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Introduction: The Lost World of Moral Common Sense


We are passing through an eerie phase of history in which the things that everyone really knows are treated as unheard of, a time in which the elements of common decency are themselves attacked as indecent. But J. Budziszewski sets out to explore the lost world of common moral truths what we all really know about right and wrong. His bracing account shows us how to address the uncertain, the disoriented, and the self-deceived among our neighbors in a way which may bring them back to moral sanity.

Once upon a time it was possible for a thinker to write that the foundational moral principles are "the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge" and expect everyone to agree. To say that these principles are the same for all "as to rectitude" means that they are right for everyone; in other words, deliberately taking innocent human life, sleeping with my neighbor's wife, and mocking God are as wrong for me as they are for you, no matter what either of us believes. To say that they are the same for all "as to knowledge" means that at some level, everyone knows them; even the murderer knows the wrong of murder, the mocker the wrong of mockery, the adulterer the wrong of adultery. He may say that he doesn't, but he does. There are no real moral skeptics; supposed skeptics are playing make-believe, and doing it badly.

As I say, once upon a time a thinker who wrote such words could expect nearly everyone to agree. And nearly everyone did. The Christians agreed, the Jews agreed, and the Muslims agreed. Moreover they could call to their support the consensus of the rest of the human race. One might search the wide world over for a people who did not know the moral basics, but one would fail.

To be sure, the wide world over people also carved out excuses for themselves. I must not take innocent human life but only my tribe is human. I must not sleep with my neighbor's wife but I can make my neighbor's mine. I must not mock deity but I can ascribe deity to a created thing instead of the Creator. And so, not only was moral knowledge universal, but the determination to play tricks on moral knowledge was universal, too. A law was written on the heart of man, but it was everywhere entangled with the evasions and subterfuges of men. Even so that law endured; and even so it was seen to endure.

Is There No Common Ground?

Today all that has changed. A thinker who writes such words can no longer expect most people to agree. In fact he must expect most people to disagree. He will be told that the foundational moral principles are plainly not the same for all, probably not even as to rectitude, and certainly not as to knowledge. They may not even be right for all, and they are certainly not known to all.

For example, don't we disagree profoundly about all three of the great matters I mentioned above death, sex, and God? Consider death. An entire generation has now come of age taking for granted the liberty to kill one's children in the dim, soft refuge which was once considered the safest of all: The womb. The latest social movements seek to extend this strange liberty to other sorts of killing, especially infanticide and euthanasia. Whereas once it was thought that the helpless had the greatest claim on our protection, now it is held that they have the least. Most medical schools have rewritten the Hippocratic oath to accommodate the view that a physician may be a killer as well as healer.

Rather than ringing alarms about such changes, professional "ethicists" are in the front ranks of their promoters. A good example is found in the influential British bioethicist Jonathan Glover. According to this expert, human beings do not have a "right" to life at all. Personhood, he holds, is a matter of degree; some humans have more of it than others. He says that even some of those who do rate as persons have lives not worth living. One recalls the phrase of the early German euthanasia promoters, lebensunwerten Leben "life unworthy of life" but Glover goes yet further. Even the weak principle "it is wrong to destroy a life which is worth living" is too strong for him, for he says one must consider other values, and "there is a tacit 'other things being equal' clause." Occasionally it may even be right to kill someone who is not dying and who wants to go on living. He does say that only a monster of self-confidence would feel no qualms about such an act. Unfortunately, he does not say that only a monster of self-confidence would commit it. For people who do feel squeamish, he has advice: If you are going to kill, then use means which have another desirable effect as well. For example, you might deliberately administer an excessive dose of painkiller. This "has the advantage of perhaps being less distressing to the person who has to carry it out" and it has a "blurring quality which makes prosecution less likely."

