The Natural Law of Liberty


Jason Kuznicki hs a very elegant and persuasive criticism of part of my book on his blog, "Positive Liberty." The conservatism I sketch is very suspicious of what might be called "natural law." My main skepticism is toward the natural law Thomists who want to rest current morality on arguments deduced from medieval and Greek teleology and biology. And Kuznicki doesn't disagree on this. But he argues that the natural law of Jefferson and Adams survives in much better shape:

[T]he classical liberal idea of natural law was not the product of one man or a small group hoping to reshape all of human society according to some grandiose philosophical vision. Divided government and religious freedom were attempted only out of desperation, when all else had failed, in the exhaustion that came from centuries of religious warfare in Europe. They were putative natural laws, yes — but they were not the kind of greedy, reductionist, dogmatic natural laws that we have seen in the meantime.

Further, wherever these ideas have been given a fair trial, they have brought peace, liberty, and prosperity. The very fact that we are still discussing Jefferson’s formulation today, and that the United States is still formally founded upon it, is ample demonstration of the practical value of natural law in the classical liberal tradition.

In Kuznicki's first two sentences, you have perhaps a reconciliation between Jefferson's natural law and Oakeshott's conservatism. If you think of the natural law as a product of a tradition above all, then you have a conservative grounding of a form of liberalism. But it also has force as an idea in its own right, and is based on a concept of God that is weak enough and broad enough that it might be seen as achievable in a diverse modernity:

To the founders, nature’s God was the deity of every religion — and of none. Nature’s God was present wherever religionists of any faith showed decency and kindness toward their fellow man; nature’s God was absent when the faithful were cruel, intolerant, or uncharitable. Nature’s God demanded that every one of us come to Him on our own terms, not under threat of compulsion. Why not? Because it is impossible to imagine a God who wanted compelled, inauthentic, grudgingly given prayers.

I wonder if that is entirely true, though. Many have imagined many such Gods. The great temptation of all belief is to lean toward indoctrination and even coercion in its implementation. Some Gods do compel submission (this is at the core of the struggle within Islam, is it not?). And Kuznicki's back-up argument is simply that this idea of natural law has stood up pretty well over the centuries, has made for a happy and productive society. But that too is very close to an Oakeshottian defense of Western liberty as well.

I still believe Oakeshott's defense is more sustainable. But Kuznicki reveals one of the weaker points in my case. I can see, in other words, where I have given too short shrift in the book to the Jeffersonian idea of a nature's God as the source of divided government and individual liberty. I'm grateful for the extra perspective.