In the March and May issues of First Things David Bentley Hart considers whether natural law theory can persuade secular opponents of the authority of Christian ethics. How, he asks, can Christian apologists convincingly appeal to nature in defense of specific moral obligations without first seeking agreement on the metaphysical principles that permit of a moral interpretation of nature’s brute facts? Without a common theological framework, he writes, arguments based on nature’s apparent agreement with a divine moral order lose their compelling force. In cases where we share moral convictions with the secular culture we might reasonably count on arguments from nature to reinforce our mutual commitments. But in disputes where secular ethicists rely on equally plausible interpretations of nature to advance their own moral agenda, we must concede that nature and her material phenomena cannot supply definitive moral instruction.
Rather than lament the shortcomings of natural law theory, I wonder if we shouldn’t embrace its failure as another welcome indication that the origins of ethics exceed the boundaries of human rationality. We do no harm to the authority of Christian ethics by rejecting natural law, but rather safeguard its privileged status as the exclusive arbiter of justice and morality. If materialists and secular humanists could derive a moral system that withstood the rigors of scientific scrutiny without explicit reliance upon God or revelation they would, in their minds, obviate the need for faith altogether. There is perhaps nothing the secular humanist movement wants more than evidence that objective moral commands and obligations are rooted in naturalistic phenomena, and natural law theory – were it capable of demonstrating the validity of moral claims through purely rational means – would appear to authorize the establishment of a truly secular morality.
Liberated from the superstitions of faith, an ethics confirmed through solely empirical means would rob theology of one of its fundamental duties – interpreting general and special revelation in order to determine God’s moral design for humankind. This would be no less true if the morality science discovered were in fact the authentic morality of God and the Bible, for it would still result in ethics falling within the purview not only of theology and revelation but of science too, thus elevating the later to the epistemic status of the former and vindicating the atheistic quest for moral autonomy.
Science has so far been unable to provide authoritative moral instruction, and this glaring failure supports the view that humankind requires more than a purely rational orientation to the world in order to live ethically. The inability of natural law theory to provide conclusive evidence for morality by rational means alone presents a serious impediment to those atheists intent on diminishing the relevance of theology in the establishment of ethical norms. Instead of trying to salvage natural law, we should proclaim it obsolete and force secular moral philosophers to recognize the futility of their project.
To aid us, we might consult the moral philosophy of one of Christianity’s most relentless critics, Friedrich Nietzsche. Often condemned by Christians for his ruthless assault on Christian values, Nietzsche’s assiduous inquiry into the origins of morality raises powerful objections to the secular quest to ground ethics in nature. Willing to confront the disastrous implications of Darwin and atheism head on, Nietzsche excoriated his atheist contemporaries who glibly hailed the collapse of the Judeo-Christian worldview as a welcome victory of human rationality over myth. Nietzsche recognized that with their rejection of god atheists had banished the source of transcendent ethical imperatives. Rather than try to restore credibility to the now defunct values, he welcomed their demise and accepted without reservation the impossibility of predicating a new universal ethics upon the now naturalized universe. Nature could provide no objective ethical direction, Nietzsche insisted, only proof of our cosmic irrelevance as a biological accident.
For Nietzsche, questions of ethics hinge upon whether humankind can claim a unique standing apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. If not, then it would be absurd to expect the human animal to behave any differently than the rest of amoral nature. Accepting the broad outlines of Darwin’s secular account of human biological development, Nietzsche found little reason to privilege the human animal as morally exceptional and he condemned the history of ethical philosophy to date as unjustifiably anthropocentric.
In an early essay entitled “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche ridiculed humankind’s conceit:
“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself.”
Darwin had removed any warrant for such a high appraisal of human worth, and Nietzsche undertook the task of humbling humankind, beginning with its unwarranted moral prejudices. To argue against objective ethics required that he strip away the remnants of Christian theology that had linked nature with a Creator and an ordered universe.
In The Gay Science he writes, “Let us be on our guard against saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress.” Free of objective moral realities such as “good” and “evil,” Nietzsche argues that humankind should harness its will to power to create new values that affirm life despite its animal brutality. The specific content of these values matter less than that they are posited in full recognition of human creative freedom.
Nietzsche’s colleagues were – much like our contemporary atheists – more concerned with maintaining the ethical status quo than boldly reimagining morality in the wake of Christianity. To his credit, Nietzsche scorned their unwillingness to accept that, without god, Christian values become obsolete.
In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche chides contemporary English philosophers who preach Christian ethics even while disavowing god: “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.”
In challenging the self-evidency of morality, Nietzsche undercuts any claim by atheists to possess an objective moral order independent of divine revelation. Only out of habit, he argues, do we mistake Christian virtues as holding intrinsic merit.
He writes: “When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt.”
The temptation to defend traditional values after Darwin’s critique stems from the residual impact of Christianity’s historical prevalence, not a necessary connection between objective values and nature. Far from providing evidence for a consistent moral order, nature testifies to the universe’s utter indifference to moral concerns.
In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes, “The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos – in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms.”
Attempts to extrapolate from nature a logically necessary moral system ultimately fail because godless nature exhibits none of the regularity required to buttress moral imperatives. In the face of nature’s chaotic indifference, Nietzsche called upon his contemporaries to liberate themselves from the dominance of Christian ethics and to abandon their efforts to root objective moral commands in naturalistic phenomena.
How does leveraging Nietzsche’s argument against natural law advance our defense of biblical ethics? By arguing persuasively against human exceptionalism in the wake of Darwin, Nietzsche undermines any possible justification for secular normative claims. In doing so, he robs secular humanism of popular appeal, for if the movement is to survive it must present an alternative justification for the ethical norms our culture takes for granted. If it cannot provide good reasons to live ethically, persons seeking genuine moral guidance are likely to reconsider the church.
There are of course dangers in co-opting Nietzsche’s arguments against atheists and natural law theorists. Relying too heavily upon his arguments may give the impression that we condone his entire moral philosophy, which is indeed abhorrent. But we need not accept his whole project in order to agree that his conclusions about nature and morality follow from his secular premise, and our argument for the indispensable primacy of God and revelation in ethical matters is strengthened by his sensitive consideration of the origins of ethics in a godless universe. By recruiting him in our cause we gain a credible ally with an impeccable atheistic pedigree, one whose arguments cannot easily be dismissed without calling into question the basic assumptions of secular humanism and materialism. In short, Nietzsche is a more honest atheist than most, and his intellectual integrity provides Christianity with an unexpected endorsement. If atheists wish to espouse the sort of morality traditionally associated with Christianity they must embrace god, for nature offers no substitute.