Abortion and infanticide are easier still. In Glover's view, neither of these acts is "directly" or intrinsically wrong. Abortion should be permitted at any stage, for any reason even a late abortion because the parents want a boy, or because the mother's pregnancy "will prevent a holiday abroad." After all, he says, unborn babies are "replaceable." So, for that matter, are born ones: "if the mother will have other children instead, it is not directly wrong to prevent this foetus or baby from surviving." You can always have a better one later. Infanticide he sees as a slightly different case, but only because killing born babies has stronger effects on third parties than killing unborn babies does. For example, it upsets people more. And it is more likely to set the culture on a slippery slope (as though we weren't on one already). Although Glover considers the side effects of abortion too slight to justify any limits, he concedes that the side effects of infanticide may be great enough to justify some limits. But side effects can be reduced, and he offers suggestions for reducing the side effects of abortions. For example, if performing them does make abortionists and their helpers feel distress, then we could regard these people as "especially heroic, doing something intrinsically distasteful which yet prevents much unhappiness." That would make them feel better. I suppose something like this could also be arranged for the people who work in infanticide centers. Then more infanticides could be allowed.

Notice the assumption behind all of this. We make up our foundational moral principles as we go along. They are not a given, like the laws of arithmetic, but a product of culture, like the style of our architecture. If we don't like them, we can make up new ones. Traditional principles about the sanctity of human life and the horror of taking it from innocents may therefore be discarded when we have no further use for them; they don't reflect authentic moral knowledge. They represent what previous people have invented, and if we would rather invent something different, we may. As Glover puts it, "The prospects of reviving belief in a moral law are dim. Looking for an external validation of morality is less effective than building breakwaters. Morality could be abandoned, or it can be re-created. It may survive in a more defensible form when seen to be a human creation. We can shape it consciously to serve people's needs and interests, and to reflect the things we most care about."

Notice too what follows if Glover's assumption is accepted. He says that "we" can re-create morality to suit ourselves. But who is the this "we"? Presumably, people like Glover. But there are other people. If morality is created, not discovered, then surely different groups and individuals will create different moralities, for they will "care most" about different things. There will be no common standard by which to adjudicate the conflicts among these invented moralities. The clashes among them will be like clashes of clothing styles, with this strange difference that the stakes are who lives and who dies.

This is just the quandary in which Glover finds himself. To be sure, he says that there are "resources," like sympathy and respect, on which the creators of morality might draw. But as his own sources tell him, the creators of other moralities may draw on other quite different resources. For some men, destruction is an intoxicant, mass murder a doorway to ecstasy, and communal killing "the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death." If he is right about the moral law, we have no common ground as human beings; it is merely my morality against yours.

Could it be that only intellectuals think like this? Even if that were true, it would be quite enough to worry about, because intellectuals like Glover now command the heights of the professions, the academy, the courts and the civil service. But intellectuals are not the only ones who think like this. They are merely the ones who think like this for a living. The universal common sense is less and less our common sense; disbelief in a common moral ground is becoming a pillar of middle class prejudice. People still, in some fashion, believe that it is wrong to murder, wrong to steal, wrong to cheat wrong not for them but for everyone. But "my morality," "your morality" is the language of everyday life, and the reigning platitude is "You shall not impose your morality on anyone else."

If ever a value were destined for transvaluation, surely that one is. The recent string of public school shootings are a sign of this. We are beginning to see what happens when it occurs to the children of this middle class that even the prohibition of firing shotguns at one's classmates "imposes a morality" that the very platitude that one shall not impose his morality "imposes a morality." The new norm is "You may impose whatever you want to, on whomever you please, for whatever reason captures your imagination." As the adolescent mass murderer Eric Harris boasted at his website, "My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, if you don't like it, you die."

Some people think that there was once a common moral ground, but that it isn't there any longer. Many go further. They say that there never was a common moral ground that the notion of a standard of right and wrong which all can share has always been an illusion, an illusion from which we are only now beginning to escape.

