Arthur Leff: "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law"

I've been reading through Arthur Leff's famously stimulating paper, Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law presented originally in 1979 at Duke University School of Law. In this paper Leff deals with the mounting tension between what he calls "found law" and "made law." He opens by presenting the following universal paradox of mankind:

I want to believe - and so do you - in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe - and so do you - in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.

Leff, a non-Christian, speaks here quite insightfully about the biblical notions of law, sin, and human freedom. In fact he captures the dilemma of sinful man quite accurately. We are inherently aware of and we desire some kind of divine "findable" law. The idea that a law outside of ourselves exists is an attractive and good notion to all. Nonetheless, we simultaneously desire to be ruled only by ourselves, and this of course is the essence of sin.

Psalm 2 captures this essence of sin from the mouths of the world's rebellious kings:

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us." (Psalm 2:2-3)

In his paper Leff ultimately seeks to do exactly what the kings and rulers of Psalm 2 desire - to burst the bonds of the Lord. He says, "I shall first try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will." The paper is quite fascinating in its own right, but his concluding paragraph is quite remarkable:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us "good," and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

While so many celebrate absolute human freedom to follow one's own conscience, to rule oneself autonomously, to answer to no authority greater than one's self, Leff sees the sheer terror in that prospect. What Leff has discovered, apparently, is that if human freedom is nothing more than the ability to make one's own law, then human freedom is nothing more than slavery to sin. Cain and Abel are the ruling model. Nothing will make us good, especially not our own freedom.

NT Scholar Richard Bauckham observes:

Emancipation from God has been to a large extent achieved in the secular West, and it is now freedom that is the problem - the problem for community, the problem for any kind of human good other than sheer self-determination. The right of very individual to absolute self-determination is becoming the idol for which all else may be sacrificed and, like all idols, a form of enslavement (God and the Crisis of Freedom, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p. 199).

True human freedom comes, not through autonomous self-reign, but through glad submission to the rightful reign of God. To use Leff's own terminology, to find "findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously" is ultimately to find true freedom.

The Psalmists response to the kingly rebellion of Psalm 2 is quite simple:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:10-12).

"Kiss the Son."There can be no more poignant sign of submission to authority than this - than to "kiss" he who holds it. I suppose that for the rebellious heart there can be no thing more distasteful than this, either. That is until, as he finally does bow his knee to kiss the Son's feet, he finds the nail marks that show exactly what kind of a king this Son actually is.