Several years ago when I was on the philosophy department faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when the school sported a very good basketball team, one of my students, obviously frustrated with the points I was making in class, blurted out the question, “Why is the truth important?” I distinctly remember the befuddled look on her face seconds after I offered the reply, “Do you want the true answer or the false one?”
A few days later, in the same class, another student, taking up the cause of his befuddled peer, claimed, with great confidence, that there are no objective moral norms and that there was no way that anyone, including his professor, could possibly show him otherwise. At that point, I looked at him squarely in the eye, with as stern a facial expression I could muster, and told him, “Please sit down and shut up. I am right and you are wrong. And that’s that.” He was, as one would guess, visibly shaken. There was dead silence in the classroom. His peers, who were obviously displeased with the treatment he received, were not about to come to his defense. They were, rightfully, upset with their professor. But they remained mute. So, I let the moment sink in, for about 15 seconds, though it seemed like an eternity.
I then broke the silence, and asked the shaken student, “Are you upset about something?” “Yes,” he answered, “you treated me rudely.” I replied, “I do not disagree. Am I wrong in thinking that you had a justified expectation that I should have dialogued with you in a way that was respectful?” “No, you are not wrong,” he said, “That is exactly what I expected.” I continued, “It seems to me that your expectation is perfectly justified, and that I was wrong in treating you in the fashion I did. But that expectation relies on the veracity of a deeper truth, that you are the sort of being that is entitled to reasons when matters of moral concern are brought to your attention. I did not give you reasons. I merely asserted my power. What you realized at the moment of offense was the moral truth you have always known: might does not make right.” I paused and again let the silence do its work. For the student knew where the conversation was going. He knew that he had been relying, unwittingly, on the resources of the natural law in order to reject as illegitimate the treatment he had received at the hands of his mean professor. We were like two men at a restaurant sharing a meal while debating the existence of the chef, and one of the men was talking with his mouth full.
This story, I believe, is illustrative of the problems and issues raised in J. Budziszewski’s work on the natural law. As he has aptly pointed out, we live in an age in which many of our fellow citizens, including many of our cerebral and learned colleagues, do not believe there is such a thing as moral knowledge. Yes, they believe there are social norms, even laws, but these rules do not have their source, let alone their justification, in anything outside the flux of unguided nature, historical epochs, and/or social institutions. And yet, these critics of natural law, like my UNLV students, unreflectively rely on a moral law not reducible to unguided nature, historical epochs, and/or social institutions in order to issue moral judgments for the purpose of securing fundamental rights that they believe ought to be incorporated into our social fabric so that justice is increased and past wrongs remedied.You can read the whole thing here.