As to where the illusion came from, theories are legion. At one extreme are those who blame the illusion on biology. "Morality ... is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends," say Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson. "Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate." It is rather mysterious why Ruse and Wilson think escaping the illusion so important. It is even more mysterious how they expect anyone to escape it, considering that they suppose it to be programmed in our genes and hard-wired in our central nervous systems.

At the other extreme are those who blame the illusion on grammar. Yes, on grammar. A long chain of analytical philosophers maintains that moral questions "Is murder always wrong?" may seem to mean something because they follow the grammatical rules for the construction of meaningful sentences, but on closer examination mean nothing at all. They are "pseudo-questions" like "Does green smell worse than red?" True, the dismissal of moral questions as pseudo-questions has become somewhat less fashionable over the past couple of decades. This dismissal began to go out of style just around the time that philosophers of modest means discovered that they could make quite a good living as "practical ethicists," providing intellectual cover to businesses, hospitals, and government regulatory agencies. Ironically, the turn to practical ethics merely deepens the sense that there is no common moral ground because every practical ethicist gives different answers to the basic moral questions.

Yet these different answers are not completely different. The practical ethicists do have this in common, that nearly all of them oppose what used to be called morality. Each has his own pet principles his own theory and theory rules.

Case in point: Peter Singer, Ira B. DeCamp professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, touted by The New Yorker as "the most influential living philosopher" and by Princeton president Harold T. Shapiro, chairman of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under former President Clinton, as "the most influential ethicist alive." Singer's theory is utilitarianism. Its pet principle is that pleasure is the only thing with moral value; seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, the only thing that matters. But animals feel pleasure too, he observes. Some animals may even have greater capacity for pleasure than some humans. A variety of consequences follow. He says cattle should not be killed for the pleasure of diners, because it hurts the cattle. He says defective babies may be killed for the pleasure of their parents, because babies don't feel much anyway, and because defective people don't contribute much pleasure to society. He says a human being may have sex with a calf, but only so long as both enjoy it. But he says the human being should not have sex with a chicken, because it usually kills the chicken. Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

There Is a Common Ground

But there is a common moral ground. Certain moral truths really are common to all human beings. Because our shoes are wet with evasions the common ground may seem slippery to us, but it is real; we do all know that we shouldn't murder, shouldn't steal, should honor our parents, should honor God, and so on. Preposterous, I know. Detail and defense of this outrageous claim are presented later in the book. The reason for writing it is just that the claim has become outrageous outrageous in the original sense of provoking outrage. People become angry when one asserts the moral law.

This outrage is itself an amazing fact. It needs to be explained. Although I think that an explanation can be provided, the explanation does nothing to diminish the strangeness of the thing explained. 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. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Although our civilization has passed through quite a few troughs of immorality, never before has vice held the high moral ground. Our time considers it dirty-minded to treat sexual purity as a virtue; unfeeling to insist too firmly that the sick should not be encouraged to seek death; a sign of impious pride to profess humble faith in God. The moral law has become the very emblem of immorality. We call affirming it "being judgmental" and "being intolerant," which is our way of saying that it has been judged and will not be tolerated.

We should not be too discouraged. Like crabgrass growing through the cracks and crannies of concrete slabs, the awareness of the moral law breaks even through the crust of our denials. Consider Jonathan Glover again.

What makes Glover's case intriguing is that after a career opening doors to atrocity, he wishes to be thought of as one who bars the doors against them. The most recent of his books is a critique of the holocausts and gulags of the twentieth century, of their torments and monstrosities both large and small. The laudable purpose of the book is to understand how ordinary people can commit terrible deeds, and how they might be prevented from committing them. Glover says he has been thinking about the problem for years. In a slip that would have done Freud proud, he adds that the relevance of his previous books to the problem is "obvious"; for so it is, although not in the way that he means. His sliding scales of personhood, his replaceable babies, his lives not worth living these embody the same techniques of "depersonalization" and "emotional distancing" which so disturb him when they are practiced by other people. Psychologists speak of a "Stockholm Syndrome," in which victims come to identify with their captors. Perhaps there is a parallel syndrome, in which scholars of atrocity adopt some of the patterns of thinking of their subjects. Or perhaps the syndrome we are witnessing is pre-emptive capitulation: If we reduce our conscience to rubble before the bad men get here, they will have nothing left to destroy.

