When Limitless Relativism Meets Limitless Moralism

James F. Pontuso’s wonderfully clear, accessible, and provocative book challenges one of the orthodoxies of our time. It has become conventional wisdom that virtue—the fundamental distinction between right and wrong, good and evil—has no support in human nature or in the order of things.

In Nature’s Virtue, the Charles Patterson Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College (a friend and a longtime intellectual sparring partner) argues that virtue has largely lost its luster. The Left identifies it with dogmatism and unjustified privilege; libertarians too often confuse it with an assault on individual freedom; postmodernists ridicule it for its “binary distinctions” and allegedly heavy-handed moral appeals; and deconstructionists see it as no more than “linguistic and social constructions” that justify the oppression of the weak by the strong. Feminists predictably identify virtue with male domination and the omnipresent threat of patriarchy.

As this brief recapitulation suggests, a good deal of angry moralism informs the academic and political assault on “nature’s virtue.” When virtue and morality are severed from their grounding in nature and reason, untethered moralism and political fanaticism are unleashed in the academy and the public square. We soon inhabit a Manichean social world where victims and victimizers are too readily identified by ideologues of all stripes. Nature’s virtue is thus a necessary antidote to both limitless moralism and limitless relativism, two threats to human self-understanding that increasingly converge in profoundly toxic ways. This is one pressing reason to take Pontuso’s book seriously.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel

His tone, in contrast to many today on the Left and the Right, is measured. He does not come bearing a club. His approach might be said to be phenomenological in the non-technical sense of the term. It allows the common-sense surface of things, the un-theorized world of ordinary experience, to reveal its myriad riches to the human mind and soul. In previous books, Pontuso had studied the thought and action of the Russian and Czech “dissidents” and writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel, two courageous anti-totalitarian titans who fought ideological lies in the name of “living in truth” (a truth dismissed as pure pretense by the likes of postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty). Each man embodied the ancient virtue of courage while appealing to moderation, conscience, and the inchoate human sense that the primordial distinctions between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are available to human reason and experience if we but open ourselves up to them.

In his fight against totalitarian brutality and mendacity, Solzhenitsyn appealed to the drama of good and evil in each human soul as the starting point for personal reflection and moral and political action. Never endorsing collectivism or authoritarianism, he eloquently called for “voluntary self-limitation” and for repentance on the part of all those who had accommodated themselves to totalitarian oppression and lies. For Solzhenitsyn, the life of conscience and personal responsibility ultimately pointed to the Almighty—to a providential God who intimated a spiritual and metaphysical grounding for our ability to distinguish right from wrong. But the great Russian writer began with the concrete experience of good and evil in the human heart, not with theoretical or philosophical abstractions. He thus provided a powerful experiential witness to nature’s virtue, to the phenomena as they come to sight for conscientious and morally serious human beings.

Havel, less obviously theistic, nonetheless acknowledged that “we are observed ‘from Above’” and that the “Memory of Being” forgets nothing—thereby buttressing the “higher responsibility” to which human beings are called. Solzhenitsyn and Havel begin with good and evil as they are experienced in the human heart and in common life. Their personal experiences, so richly conveyed in their art and prose, provide an indispensable starting point for Pontuso’s own recovery of the virtue to which nature beckons us.

The author does not take the next step toward a theistic affirmation of the transcendent and supernatural support for nature’s virtue. But he certainly respects that step. His phenomenological approach should be welcomed by all those who reject the destructive siren calls of moral relativism and ideological fanaticism. Even St. Thomas argued that in some sense nature was more fundamental than grace, since without nature, God’s grace could not do its work. The recovery of the natural order of things is necessary for all (believers and unbelievers alike) who wish to overcome the intellectual and moral chaos of our time and preserve human liberty.

James Q. Wilson and Philippa Foot

Pontuso draws on the recovery of the common-sense view of morality found in thinkers such as the American political scientist James Q. Wilson and the British analytical philosopher Philippa Foot. Both Wilson and Foot show how widespread, and natural, goodness is. Relativists need to come to terms with the reassuring fact that good behavior and virtue are much more widespread than generally recognized. As Pontuso teasingly remarks, “Most people do not abuse their parents, beat their children, steal from their local grocery store, wantonly destroy public property, or kick their pets.” Evil is palpably real but goodness—natural goodness, nature’s virtue—is much more ubiquitous than we sometimes acknowledge.

The book is excellent at laying out the multiple ways in which moral relativists, even as they deny the existence of virtue, presuppose it. For example, most political and economic libertarians reject the idea of “ultimate truth” and place all their hopes in the “spontaneous order” of freely acting and “autonomous” moral agents. They are distrustful of tradition (F.A. Hayek was an exception in this regard) and generally see the full array of inherited social obligations as hampering human freedom. This ignores that the citizens and economic actors who come to the market, or interact with other human beings in other ways, are people who have been, as Pontuso says, “habituated by law, habit, custom, and the traditions of civil society.” These moral inheritances, made possible by nature’s virtue, “mitigate truly selfish, self-centered behavior.”  Pontuso is clear: “Libertarian principles depend on virtue,” on habits and actions that are seen as “proper and good.”

