Tag Archives: Natural Law

Summer Fridays With Pascal: On the Nature of Law

Many law students know the rough outlines of the distinction between naturalLaw law and legal positivism. Both are theories about the nature of law–about what is distinctive about law as a concept. There are many difficulties and nuances here, but as a rough and ready statement, one could say that legal positivism holds that in order for something to be “law,” we must look to its provenance or pedigree in this social world, and only in this social world. It follows that for legal positivists, there is an unbridgeable conceptual gap between what the law is and what the law ought to be–between something’s being law and something’s being a just or moral law. The natural law conception of law is quite different. It holds that “law” includes as its fundamental or “core” example just law–morally correct law. This does not mean that the natural lawyer refuses to believe that there can be unjust laws. Surely there can be. What the natural lawyer believes is that a law’s justice, or its morality, is an integral part of what makes law truly, or fully, or in its core case, law.

It is interesting to see Pascal weighing very much in on the side of legal positivism. He is coming, of course, not from the perspective of what one typically associates with contemporary legal positivism (a late nineteenth/twentieth century phenomenon) but from the Jansenist perspective of the fallenness of postlapsarian humanity. His view is that though natural justice exists (i.e., Pascal is not a relativist), humanity simply cannot know what it is in its depraved state. Whatever laws exist are law simply because bodies vested with proper authority have issued them. Note also that this view of law and justice greatly reduces the issue of compliance against conscience with what one deems an unjust law. What do you expect in this world, with these fallen creatures, after all, but unjust law? Here is Pascal:

On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it.

Certainly had he known it, he would not have established this maxim, the most general of all that obtain among men, that each should follow the custom of his own country. The glory of true equity would have brought all nations under subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of this unchanging justice. We would have seen it set up in all the States on earth and in all times; whereas we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession; right has its epochs; the entry of Saturn into the Lion marks to us the origin of such and such a crime. A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.

Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law.

Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions. Can anything be more ridiculous that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?

Doubtless there are natural laws; but good reason once corrupted has corrupted all. Nihil amplius nostrum est; quod nostrum dicimus, artis est. Ex senatus–consultis et plebiscitis crimina exercentur. Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus. [My translation: Nothing more than this is ours; what is ours is what we say, our art. Crimes are mandated to us by the senate, the consuls, and the people. Once we suffered from our vices, now we suffer from our laws.]

The result of this confusion is that one affirms the essence of justice to be the authority of the legislator; another, the interest of the sovereign; another, present custom, and this is the most sure. Nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself; all changes with time. Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just, obeys a justice which is imaginary, and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more….

From Fragment 294 of Pensées.

Jensen, “Knowing the Natural Law”

Last month, the Catholic University of America Press released Knowing the NaturalJensen final sketch.indd Law: From Precepts and Inclinations to Deriving Oughts, by Steven Jensen (University of St. Thomas, Houston). The publisher’s description follows:

Recent discussions of Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of natural law have focused upon the “self-evident” character of the first principles, but few attempts have been made to determine in what manner they are self-evident. On some accounts, a self-evident precept must have, at most, a tenuous connection with speculative reason, especially our knowledge of God, and it must be untainted by the stain of “deriving” an ought from an is. Yet Aquinas himself had a robust account of the good, rooted in human nature. He saw no fundamental dierence between is-statements and ought-statements, both of which he considered to be descriptive

Knowing the Natural Law traces the thought of Aquinas from an understanding of human nature to a knowledge of the human good, from there to an account of ought-statements, and finally to choice, which issues in human actions. The much discussed article on the precepts of the natural law (I-II, 94, 2) provides the framework for a natural law rooted in human nature and in speculative knowledge. Practical knowledge is itself threefold: potentially practical knowledge, virtually practical knowledge, and fully practical knowledge.

This distinction within practical knowledge, typically overlooked or underutilized, reveals the steps by which the mind moves from speculative knowledge all the way to fully practical knowledge. The most significant sections of Knowing the Natural Law examine the nature of ought-statements, the imperative force of moral precepts, the special character of per se nota propositions as found within the natural law, and the final movement from knowledge to action.

Helmholz, “Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice”

Whatever little I know about the ius commune–continental Europe’s set of Helmholzperennial legal principles (derived in part from Roman and Canon law) existing in a code-based system of law–I learned from the work of the distinguished medieval legal historian Professor R.H. Helmholz (Chicago). And because it is the 800th anniversary year of King John’s acceptance of the terms of Magna Carta, may I also recommend this podcast wherein Professor Helmholz gives a talk on Magna Carta “from a European perspective” (he begins to speak at just after the 5 minute mark and speaks for about 15 minutes).

Professor Helmholz’s very interesting latest book, Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice, is being published next month by Harvard University Press. The publisher’s description follows.

The theory of natural law grounds human laws in the universal truths of God’s creation. Until very recently, lawyers in the Western tradition studied natural law as part of their training, and the task of the judicial system was to put its tenets into concrete form, building an edifice of positive law on natural law’s foundations. Although much has been written about natural law in theory, surprisingly little has been said about how it has shaped legal practice. Natural Law in Court asks how lawyers and judges made and interpreted natural law arguments in England, Europe, and the United States, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the American Civil War.

R. H. Helmholz sees a remarkable consistency in how English, Continental, and early American jurisprudence understood and applied natural law in cases ranging from family law and inheritance to criminal and commercial law. Despite differences in their judicial systems, natural law was treated across the board as the source of positive law, not its rival. The idea that no person should be condemned without a day in court, or that penalties should be proportional to the crime committed, or that self-preservation confers the right to protect oneself against attacks are valuable legal rules that originate in natural law. From a historical perspective, Helmholz concludes, natural law has advanced the cause of justice.