But I think that the problem is deeper. Glover sees himself as replacing traditional moral principles with a morality "less likely to be eroded." The reason he thinks manmade morality more durable is that he cannot take seriously the idea of morality coming from God. A wise God, he thinks, would not have ordained a world "in which people are hanged after spending their last night nailed by the ear to a fence, or in which babies are cut out of their mothers' wombs with daggers." A wise God would have made man good, or at least made him grow better over time. There is a problem with this line of reasoning. It is hard to see why Glover should object to a world in which babies are cut out of their mothers' wombs with daggers, but not one in which mothers invite daggers into their wombs that their babies may be cut out. And that is only the beginning of his incoherencies. The whole meaning of morality is a rule that we ought to obey whether we like it or not. If so, then the idea of creating a morality we like better is incoherent. Moreover, it would seem that until we had created our new morality, we would have no standard by which to criticize God. Since we have not yet created one, the standard by which we judge Him must be the very standard that He gave us. If it is good enough to judge Him by, then why do we need a new one? Now any thinker can commit an error in logic. Multiple, matted incoherencies, like Glover's, seem to call for a different explanation. When, despite considerable intelligence, a thinker cannot think straight, it becomes very likely that he cannot face his thoughts. The closer to the starting point his swerve, the more likely this explanation becomes. Somewhere in his mind lies a mystery of knowledge which he must hide from himself at all costs. If he presupposes the old morality in the very act of denying it, the lesson is not that the old morality should be denied, but that he is in denial. If he makes humanity God and yet cries out against God's inhumanity, it is clear who has really been accused.

The form of the indictment is not "If you deny P, then you are in denial about P." One is not "in denial" just because he denies that ice is cold, or that dogs normally have four legs. He might merely be mistaken; he might never have felt ice or seen dogs. Put right, the form of the indictment is "If your objection to P presupposes P, then you have not given us any grounds to disbelieve P; rather you have have given us grounds to think that you know P after all." Perhaps the older thinkers were correct after all. Perhaps the foundational moral principles really are the same for all not only as to rectitude but as to knowledge. Perhaps they really are not only right for all, but somehow known to all.

That is the claim of this book. The common moral truths are no less plain to us today than they ever were. Our problem is not that there isn't a common moral ground but that we would rather stand somewhere else. We are not in Dante's inferno, where even the sinners acknowledge the law which they have violated. We are in some other hell. The denizens of our hell say that that they don't know the law or that there is no law or that each makes the law for himself.

And they all know better.

The Name of the Common Ground

"Common moral ground" is a cumbersome term for the foundational principles of morality, and also a little thin. St. Paul spoke of "a law written on the heart." That is more evocative, but too narrow; Paul wasn't referring to all the modes of moral knowledge, but only to conscience. Aristotle spoke of the "first principles of practical reason." That doesn't quite serve our purposes either, because it refers only to the axioms (so to speak) and not the theorems. In our language, the simplest, most general, and most widely used term for what I am talking about is "natural law." It takes in both the foundational moral principles and their first few rings of implications, whether known to reason through conscience or through some other means.

