This is very abstract. Here is an example of an employment of thisapproach. While Finnis now affirms Grisez's master rule approach, inhis 1980 work he defends various principles of practicalreasonableness without adverting to a master rule. He argues, forexample, that it is always wrong to intend the destruction of aninstance of a basic good (Finnis 1980, pp. 118-123). (So, no lying,for lying is an intentional attack on knowledge; no murder, for murderis an intentional attack on life, and so forth.) Why is italways wrong to do so? It would be unreasonable simply to try todestroy an instance of a basic good, for no further purpose: for thatwould treat an instance of a basic good as something that it is not —that is, as valueless. And it would be wrong to destroy an instance ofa basic good for the sake of bringing about some other instance of abasic good: for that would make sense only if the good brought aboutwere more valuable than the good destroyed, but on Finnis's view alldistinct instances of basic goods are incommensurable — none is ofmore, less, or equal value with any other. So the rule forbiddingintentional destruction of an instance of a basic good is justifiedbecause it rules out only choices that presuppose something falseabout the nature of the basic goods. (For a working out of the methodapproach, see Murphy 2001, ch. 5.)
Neither the master rule nor the method approach implies that thenatural law theorist must hold that all right action can be captured ingeneral rules. The natural law view is only that there are some suchrules. It is consistent with the natural law position that there are anumber of choice situations in which there is a right answer, yet inwhich that right answer is not dictated by any natural law rule or setof rules, but rather is grasped only by a virtuous, practically wiseperson. It is, however, open to the natural law theorist to use thisappeal to the judgment of the practically wise person more widely,holding that the general rules concerning the appropriate response tothe goods cannot be properly determined by any master rule orphilosophical method, but can be determined only by appeal to theinsight of the person of practical wisdom. If it really is wrong in allcases to tell lies, as Aquinas and Grisez and Finnis have argued, ourgrasp of this moral truth is dependent on our possessing, or our beingable to recognize the possessor of, practical wisdom. If such a personnever tells lies, because she or he just sees that to tell lies wouldbe to respond defectively to the good, then that lying is always wrongis a rule of the natural law.
Even though we have already confined ‘natural law theory’to its use as a term that marks off a certain class of ethicaltheories, we still have a confusing variety of meanings to contendwith. Some writers use the term with such a broad meaning that anymoral theory that is a version of moral realism — that is, any moraltheory that holds that some positive moral claims are literally true(for this conception of moral realism, see Sayre-McCord 1988)— countsas a natural law view. Some use it so narrowly that no moral theorythat is not grounded in a very specific form of Aristotelian teleologycould count as a natural law view. It might be thought that thereis nothing that can be done to begin a discussion of natural law theoryin ethics other than to stipulate a meaning for ‘natural lawtheory’ and to proceed from there. But there is a better way ofproceeding, one that takes as its starting point the central role thatthe moral theorizing of Thomas Aquinas plays in the natural lawtradition. If any moral theory is a theory of natural law, it isAquinas's. (Every introductory ethics anthology that includes materialon natural law theory includes material by or about Aquinas; everyencyclopedia article on natural law thought refers to Aquinas.) It would seem sensible, then, to take Aquinas's natural law theory asthe central case of a natural law position: of theories that exhibitall of the key features of Aquinas's natural law view we can say thatthey are clearly natural law theories; of theories that exhibit few ofthem we can say that they are clearly not natural law theories; and oftheories that exhibit many but not all of them we can say that they arein the neighborhood of the natural law view but nonetheless must beviewed as at most deviant cases of that position. There remain, nodoubt, questions about how we determine what are to count as thekey features of Aquinas's position. But we may take as the keyfeatures those theses about natural law that structure his overallmoral view and which provide the basis for other theses about thenatural law that he affirms.
Surely, the ancient and honorable doctrine of natural law is dead, is it not? And many would add, "Long dead and well dead!" What, then, can a bibliographical essay such as this amount to, if not to a kind of funeral oration, or else to a chronicle of "old, forgotten far-off things, and battles long ago"?
Not so, though. For two excellent recent historical studies - the older and shorter one by A.P. D'Entrèves, and the longer and very recent one by M.B. Crowe - both tell a similarly fascinating story of the continual births and rebirths of natural law doctrines in the course of their long history. Professor Crowe has even remarked that "the natural law, as an idea, is almost as old as philosophy itself." He thinks he can find the origins of a natural law doctrine even among the pre-Socratics. Following this, it received at the hands of the Sophists what appeared to be, if not a death-blow, then certainly a serious set-back. Plato and Aristotle, however, promptly revived it, if not in name, then certainly in essence. And with the Stoics, it really came into full flower. Proceeding, then, to the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, natural law doctrines at first enjoyed a rather more dubious status, only to receive eventually their most definitive formulation and justification at the hands of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.
facts about humannature and the nature of the world (including, but not limited to, such"scientific" laws as the law of gravity), you want toaccomplish certain ends, you should do .
The precepts of the natural law are also knowable by nature. All human beings possess a basic knowledge of the principles of thenatural law (ST IaIIae 94, 4). This knowledge is exhibited in ourintrinsic directedness toward the various goods that the natural lawenjoins us to pursue, and we can make this implicit awareness explicitand propositional through reflection on practice. Aquinas takes it thatthere is a core of practical knowledge that all human beings have, evenif the implications of that knowledge can be hard to work out or theefficacy of that knowledge can be thwarted by strong emotion or evildispositions (ST IaIIae 94, 6).
If Aquinas's view is paradigmatic of the natural law position, andthese two theses — that from the God's-eye point of view, it is lawthrough its place in the scheme of divine providence, and from thehuman's-eye point of view, it constitutes a set of naturally bindingand knowable precepts of practical reason — are the basic features ofthe natural law as Aquinas understands it, then it follows thatparadigmatic natural law theory is incompatible with several views inmetaphysics and moral philosophy. On the side of metaphysics, it isclear that the natural law view is incompatible with atheism: onecannot have a theory of divine providence without a divine being. It isalso clear that the paradigmatic natural law view rules out a deism onwhich there is a divine being but that divine being has no interest inhuman matters. Nor can one be an agnostic while affirming theparadigmatic natural law view: for agnosticism is the refusal to commiteither to God's existence or nonexistence, whereas the paradigmaticnatural law view involves a commitment to God's existence. On the sideof moral philosophy, it is clear that the natural law view isincompatible with a nihilism about value, that is, the rejection of theexistence of values. It is also incompatible with relativist andconventionalist views, on which the status of value is entirelyrelative to one's community or determined entirely by convention. It isalso incompatible with a wholesale skepticism about value, for thenatural law view commits one to holding that certain claims about thegood are in fact knowable, indeed, knowable by all.
The center of Aquinas's natural law view as described thus farconcerns what we might call the metaphysics of morals: its role indivine providence and the universally authoritative character of itsnorms. What, though, of the normative content of Aquinas'snatural law position? Is there anything distinctive about thenormative natural law position? Here it is difficult to say muchthat is uncontroversial, but we can say a sufficient amount aboutAquinas's natural law theory to make clear that it is an interestingalternative to utilitarian (and more generally consequentialist)ethics, Kantian views, and standard Aristotelian positions. (For amagisterial treatment of Aquinas's natural law ethic, see Rhonheimer2000.)
Once again, though, the flourishing of natural law in the eighteenth century was followed by its apparent demise in the nineteenth century. As one contemporary critic has put it, "the philosophers tended to say that the natural law was not natural, and the lawyers that it was not law." Nevertheless, with the Thomistic revival in the latter part of the nineteenth century, an interest in natural law appeared to be in full swing again by the first quarter of the present century, particularly in Catholic circles. In this country, Catholic institutions of higher learning, especially law schools, pressed for the teaching of so-called natural law along with positive law; and thinkers of the stature of Jacques Maritain enjoyed vogue and influence alike in their efforts to awaken both Europeans and Americans to the pressing demands of human rights, particularly in the light of the ruthless suppression and perversion of those rights at the hands of the Nazis. Then suddenly, in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was almost as if the bottom had dropped out, so far as natural law doctrines were concerned. In academic circles, especially among philosophers and political scientists, no one talked about natural law or natural rights anymore; and if one did, one was promptly relegated to beyond the pale by scornful colleagues.
And now just as suddenly, and seemingly no less unpredictably, there has been a dramatic revival of interest in so-called "rights theories" - and this just in the last ten, perhaps even in just the last five, years. True, such recent rights theories have not always involved an effort at reinstating anything like "natural" rights, and certainly not "natural law." Yet many of them have. And in any case, they have all had the effect of bringing the issue of whether or not there is a natural law right out into the open again, thus making it not just respectable, but even imperative to discuss it and to take it seriously.