The “new natural law” (or NNL) is a school of natural law thought, arising in the mid-1960s in the work of Germain Grisez and thereafter, which aimed to revive and revise Thomistic thought for the contemporary period. Its greatest expositor is John Finnis, whose “Natural Law and Natural Rights” is one of the most important works in the philosophy of law of the 20th century, but it has many other major scholarly defenders as well as challengers (for example, Ralph McInerny and Russell Hittinger). It’s too difficult to get into much of the substance of new natural law theory in a post like this, but suffice it to say that one of the basic tenets of the new natural law theory concerns the question how we come to know what it is good to do and to act to achieve those ends. NNL theorists generally believe that a person’s practical reason (reason oriented toward action) “naturally” has access to or understands as self-evidently desirable a number of basic human goods. For NNL theorists, these goods include life, knowledge, friendship, and several others. Moral reflection and decision is needed, on the NNL account, because in any given situation, actions needed to achieve one of these goods may render the achievement of other goods difficult or even impossible. Note that the role of divine illumination for NNL is robustly debated from those within the natural law tradition.

As I say, there is a great deal more to NNL theory than just this, and interested readers should go to the main sources, especially Professor Finnis’ work. But here is a new book coming out this fall that is very likely to intervene in the arguments about NNL theory and perhaps amend or update them, and that looks well worth checking out: Natural Law and Modern Society (Oxford University Press) by Sean Coyle.

Modern society is riven by social divisions: between conservatives and progressives; liberals and socialists; the mainstream and the rise of far-right political groups etc. Instead of truth, there are ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’. In the wake of problems caused by untruthful politicians and world leaders, by Brexit and Covid, the need to repair or rebuild our communities has become paramount, but what kind of community should we build, and on what foundations? This book suggests that natural law is such a foundation.

Natural Law and Modern Society presents a new theory of natural law, grounded in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, aimed at answering questions relevant to the world of today: from the nature of morality and ethics to the theory of law, obligation and political authority; from the domestic realm to international community. It seeks to elicit from the natural law tradition timeless truths concerning the human condition, in particular the social and political dimensions to human existence. This mode of existence, it argues, is not a problem to be resolved through some permutation of political institutions, but a predicament to be managed. At the heart of the book is the identification of a ‘core morality’: a set of moral requirements that are foundational to every society at all places and times, as distinct from those standards that are particular to this or that society at some time.

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