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Anamnesis Journal and Debates Over the New Natural Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, News and Current Events, News Release, Politics, Religion, Rhetoric, Western Civilization on August 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Over at the web-essay section of Anamnesis: A Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine,’ Professors R. J. Snell and Thaddeus J. Kozinski have weighed in on debates over the New Natural Law theory.

Here is Snell’s thesis:

Despite differences in particular religious commitments, a significant number of theists share reservations about the natural law. Natural law theory overlooks the Fall, arrogates the domain of revelation, attempts obligation without divine command, and treats God in the generic and thus in terms alien to the believer—just some of the many objections.In this short essay I offer a broad defense against these charges, particularly claiming that understanding natural law through human subjectivity recognizes how humans actually know and so consequently preserves the uniqueness and transcendence of God.

Appealing to authorities within the religious tradition may go some distance in answering objections, for theology and sacred text tends to vindicate the natural lawyers, especially if the religion has a doctrine of creation. But the charges may have particular traction against the so-called New Natural Law Theory (NNL), with its first-person perspective. As Christopher O. Tollefsen explains, the NNL takes seriously “considerations concerning the nature of human action,” particularly intentions as “agent-centered, or first-personal … from the point of view of the agent as seeking some good.” It is, he continues, “only by adopting the perspective of the acting person that an agent’s action can be best understood.”

Here is Kozinski’s thesis:

I commend R.J. Snell for his excellent essay “God, Religion, and the New Natural Law.” His thesis: “understanding natural law through human subjectivity recognizes how humans actually know and so consequently preserves the uniqueness and transcendence of God” is defended rigorously, and is, to my mind, true. However, in allying his argument with those of the New Natural Law school, I think he does himself a disservice.There is nothing in his thesis in terms of data, premises, argumentation, and conclusions that requires such an alliance, for everything he claims about the indispensable role and even primacy of subjectivity, experience, understanding, and judgment in ethical inquiry and practice rings true on its own and is clearly in accordance with the philosophia perennis in general and Thomistic ethical philosophy in particular. Whereas, the major claim of the New Natural Theory, that is, the adequacy of practical reason alone to ground and explain ethical theory and practice, does not ring true and is in, at least prima facie, contradiction with traditional Catholic and Thomistic moral philosophy and theology.

Though I agree with Dr. Snell that the modern and postmodern “turn to the subject” is the most appropriate beginning to inquiry about the natural law, and maybe the most effective motivation for obeying it, in our present public milieu of deep worldview pluralism, it is only a beginning. Moreover, even a sound, systematic Thomistic defense of the relative self-sufficiency of practical reason for knowing and living out the natural law can be misleading if it neglects to include a discussion of these four realities:  1) the mutually dependent relation of speculative and practical reason; 2) the subjectivity-shaping role of social practices; 3) the tradition-constituted-and-constitutive character of practical rationality; and 4) the indispensability of divine revelation in ethical inquiry and practice.

These essays are good introductions to the New Natural Law Theory.  For more about this branch of jurisprudence, see the following web-based essays and articles (some of them approving of natural law and some of them critical):

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.  “On the New Natural Law Theory.”  Modern Age (2000: 415-418).

Phillip E. Johnson.  “In Defense of Natural Law.”  First Things (1999).

Christopher Tollefsen.  “The New Natural Law Theory.”  LYCEUM, Vol. X, No. 1 (2008).

David Gordon’s review of Robert P. George’s In Defense of Natural Law.  Review title: “New But Not Improved.”  The Mises Review.  Vol. 5, No. 4 (1999).

Larry Arnhart.  “Darwinian Conservatism as the New Natural Law.”  The Good Society, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2003).

The Daily Dish.  “The ‘New’ Natural Law.”  The Atlantic (Dec. 23, 2009).

David D. Kirkpatrick.  “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”  The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 16, 2009).

“The Gospel of Life: A Symposium.”  First Things (1995). 

This list is hardly exhaustive.  It shows only a few scholarly and popular pieces.  No discussion of natural law theory should fail to mention John Finnis and Robert P. George, whose books and articles are well-known and oft-discussed.  Anamnesis, edited by Peter Haworth, is sure to come out with more compelling pieces related to topics discussed here at The Literary Lawyer.  Please read Anamnesis and, if you feel so inclined, leave a comment in the “comments” section of the web-based fora.

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