excellent manual for helping us become conversant about it.
The Common Ground: First he resurrects the common moral ground of natural law philosophy, the best expression of which is found in the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. What We Can’t Not Know lays out rational explanations for its moral precepts, which are unapologetically presented as not only true for all people, at all times, in all cultures, but also known at some level by all.
Precepts such as ‘It is right to acknowledge the Creator,’ and ‘It is wrong to murder,’ are underived. We just know them, whether or not we choose to acknowledge them. Budziszewski presents four clear and perennially present “witnesses” that attest to natural law: the interior witness of deep conscience or the moral intellect – deeper than surface conscience, which can be damaged and rendered ineffective; the witness of design as seen in DNA or self-replicating life; the witness of design in the human species as seen in human interdependencies, complementarity, and spontaneous ordering – the prime example being the family as the universal foundation of all civilizations; and the witness of natural consequences or penalties, such as guilty knowledge, for violating the moral order.
The Role of Conscience: Conscience plays a central role both in knowing and revealing moral truth. The natural purpose of conscience is to be our teacher, warning us against wrongdoing or accusing us when we do wrong to lead us to repentance. But when we flee, not from wrong, but from our accusing conscience, then its furies operate as an “avenger, which punishes the soul who does wrong but who refuses to read the indictment.” Budziszewski adroitly traces this willfull blindness to the mental depravity that follows it, skillfully explaining how twisted minds conjure up perverted reasoning to defend and perpetuate the evils of our day.
The Nature of the Conflict: Ultimately, the conflict is a struggle between the Author of the moral order and the immoralist movements of the day which seek to excuse, then condone, then extend evil by twisting the inescapable moral precepts and putting them to work in the service of goeteia, the ancient practice whose goal was to wield power by “uncreating creation.” “The immoralist movements are not isolated phenomena,” writes Dr. Budziszewski, “but branches of the goetic arts; they are united in their hatred of the human design, and, by extension, of its Designer.” The inevitable end of goeteia is the debasement of all that is good and the destruction of what the Creator created.
To engage in dialogue over “those things we can’t not know” is to engage in the ageless struggle between good and evil. What We Can’t Not Know is a manual for acquiring fluency in the moral facts of life in order to better contend for the good.
This article first appeared in Salvo 19, Winter 2011.
- Escape from Nihilism, the Testimony of Dr. J. Budziszewski
- Decode: Morality
- Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist