What We All Know--And Why We Can't Not Know That We Know It | An Interview with J. Budziszewski, author of What We Can't Not Know: A Guide | Ignatius Insight | May 9, 2011
Ignatius Insight: In a nutshell, what is it that "we can't not know"?
Budziszewski: Despite the easy contemporary chatter about morality being relative, we all really know the foundational principles of right and wrong -- for example that good is to be done, that evil is to be avoided, and that it is always wrong to gratuitously harm my neighbor. Moreover we all really know the first ring of precepts that follow from these principles -- deep down even the adulterer knows that he ought to be faithful to his wife, even the murderer knows that he should never deliberately take innocent human life, and even the God-mocker knows the wrong of mocking God.
The best short summary of the things we "can't not know" is the Decalogue, provided that you take it together with what it suggests, what it implies, and what it presupposes. The commandment of spousal faithfulness, for example, presupposes the institution of marriage, and suggests the deep importance of sexual purity in general.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the key reasons that people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know"?
Budziszewski: Let me begin with a little clarification: I don't claim that everyone knows everything. Genuine ignorance and confusion are possible about the moral details. It is only the moral basics that I claim we "can't not know."
One reason why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that the knowledge is latent. They may never have thought about it. It has to be brought to the surface. Thomas Aquinas remarks that we have a natural "habit" of knowing the first principles of practical reason, but that this doesn't mean we are actually thinking about them.
Another reason why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that morally careless ways of life make moral knowledge fuzzy and indistinct. I've claimed that even the adulterer knows the good of faithfulness, but I don't claim that he knows it clearly. His way of life dims his moral vision. To him it seems a dim abstraction. A host of other things are in clearer focus, crowding it out.
The most troubling of all reasons why people don't always seem to know what they "can't not know" is that we sometimes work very hard to convince ourselves that we don't know what we really do know. We are trying not to let their guilty knowledge rise to the surface, not to think about it, not to draw its implications -- because it would accuse us. The suppression of guilty knowledge takes a lot of energy, and a whole set of symptoms betray the effort. I may compulsively confess, to everyone who will listen, every sordid detail of what I did except that it was wrong. Or I may pour myself into constructing elaborate excuses for it. Or I may ruin my own life and destroy my relationships in a false bid for atonement -- paying pain after pain, price after price, all because I refuse to pay the one price demanded, a contrite and broken heart.
Ignatius Insight: In the Preface to the new edition of What We Can't Not Know, you speak of three general "historical phases" of the natural tradition, and write that we are now entering a fourth. What, in short, are four phases?