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Phillip Johnson

Coercion and Conscience

Paul wrote in Romans 2:15 that Gentiles who know nothing of Moses or Christ may nonetheless show by their deeds "that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." J. Budziszewski, who teaches in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and whose work appears frequently in First Things and other journals, explains that this law is what philosophers call the "natural law." It is the bedrock moral understanding that we can't not know, however hard we try to evade that knowledge, because our consciences bear witness to it. When our consciences accuse us, and we are unwilling to repent, all we can do is to smother our knowledge with rationalizations and recruit others to vice. As Paul said in Romans 1:32, "Although [depraved people] know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." Just as misery loves company, sin craves social approval.

Most of Written on the Heart consists of a highly readable and stimulating survey of the natural law tradition from Aristotle to the present. Aristotle, who knew nothing of the Judeo-Christian God, developed his common-sense ethical philosophy by examining the actual practices of people who were reputed to be wise and happy. Thomas Aquinas melded Aristotelian ethics with Roman legal scholarship and Catholic doctrine to create a synthesis that still has a powerful attraction for those who study it sufficiently to master Thomas's categories. John Locke, who meant to find a stronger basis for law, unintentionally undermined the project by grounding knowledge on sense experience exclusively. Eventually his empiricism led to utilitarianism, which attempted to rebuild moral philosophy on a dismally inadequate foundation, namely our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. Utilitarianism ...

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