Human beings are not naturally relativistic. One’s sense of self is almost always informed by sociality, generosity, and a deeply ingrained sense that many human actions—murder, criminality, cruelty, torture, a failure to help those in desperate trouble—are wrong and violate human dignity, rightly understood. A market economy and a civil society under law could not sustain themselves for very long if unabashed relativism and crude selfishness became the order of the day. As Edmund Burke famously observed in his Reflections, such human beings who show blatant disregard for moral obligations can only be governed by the gallows. Pontuso pays respect to libertarian ideals even as he shows that they are finally dependent on a much more capacious understanding of human nature and human motives.

The Antifoundationalists

One of the strengths of Nature’s Virtue is the way it forthrightly confronts the philosophical current that goes by the name of “antifoundationalism.” Leo Strauss once observed that one of the preeminent practical tasks of authentic political philosophy was to protect sound practice against bad theory. Pontuso does exactly that, and does it very well. To his credit, he takes seriously the argument of theoretical extremists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger that “God is dead”—that there is no natural or divine support for the human good or human aspirations.

Be it noted that the grandfather and father of postfoundationalism, respectively, were not vulgar relativists: Nietzsche defended “excellence and distinction” and Heidegger brilliantly saw that “no one dies for mere values.” But their projects were incoherent in the end, since Nietzsche reduced all the decent virtues (Aristotle’s moderation and Solzhenitsyn’s self-limitation included) to a repulsive “slave morality.” For his part, Heidegger historicized and relativized even the Being which was above and beyond all other beings. All goods become temporal and thus ephemeral. These two self-proclaimed critics of nihilism gave rise, in vulgarized form, to the “dictatorship of relativism” that now corrodes the very possibility of serious thought and action. They paradoxically reinforce the vulgarity and relativism of the “last man” they so despised.

In some ways, Pontuso is fairer to Nietzsche and Heidegger than he is to natural law theorists and to the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Like many students of Strauss, he identifies the natural law with a priori dogmatism and denies its ultimate compatibility with political and moral prudence. Natural law thinking does indeed argue that there are some intrinsically evil acts. But it is simply not the case that natural law has no place for “complexity and diversity.” The idea of conscience, which arose in a Christian context but certainly has “natural” and “phenomenological” roots, applies the moral law to the most concrete of circumstances. It goes to far to say that the natural law, rightly understood, has no room for “the latitude of statesmanship,” as Strauss rather dogmatically claimed in his most famous book, Natural Right and History (1953).

Rescuing Kant from the Kantians

As for Kant, Pontuso rightly faults him for privileging “the good will” over all practical political or moral considerations. Contra Kant, the search for happiness need not be at odds with fidelity to the moral law. Kant was wrong to associate morality with utter selflessness, “a standard,” as Pontuso points out, “of almost inhuman detachment in which the actions of a moral person cannot result in personal benefit in any way—even in the hope of a final reward in the afterlife.” This moral understanding is too austere, too cut off from the natural human desire to combine happiness with a virtuous life. Yet Pontuso admits that Kant elevated our contemporary understanding of human dignity and human rights even if many soi-disant Kantians today identify moral autonomy with indiscriminate relativism.

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln revealed the highest moral possibilities of Kantian moral philosophy when he said, in a private note written to himself in 1858, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” This was Lincoln’s high-minded definition of democracy, and it owed something to what we might call a Kantian intuition of the proper place of duty in the moral life. But Pontuso’s conclusion is doubtless right: The classics, particularly Aristotle, reveal a better way when they show that self-mastery is a means to both virtue and happiness—to a whole, honorable, and self-respecting life. Virtue will lose its hold on men’s souls if it makes unnatural demands.

This book helpfully shows us that we must begin at the beginning, taking seriously the “moral evaluations [that] are intrinsic to consciousness.” Near its end, the author quotes a memorable formulation from Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations”: “Even without a religious foundation,” all people, “even the most extreme economic materialists,” make judgments about “our spiritual values: noble, base, courageous, cowardly, hypocritical, false, cruel, magnanimous, just, and unjust . . . since they remain human beings.”

That is the operative point, “since they remain human beings.”

The lesson is clear: Making judgments, and even fine-tuned moral evaluations, is a preeminently human activity. Solzhenitsyn added that this ability both to evaluate and comprehend morality and the full range of the virtues began when the “human race broke away from the animal world through thought and reason.” The conclusion is not hard to draw: Relativism betrays the most precious acquisition of human beings.

Nature’s Virtue is a thoughtful and subtle book that calls on us to renew our confidence in our powers of thought, evaluation, and moral judgment. These natural moral judgments are not arbitrary and are, Pontuso suggests, the ultimate “foundation of nature’s virtue.” He stops short of suggesting that nature commands or that it issues “laws.” In this he departs decisively from the tradition of natural law. But nature does “beckon” us, to use the author’s word. Nature conveys an invitation to live thoughtfully and decently if we so choose. It respects human freedom but gently calls on us to exercise that freedom in a way that does justice to our vocation as rational and moral actors.

This conclusion, as modest as it is firm, gives renewed voice to a moral world that has been obfuscated, if not silenced, by dogmatism and relativism of every kind. James Pontuso has written a most welcome book, indeed.