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There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be”according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated”perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.

Classical natural law theory, after all, begins from the recognition that the movement of the human will is never purely spontaneous, and that all volition is evoked by and directed toward an object beyond itself. It presupposes, moreover, that beyond the immediate objects of desire lies the ultimate end of all willing, the Good as such, which in its absolute priority makes it possible for any finite object to appear to the will as desirable. It asserts that nature is governed by final causes. And, finally, it takes as given that the proper ends of the human will and the final causes of creation are inalienably analogous to one another, because at some ultimate level they coincide (for believers, because God is the one source in which both participate). Thus, in knowing the causal ends of nature, we should be able to know many of the proper moral ends of the will, and even their relative priority in regard to one another . . . . Continue Reading »

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