Mondays are reserved for letters from students.  This one is matriculating at Santa Clara University.


I was wondering if I could inquire more into the two types of natural law you talk about.  I understand the concepts of natural law, but there's this other approach you mention  -- the "basic goods" approach or NNL.  How does that differ from a traditional approach to natural law as you see it?  If you could let me know of any key differences, or point me in the direction of some reading material, I'd appreciate that a lot.


There is only one kind of natural law (just as there is only one kind of gravity), but there is more than one theory of natural law (just as there is more than one theory of gravity).  What I defend is the classical natural law tradition.  The basic goods approach, which agrees with the conclusions of the classical tradition most but not all of the time, is also called the Grisez/Finnis theory, after Germain Grisez and John Finnis, and the new natural law theory, or NNL.  Calling it “the new” theory is a little misleading, because the classical tradition, still alive and vigorously resurgent, is generating a lot of new work.  But that’s how people speak.

Since questions like yours come up so often, I included an appendix on the differences among the various theories of natural law in my books, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of ContradictionHowever, that appendix merely touches on the basic goods approach, so let me say a bit more.  The main differences between the NNL and the classical tradition are as follows.

(1) The NNL rejects natural teleology.  For example, it refuses to reason about sexuality on the basis of the natural purposes and inbuilt meanings of the sexual powers -- on the basis of what they are for.  This is such a huge departure from the classical tradition that many natural law thinkers would say the basic goods theory is no longer a “natural” law theory at all – there is no “nature” in it.  I think that way of putting the matter is a bit overstated, since the NNL does rest on claims about one aspect of our nature, the deep structure of the practical intellect.

(2) The NNL maintains what is called the incommensurability thesis – the proposition that none of the basic goods, the goods worth pursuing for their own sake, can be compared according to value.  Here is one of the standard examples:  Suppose you are playing golf, a child is drowning in the water hazard at the ninth hole, and you give up the game in order to rescue the child, press the water out of his lungs, and call an ambulance.  Afterward, someone asks, “Why did you do that?”  You reply, “Because life is more important than play.”  The basic goods theorist would agree that you did the right thing, but say “That isn’t a valid reason.”

(3) Instead of speaking of God as our greatest good, the NNL speaks of the “basic good of religion,” which means roughly having a connection with some source of meaning greater than oneself.  Classical natural law theorists like me worry that this might mean anything.  We also hold that there is no need to protect natural law theory from natural theology – from truths about God which are demonstrable by reason.

(4) Finally, the NNL relies on a different analysis of the “object of intention,” of how to identify what an act is aiming at.  For example, several years ago, a nun who was a member of the ethics board of a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving an abortion.  At the time, her view was that the act was permissible because its object was not to kill the child but to save the woman’s life.  However, the classical analysis holds that such an act is wrong, because its real object is to kill the child as a means of saving the woman’s life.  In effect, the physicians were treating the child as the illness, not the illness, as the illness.  Though NNL thinkers are generally pro-life, in this case they sided with the excommunicated nun (who subsequently conceded her error and reconciled with the Church).

These are pretty big differences.  Even so, most of the time classical natural lawyers and NNL thinkers are able to work on the same side of the fence, and consider themselves colleagues with disagreements.  The situation does give rise to certain ironies.  For instance, I have mentioned in previous posts that unlike some of my colleagues on the classical side of the table, I think Professor Finnis offers helpful insights about “one flesh unity” in the context of sexuality, and I have borrowed several of them, with modifications, in my own work.  Even so, I am not altogether sure that he would be pleased by my doing so.  The reason is that he makes these points in order to avoid natural teleology, whereas I find them helpful only in the light of natural teleology.

Tomorrow:  What the Twentieth Century Taught Totalitarians