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January 22, 2005

The Natural Law Philosophy of Bush's Second Inaugural

Joseph Bottum has a good Weekly Standard article on Bush's Second Inaugural Address, which I just blogged on. He says, quite rightly, that it is based on the idea of natural law and full of interesting philosophical points....

...The speech was as clear an assertion of a particular Christian political philosophy as we're likely to hear in these latter days. "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom," the president declared. "Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."...

The problem for ethics is always how to match empirical and logical claims ("Humans want to be free") with moral claims ("Humans should be free"). And, within philosophy, natural law is a way of bridging the gap by asserting a unity of fact and value--based on the endowment of human nature with moral worth by the model on which humans are based. "From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value," as President Bush explained. And the reason? Well, "because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth."

Now, any philosopher would point out that this is possible only if the moral law itself is real: a set of eternal truths that vary not in content but only in application as the temporal order changes. And, sure enough, there the necessary postulate is in Bush's speech: "Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before--ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever."

And watch it all come together as Bush reaches toward his peroration in the speech's penultimate moment: "When our Founders declared a new order of the ages ...they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."...

Bush has done the natural law argument unusually well. As is all too common in discussions based on natural law, lots of hard stuff is bypassed. How do we know that it is God's will for men to be free politically? Are elections an important part of this, or is political freedom something else? (A Greek view of natural law might be that the best men should rule the masses, justly.) Still, he can take it for granted that his audience already believes that political freedom and elections are intrinsically good, and his reasoning is far more sophisticated than usual in a speech.

Posted by erasmuse at January 22, 2005 02:19 PM

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