The term does carry baggage. Many people disbelieve in the natural law because they mix it up with some detested theory of the natural law, which is like disbelieving in the laws of England because one finds fault with Blackstone's famous commentaries on the laws of England. Or they mix up the natural law with a theory of something altogether unrelated to natural law, for instance the theory of "justification by works" the idea that if only a sinner performs enough moral deeds, God will take him back. Since I began writing about natural law, opinions have been attributed to me which I would never dream of propounding, and I have been pulled into disputes which I had never dreamt of entering. Among theologians there may be found a school of thought called presuppositionalism, which in some of its forms seems to deny the natural law. A theologian once remarked to me that he liked a book I had written because it was "about time someone went after the presuppositionalists." Some time later, a philosopher wrote to complain that he didn't like the book because it was plain to him that I was a presuppositionalist. The truth is that I am not a presuppositionalist but neither was I "going after" those who are. C.S. Lewis was so anxious to avoid such misunderstandings that he experimented with another term for natural law, borrowing from the East the term "Tao," which means "the Way." The experiment, unfortunately, was unsuccessful. Although his book The Abolition of Man is perhaps the greatest work on natural law in the twentieth century, most scholars of natural law have never heard of it, and quite a few people who do read it mistakenly suppose that he endorsed the Eastern philosophy of Taoism.

My own approach is to go ahead and use the suspect term "natural law," but warn readers not to jump to conclusions. In that spirit I offer the following clarifications.

Our subject is called natural law because it has the qualities of all law. Law has rightly been defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated. Consider the natural law against murder. It is not an arbitrary whim, but a rule which the mind can grasp as right. It serves not some special interest, but the universal good. Its author has care of the universe, for He created it. And it is not a secret rule, for He has so arranged His creation that every rational being knows about it.

Our subject is called natural law because it is built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind. Another reason for calling it natural is that we rightly take it to be about what really is a rule like the prohibition of murder reflects not a mere illusion or projection, but genuine knowledge. It expresses the actual moral character of a certain kind of act.

The natural law is not "innate," for we are not born knowing it although as soon as the child is capable of understanding what is meant by "murder" and by "wrong," he is capable of recognizing that murder, in fact, is wrong. The natural law is not mere biological instinct although it does take account of certain biological realities, for the practical requirements of love in the context of family would no doubt be somewhat different among beings who had only one sex or whose young were ready to assume the responsibilities of adulthood as soon as they hatched out. The natural law is not mere custom although the customs of almost all times and places more or less acknowledge it. The natural law is not just a deceptive name for moral law as known through the bible although biblical moral law acknowledges it, conforms to it, and extends it. The natural law is not the same as the theories that philosophers construct about it rather it is the reality which the theories attempt, with greater or lesser success, to describe. And the natural law is not a law of nature in the same sense that gravitation is a law of nature indeed, principles like gravitation are "laws" only by distant analogy, for a falling apple is not freely and rationally aligning its behavior with a rule which it knows to be right.

To summarize: Certain moral principles are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. They are the universal common sense of the human race, as well as the foundation of its uncommon sense. It makes a difference that they are right for all; otherwise there would be nothing for moral reasoning and persuasion to be about. It makes a difference that they are known to all; otherwise, even though moral reasoning and persuasion would be about something, they could never get started.

In order to penetrate the unknown, the mind must begin with what is known already. George Orwell wrote that "We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." This book is an attempt at re-statement.


J. Budziszewski. "Introduction: The Lost World of Moral Common Sense." In What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing, 2003).

Readers may get the book for half price (50% discount, $13.97) at OR by calling toll-free, 888-773-6782, and mentioning "Catholic Educator's Resource Center."

Reprinted by permission of Spence Publishing. All rights reserved.


J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1981. He teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Departments of Government and Philosophy where he specializes in the relations among ethical theory, political theory, and Christian theology. The focus of his current research is natural law and moral self deception. J. Budziszewski is a former atheist, former political radical, former shipyard welder, and former lots of other things, including former young and former thin. He's been married for more than thirty years to his high school sweetheart, Sandra, and has two daughters. He loves teaching. He says he also loves contemporary music, but it turns out that he means "the contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach." He deserted his faith during college but returned to Christ a dozen years later and entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2004. Among a number of other books, he is the author of How to Stay Christian in College, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, and Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. J. Budziszewski is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2003 Spence Publishing



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved