Morningside Institute Seminars on Natural Law

The Morningside Institute will host two seminars on natural law, on March 22 and 29, at Columbia Law School. See below for details:

Natural Law: Aquinas, Locke, and the Moral Foundations of America

From the Declaration of Independence to Letter from Birmingham Jail, Americans have appealed to the natural law as the foundation of political action and justice in our society. Today, however, the natural law is widely contested and rejected by some as partisan or dangerous. In this seminar series, Philip Hamburger (Columbia) and Nathaniel Peters (Morningside) will explore Thomas Aquinas’s and John Locke’s conceptions of the natural law and how they might help us understand the moral foundations of twenty-first century America.

Part I of this seminar will meet from 6:00 PM-7:30 PM on March 22, 2023 in Case Lounge, 7th floor of main law school building, Jerome Greene Hall (435 W. 116th St). Due to policies at the law school, you must register to attend.

Part II of this seminar will meet from 6:00 PM-7:30 PM on March 29, 2023 in Room 416 of William and June Warren Hall on Amsterdan Avenue. Due to policies at the law school, you must register to attend.

Hirschfeld, “Aquinas and the Market”

9780674986404-lgAt the moment, there is a lot of talk about the end of Fusionism on the American Right. Whether social conservatives–principally Christians–and market liberals are actually breaking up, I don’t know. But, if the breakup occurs, it will be in large part because conservative Christians have come to see that contemporary market liberalism, with its insistence on the virtues of creative destruction and appetite, sits uncomfortably with a Christian worldview. And if they look for a model for their economics, conservative Christians might start with Aquinas himself–at least according to a forthcoming book from Harvard, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, by Mary L. Hirschfeld, an associate professor of economics and theology at Villanova. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

Economists and theologians usually inhabit different intellectual worlds. Economists investigate the workings of markets and tend to set ethical questions aside. Theologians, anxious to take up concerns raised by market outcomes, often dismiss economics and lose insights into the influence of market incentives on individual behavior. Mary L. Hirschfeld, who was a professor of economics for fifteen years before training as a theologian, seeks to bridge these two fields in this innovative work about economics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

According to Hirschfeld, an economics rooted in Thomistic thought integrates many of the insights of economists with a larger view of the good life, and gives us critical purchase on the ethical shortcomings of modern capitalism. In a Thomistic approach, she writes, ethics and economics cannot be reconciled if we begin with narrow questions about fair wages or the acceptability of usury. Rather, we must begin with an understanding of how economic life serves human happiness. The key point is that material wealth is an instrumental good, valuable only to the extent that it allows people to flourish. Hirschfeld uses that insight to develop an account of a genuinely humane economy in which pragmatic and material concerns matter but the pursuit of wealth for its own sake is not the ultimate goal.

The Thomistic economics that Hirschfeld outlines is thus capable of dealing with our culture as it is, while still offering direction about how we might make the economy better serve the human good.

Mellema, “Complicity and Moral Accountability”

In light of the current interest in, and common misunderstanding of, arguments fromp03239 complicity in many law and religion controversies (see, for example, the discussion here, and my criticisms and disagreements here), this new book by Gregory Mellema (Calvin College), Complicity and Moral Accountability (Notre Dame Press), is a particularly welcome contribution. The publisher’s description follows.

In Complicity and Moral Accountability, Gregory Mellema presents a philosophical approach to the moral issues involved in complicity. Starting with a taxonomy of Thomas Aquinas, according to whom there are nine ways for one to become complicit in the wrongdoing of another, Mellema analyzes each kind of complicity and examines the moral status of someone complicit in each of these ways.

Mellema’s central argument is that one must perform a contributing action to qualify as an accomplice, and that it is always morally blameworthy to perform such an action. Additionally, he argues that an accomplice frequently bears moral responsibility for the outcome of the other’s wrongdoing, but he distinguishes this case from cases in which the accomplice is tainted by the wrongdoing of the principal actor. He further distinguishes between enabling, facilitating, and condoning harm, and introduces the concept of indirect complicity.

Mellema tackles issues that are clearly important to any case of collective and shared responsibility, yet rarely discussed in depth, always presenting his arguments clearly, concisely, and engagingly. His account of the nonmoral as well as moral qualities of complicity in wrongdoing—especially of the many and varied ways in which principles and accomplices can interact—is highly illuminating. Liberally sprinkled with helpful and nuanced examples,Complicity and Moral Accountability vividly illustrates the many ways in which one may be complicit in wrongdoing.

Bushlack, “Politics for a Pilgrim Church”

In October, Eerdmans released Politics for a Pilgrim Church: A Thomistic ResizeImageHandlerTheory of Civic Virtue, by theologian Thomas J. Bushlack (University of St. Thomas – Minnesota). The publisher’s description follows:

Church leaders and scholars have long wrestled with what should provide a guiding vision for Christian engagement in culture and politics. In this book Thomas Bushlack argues that a retrieval of Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of civic virtue provides important resources for guiding this engagement today.

Bushlack suggests that Aquinas’s vision of the pilgrim church provides a fitting model for seeking the earthly common good of the political community, and he notes the features of a Thomistic account of justice and civic virtue that remain particularly salient for the twenty-first century. The book concludes with suggestions for cultivating a Christian rhetoric of the common good as an alternative to the predominant forms of discourse fostered within the culture wars that have been so divisive.

Turner, “Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait”

Last month, Yale University Press released Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, by 9780300205947Denys Turner (Yale). The publisher’s description follows:

Leaving so few traces of himself behind, Thomas Aquinas seems to defy the efforts of the biographer. Highly visible as a public teacher, preacher, and theologian, he nevertheless has remained nearly invisible as man and saint. What can be discovered about Thomas Aquinas as a whole? In this short, compelling portrait, Denys Turner clears away the haze of time and brings Thomas vividly to life for contemporary readers—those unfamiliar with the saint as well as those well acquainted with his teachings.