Brett, “Changes of State”

This month, Princeton University Press releases Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law, by Annabel S. Brett (Cambridge). The publisher’s description follows:

This is a book about the theory of the city or commonwealth, what would come to be called the state, in early modern natural law discourse. Annabel Brett takes a fresh approach by looking at this political entity from the perspective of its boundaries and those who crossed them. She begins with a classic debate from the Spanish sixteenth century over the political treatment of mendicants, showing how cosmopolitan ideals of porous boundaries could simultaneously justify the freedoms of itinerant beggars and the activities of European colonists in the Indies. She goes on to examine the boundaries of the state in multiple senses, including the fundamental barrier between human beings and animals and the limits of the state in the face of the natural lives of its subjects, as well as territorial frontiers. Drawing on a wide range of authors, Brett reveals how early modern political space was constructed from a complex dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Throughout, she shows that early modern debates about political boundaries displayed unheralded creativity and virtuosity but were nevertheless vulnerable to innumerable paradoxes, contradictions, and loose ends. Changes of State is a major work of intellectual history that resonates with modern debates about globalization and the transformation of the nation-state.

Rogers, “Aquinas and the Supreme Court”

This May, Wiley will publish Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Biblical Narratives of Jews, Gentiles and Gender by Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. (University of North Carolina).  The publisher’s description follows.ebook_k

This new work clarifies Aquinas’ concept of natural law through his biblical commentaries, and explores its applications to U.S. constitutional law.

  • The first time the use of Aquinas on the U.S. Supreme Court has been explored in depth, and its applications tested through a rigorous reading of the biblical commentaries
  • Shows how key judgments in the Supreme Court have rested on medieval natural law, and applies critical gender theory to discuss problems with these applications
  • Offers new research data to give a different picture of Aquinas and natural law, and a fresh take on Aquinas’ biblical commentaries
  • New research based on passages in the biblical commentaries never before available in English

Richard Epstein to Lecture on Natural Law (March 21)

I’ve always thought of natural law and law and economics as opposing schools of thought. Like Rick in Casablanca, I must have been misinformed. On March 21, law and economics scholar Richard Epstein will deliver the Spring 2013 Natural Law Colloquium Lecture at Fordham. Details are here.

Covington, McGraw, & Watson (eds.), “Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought”

This month, Lexington Books will publish Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought edited by Jesse Covington (Westmont College), Bryan McGraw (Wheaton College), and Micah Watson (Union University). The publisher’s description follows.

Natural law has long been a cornerstone of Christian political thought, providing moral norms that ground law in a shareable account of human goods and obligations. Despite this history, twentieth and twenty-first-century evangelicals have proved quite reticent to embrace natural law, casting it as a relic of scholastic Roman Catholicism that underestimates the import of scripture and the division between Christians and non-Christians. As recent critics have noted, this reluctance has posed significant problems for the coherence and completeness of evangelical political reflections. Responding to evangelically-minded thinkers’ increasing calls for a re-engagement with natural law, this volume explores the problems and prospects attending evangelical rapprochement with natural law. Many of the chapters are optimistic about an evangelical re-appropriation of natural law, but note ways in which evangelical commitments might lend distinctive shape to this engagement.

Ross on Mosaic Law in Early Protestant Jurisprudence

From the beginning, Christian jurisprudence has tried to distinguish the “moral” elements of the Mosaic Law, which continue to bind Christians, from the “ceremonial,” which do not. Richard Ross (University of Illinois) has written what looks to be a fascinating essay, Distinguishing Eternal from Transient Law: Natural Law and the Judicial Law of Moses,  on the efforts of Protestants in early modern Europe and New England to grapple with this distinction. He ties their work  to similar efforts by natural law theorists of the period to differentiate between eternal and merely local principles. The abstract follows.

This essay examines two interlinked efforts in early modern Europe and New England to distinguish legal provisions valid across different societies and time periods from those that were local and transitory and therefore not compulsory in the present. Consider, first, the judicial laws of Moses. A minority of Protestants, whom I will call the “Mosaic legalists,” tried to ascertain which Old Testament judicial ordinances were no longer obligatory because they were particular to the Jewish commonwealth, and which were eternally-valid “appendices” to the natural law and Decalogue. The challenge of differentiating the perpetual from the local also occupied early modern students of the law of nature. Whether one believed that God impressed natural law upon the world or that people deduced natural law Continue reading

O’Brien & Koons on A Hylomorphic Critique of the New Natural Law Theory

Matthew B. O’Brien (Rutgers U.) and Robert C. Koons (U. of Texas, Austin) have posted Objects of Intention: A Hylomorphic Critique of the New Natural Law Theory. The abstract follows.

The “New Natural Law” Theory (NNL) of Grisez, Finnis, Boyle, and their collaborators offers a distinctive account of intentional action, which underlies a moral theory that aims to justify many aspects of traditional morality and Catholic doctrine. In fact, we show that the NNL is committed to premises that entail the permissibility of many actions that are irreconcilable with traditional morality and Catholic doctrine, such as elective abortions. These consequences follow principally from the NNL’s planning theory of intention coupled with an implicitly Cartesian conception of human behavior, in which behavior chosen by an agent has no intrinsic “intentionalness” apart from what he confers upon it as part of his plan. Pace the NNL collaborators, we sketch an alternative hylomorphic conception of intentional action that avoids untoward moral implications by grounding human agency in the exercise of basic powers that are either essential to human nature or acquired through participation in social practices.