First Encounters With NNLT

- Prolegomena, a general thought:
Where philosophers disagree most is about the principles of things, and the order in which to apply principles when giving a causal explanation of common experience. An example of this is the order between things known and concepts of things known: St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant give diametrically opposed accounts of the order between these ‘things’. Another example, it seems, is how to give a principled account of the natural law. A list of goods, specifically human goods, requires a principle by which to judge the fittingness of the list.

- Notes about first readings into the new natural law theory (NNLT):
1) Tollefsen states that the thesis of the NNLT is “that the foundation of practical reason is in a foundational practical recognition of certain basic goods, and that no inference from theoretical truths concerning human nature is necessary or possible.” (1) This is not a view to be taken lightly: “inference from theoretical truths” is the basis for ethical thought. For example, Aristotelian psychology provides a “launching point” or occasio to ethical considerations because it gives an account of the parts of the human soul and the hierarchy among its powers (see St. Thomas, Sententia Libri de Anima, I, l.1). It seems that Hume’s guillotine is not something to be avoided, but refuted. The ‘ought’ is derived from ‘is’ when the ‘is’ is descriptive of the finality that shapes the very definition, ratio, or raison d’etre of a being, in this case a human being.

2) Rowland makes several interesting comments. (2) First, as an introduction to his attempt to establish a “theological natural law” he states that in an attempt to dialog with non-believers, it has been conceived possible “to sever [natural law] from its theological roots.” (3) It is true that the context of St. Thomas’s treatise on law makes a separation from the mode of the science of theology a risky undertaking. However, (provided the distinction between revealed and natural theology), an account of natural law can be given by a science strictly philosophical in order and mode, which conclusions and arguments can be reaffirmed by a higher science (theology), which reaffirmation is no vain attempt because of the diverse ways in which the two sciences conceive of their scientific objects and the natural law as a part of that object.
Second, Rowland indicates the heart of the issue:

Cardinal Ratzinger . . . described natural law as a “blunt instrument” in dialogues with secular society. This was not because he personally rejects belief in natural law, but because he believes that it presupposes a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, a view which he further claims was “capsized” with the arrival of the theory of evolution. Without a foundational belief in a divinely created cosmos, the doctrine falls on incredulous ears. It lacks persuasive force. Post-moderns will never buy it because they have rejected a notion of nature that includes stable essences, and Liberals will never buy it because individual autonomy occupies such a high place in their hierarchy of goods that it trumps any appeal to a notion of there being one single vision of a “good life.” . . . Reason has been truncated to finding efficient ways of achieving ends and nature is now subject to scientific manipulation so neither reason nor nature is a strong foundation upon which to build a bridge to the contemporary Liberal tradition. (4)

This is the basis upon which all discussion of “natural law” hinges. First, there is the understanding of “nature” and its correlative, “reason.” These are the touchstones upon which any account of a natural law for man (the being rational by nature) must be based. Furthermore, to obtain the full ratio of law, this natural law must be “theologically” derived in the sense that it is placed within the context of a (divinely) rational legislator, i.e. a cosmos (cosmein: order, marshalling troops) with a super-cosmic origin and source of direction or finality. This requires neither revelation strictly speaking nor does it invalidate the conclusions of natural ethics, which would only imperfectly attain to the full ratio of law.) Third, this cosmic order is eternal, but not necessarily in an immutable Stoic sense, and hence can give an account which utilizes evolution as instrumental principles (satisfying the concerns of the post-modern) which instrumentality requires direction by a non-instrumental source. This introduces a hierarchy of goods (for a hierarchy or subordination of instrumental operations to primary causes by nature must be an order of goods insofar as it imports final causality) within a natural order (satisfying the concerns of the liberal). Natural science in a classical sense (Aristotelian/Thomistic) can adequately ground an account which serves as a “launching point” to ethics and natural law (5). Reason is not and cannot be truncated by science.


(1) Christopher Tollefsen, “The New Natural Law Theory,” Lyceum 10.1 (2008): 1. Tollefsen refers to Germain Grisez’s foundational essay: “The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2 Question 94, Article 2,” New Natural Law Forum 10 (1965): 168-201.
(2) Tracey Rowland, “Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism,” Communio 35.3 (2008): 374-396.
(3) Rowland, “Natural Law,” 374.
(4) Rowland, “Natural Law,” 374-75.
(5) See Charles de Koninck, Le Cosme, and Richard Hassing, “Darwinian Natural Right?” Interpretation 27.2 (2000): 129-60. (


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