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Natural law ethics is a normative theory, which, as its name implies, centres on two key notions: nature and law. It is animated by the idea that nature, and human nature in particular, is the source and ground of the moral laws (or, more widely, moral norms) which govern our nature. Historically, the ‘nature’ component was first theorised in Ancient Greece and Rome, where philosophers argued that human beings are intrinsically directed to and fulfilled by certain ends – the claim of natural teleology. The ‘law’ component found its most pronounced embodiment far earlier, in the scriptures of Ancient Israel, which proclaim a binding set of moral commandments that issue from a transcendent deity. The history of natural law ethics is, put broadly, a mediation between these two cultural inheritances – and is therefore the site of several recurrent controversies. How, exactly, are moral norms embedded in nature?
To examine the prospects for natural law ethics, we need first a working definition of it. But as the previous chapters suggest, any such definition is controversial. Thomas Aquinas defines law as ‘an ordinance of reason directed towards the common good from him who has care of the community and promulgated’. It follows that for a law to be natural, it must be not only grounded in human nature – something Aquinas affirms elsewhere – but also promulgated: the only available promulgator being God. Rosalind Hursthouse, by contrast, takes natural law ethics to be metaphysically less demanding. For her, its theistic underpinning is not salient, and appears even moot. What is salient is the provision of a naturistically grounded criterion of right or good action. Natural law ethics is thus distinct from ethical naturalism in general, which ‘provides a criterion for a particular trait’s being a virtue, not a criterion of right or good action, except indirectly’.
Natural law ethics centres on the idea that ethical norms derive from human nature. The field has seen a remarkable revival since the millennium, with new work in Aristotelian metaphysics complementing innovative applied work in bioethics, economics and political theory. Starting with three chapters on the history of natural law ethics, this volume moves on to various twentieth-century theoretical innovations in the tradition, and then to natural law as embedded in the three Abrahamic faiths. It closes with sections on applied natural law ethics and the challenges and prospects for natural law ethics in the twenty-first century. Uniquely interdisciplinary and written without technical jargon, the book will be of great interest to students and researchers in philosophy, theology, political theory and economics. They will find this the go-to resource for cutting-edge thinking in natural law ethics.