Building on the best biographical scholarship available today and reading the works of Thomas with piercing acuity, Turner seeks the point at which the man, the mind, and the soul of Thomas Aquinas intersect. Reflecting upon Thomas, a man of Christian Trinitarian faith yet one whose thought is grounded firmly in the body’s interaction with the material world, a thinker at once confident in the powers of human reason and a man of prayer, Turner provides a more detailed human portrait than ever before of one of the most influential philosophers and theologians in all of Western thought.

McGinn, “Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae”

This month, Princeton University Press publishes Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae; A Biography, by Bernard McGinn (University of Chicago). the publisher’s description follows:

This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, theSumma was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words–and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar’s life and career, examining Aquinas’s reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book’s enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn’s wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas’s own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.

Lewis on Religious Freedom, the Common Good and the Contraception Services Mandate

V. Bradley Lewis (Catholic U. of America) has posted Religious Freedom, the Good of Religion and the Common Good: The Challenges of Pluralism, Privilege and the Contraceptive Services Mandate. The abstract follows.

The right to religious freedom is properly grounded in religion’s status as a fundamental and irreducible human good, which is nevertheless related to other goods and social in character. Its protection for persons and groups is therefore also a component of the common good of political society. After arguing for these propositions on broadly Thomistic philosophical grounds, the article discuses and answers three recent challenges. The first is based on a perceived conflict between recognition of the good of religion and pluralism and I argue that this objection can be met by distinguishing between different kinds of pluralism, most of which pose no problem to the thesis. A second objection comes from those outside the Thomistic tradition, who either reject the status of religion as a good deserving of explicit legal recognition and protection or accept it on inadequate grounds. The objections, I argue, are based on accounts of religion that are inadequate to the role it plays in sound practical reason. Finally, I discuss an argument from those within the Thomistic tradition who accept some limitations on religious freedom in the name of the common good. This third challenge is linked to the current controversy over the application of the US federal government’s insurance mandate to religious organizations and the US Catholic bishops’ response to it as an issue of religious freedom. Here I argue that the objection is based on a misunderstanding and misapplication of Aquinas’s account.

Jacobs, “Reason, Religion, and Natural Law: From Plato to Spinoza”

This month, Oxford University Press published Reason, Religion, and Natural Law: From Plato to Spinoza (OUP Sept. 2012) by Jonathan A. Jacobs (Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics). The publisher’s description follows.

This edited volume examines the realizations between theological considerations and natural law theorizing, from Plato to Spinoza.

Theological considerations have long had a pronounced role in Catholic natural law theories, but have not been as thoroughly examined from a wider perspective. The contributors to this volume take a more inclusive view of the relation between conceptions of natural law and theistic claims and principles. They do not jointly defend one particular thematic claim, but articulate diverse ways in which natural law has both been understood and related to theistic claims.

In addition to exploring Plato and the Stoics, the volume also looks at medieval Jewish thought, the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham, and the ways in which Spinoza’s thought includes resonances of earlier views and intimations of later developments. Taken as a whole, these essays enlarge the scope of the discussion of natural law through study of how the naturalness of natural law has often been related to theses about the divine. The latter are often crucial elements of natural law theorizing, having an integral role in accounting for the metaethical status and ethical bindingness of natural law. At the same time, the question of the relation between natural law and God-and the relation between natural law and divine command-has been addressed in a multiplicity of ways by key figures throughout the history of natural law theorizing, and these essays accord them the explanatory significance they deserve.

Martin Luther King on Just and Unjust Laws

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. In commemoration, here’s a passage from Dr. King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in 1963 to answer clergy who had criticized his willingness to break laws as part of his anti-segregation campaign:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a Read more

Koritansky’s “Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment”

I am very excited to read this new book by Peter Karl Koritansky (University of Prince Edward Island), Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment (CUA Press 2011).  My own view is that punishment theory and punishment policy might greatly benefit from a historical turn, rediscovering (or, often enough, discovering for the first time) the richness and depth of perspectives on punishment which have, for one reason or another, been forgotten in the historical firmament or perhaps even ignored altogether.  Thomas Aquinas is neither forgotten nor ignored, but this is one of the only full-length book treatments of his thought about punishment of which I am aware, and it is certainly the only one which connects directly to the present debate about punishment theory and punishment practice today.  Cool.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment explores how Aquinas’s understandings of natural law and the common good apply to the contemporary philosophical discussion of punitive justice. It is the first book-length study to consider this question in decades, and the only book that confronts modern views of the topic.

Peter Karl Koritansky presents Thomas Aquinas’s theory of punishment as an alternative to the leading schools of thought that have dominated the philosophical landscape in recent times, namely, utilitarianism and retributivism. After carefully examining each one and tracing its roots back to Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, Koritansky concludes that neither approach to punitive justice is able to provide a philosophically compelling justification for the institution of punishment. He explains how St. Thomas approaches the same philosophical questions from a markedly different set of assumptions rooted in his theory of natural law and his understanding of the common good.

Not without its own difficulties, Aquinas’s approach offers a rationale and justification of punishment that is, Koritansky argues, much more humane, realistic, and compelling than either contemporary school is able to provide. Koritansky distinguishes his reading of the Angelic Doctor from that of other interpreters who tend to conflate Aquinas’s teaching with various aspects of recent thought. A final chapter considers the death penalty in John Paul II’s Gospel of Life and debates whether current Catholic teaching about the death penalty conflicts with Aquinas’s arguments in favor of the death penalty.