How does Martin Luther King, Jr. rate in David Blankenhorn’s eyes today? More specifically, how does King’s understanding of moral truth and his articulation of that truth square with David’s recent reflections about moral epistemology and public argumentation?
These were the questions I was left with after reading David’s recent post on Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He praised Herzfeld’s epistemological modesty, and then went on to laud him for “not declaring, or explicating from on high for our edification, things that he insists are objectively true. He does not ask us to believe that he is somehow channeling the voice of Nature and Nature’s God.”
While David and I agree on the need for modesty and humility in public discourse and public reasoning, I must part ways with him regarding his treatment here of objective truth and the natural law tradition. If there is no objective truth out there, why come together to reason together, or debate one another, about the common good? Why not just retreat to the comforts of our own secular, political, or religious ghettoes or, worse yet, simply worship at the contemporary altar of the sovereign self? What is the point of “engaging the key debates” about the family unless we hope–albeit imperfectly, through a glass darkly, this side of eternity–to draw closer to the “objective truth” about the human person, the family, and the common good?
More particularly, David’s post makes me wonder what he thinks of reformist movements in American life that have drawn much of their power from strong appeals to truth, Nature, or Nature’s God. Consider, for instance, this passage from the Reverend Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
King’s letter has none of the epistemological modesty David admires in Herzfeld’s sermon. But, as King’s letter argues, sometimes the gravity of an injustice demands clear and bold assertions, rooted in a confident assertions about the “moral law.”
In my view, one of the greatest challenges facing our nation is not so much a lack of epistemological modesty but rather the fact that many of our citizens have such divergent and incommensurate understandings of what the “moral law” looks like and demands of them and the nation.
But we can only profitably live together, work together, and argue together, amidst our deepest differences, I think, if we believe in a truth and a moral law that ultimately exists, to some degree, above and apart from our own limited, parochial, and self-interested conceptions of the true and the good. And motivates us to find common ground for the common good, realized in part through reasoned and civil argument.