SMNR: Natural Law Tradition

Course Information

Registration Information

Meeting Times

Day Time Location
MON 12:30 - 3:30 pm BAT 1.104

Evaluation Method

Type Date Time Location


Briefly: This seminar is designed not only for grad students specializing in Political Theory, but also for several other constituencies in Government, Philosophy, and Law, as explained in the third paragraph, below. It considers the concept of natural law; its sources; the classical synthesis; the modern unraveling of this synthesis; its unexpected contemporary revival; and its critics. Is there really a natural law? What difference does it make if there is? Is it really “natural,” and really “law”? What are its implications for government, ethics, and jurisprudence? Can it answer its critics? Can it do the theoretical and cultural work that some of its proponents hope that it can? Seminar context: Ancient and medieval political thinkers held that a humane political order must be grounded on what is naturally good for human beings. Though for a time they continued to use the older terminology, modern political thinkers increasingly denied that what the classical tradition called "natural law" was truly natural, or -- even if it was truly natural -- that it was truly law. However, the concept of natural law has continued to exert influence in a number of areas, and our own times have witnessed a modest renaissance and reformation of the classical natural law tradition. Philosophy students may be interested because of the connection of natural law theory with the revival of neo-Aristotelian and Thomistic meta-ethics. International Relations students may be interested because of the influence of natural law theory on international law, international human rights jurisprudence, international organization, and just war theory. Comparative Politics students may be interested because of the bearing of natural law theory on the question of cross-cultural universals. Public Law and American Political Development students may be interested because of the influence of natural law theory on American constitutional traditions. Public Law and Public Policy students may be interested because of how natural law theory addresses the question of whether public moral norms have a rational basis, rather than being arbitrary and invidious. UNITS 1) An Introduction to the Concept Of Natural Law; 2) Some Early Statements of Natural Law; (3) The Classical Synthesis; (4) Late Medieval and Early Modern Experiments and Departures; (5) Natural Law, International Law, and War) I; (6) Natural Law, International Law, and War, II; (7) Natural Law and Human Rights; (8) The American Reception of the Natural Law Tradition; (9) Natural Law in American Jurisprudence; (10) Some Influential Rejections; (11) Various Kinds of Defenses; (12) The Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic Reception of the Natural Law Tradition; and (13) The Catholic Church on the Natural Law Tradition. GRADING Research paper: 2/3 Vigorous participation in seminar: 1/3 Students are encouraged to choose research topics that connect natural law theory to their own areas of specialization. TEXTS The readings include carefully selected, non-overwhelming excerpts from a large number of authors from ancient times to the present. All of the readings will be either online or on PCL reserve. No purchases are required; however, copies of two of my own books, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (rev. ed.) 2011, and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (2009), will be available at the bookstore in case anyone does wish to purchase them.