Natural Law and Human Nature

Course No. 4453
Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., Ph.D.
Fordham University
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Course No. 4453
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Course Overview

This course traces the origins and consequences of the theory of natural law. Natural law is the idea that there is an objective moral order, grounded in essential humanity, that holds universal and permanent implications for the ways we should conduct ourselves as free and responsible human beings.

In Natural Law and Human Nature, you consider the arguments for natural law, the serious objections that have been raised against it, and the ways, despite all overt criticisms, it remains a vital and even pervasive force in political, moral, and social life today, even while traveling under another name.

Morality, Humanity, and Being

Father Joseph Koterski argues that views about ethics typically derive from views about human nature, and behind these, views about being itself. Thus no consideration of moral theories and their applications can be complete without an investigation of philosophical anthropology and even some consideration of metaphysical questions. These background issues will be things to keep in mind as you listen to or view the lectures.

You then turn your attention to the key arguments about justice that took place in the ancient Greek world, beginning with the pre-Socratic philosophers and the Sophists.

Classical Origins

Shaping Father Koterski's historical treatment is an appreciation of just how much thought, effort, and brilliance went into formulating and defending the crucial insights of natural law theory.

Father Koterski gives a clear example of this when he reconstructs the virtual dialogue that took place between the Ionian scientists, the Sophists, and their great interlocutors, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Dealing not only with arguments about justice but also with questions about how change can occur (metaphysics again!), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) pushed this debate forward dramatically by framing an account of nature and causation that laid the groundwork not only for natural law theory but also for modern physical science (which edits but does not erase Aristotle's fourfold taxonomy of causes).

Father Koterski explains how Aristotle's notion of nature as an inner, goal-oriented dynamism set the stage for progress in moral understanding by allowing thinkers to distinguish more readily—albeit never perfectly—between the natural on the one hand and the merely habitual, customary, or familiar, on the other.

Aquinas: The First Systematizer

Yet Aristotle, although a major figure in the tradition, cannot be called a natural law thinker. The rise of natural law thought was the fruit of later developments, including the rise of Stoic philosophy with its emphasis on universal human dignity and divine providence, the powerful contributions made by biblical religion, and the tradition of Roman jurisprudence, particularly as expressed by Cicero.

The first thorough treatise on natural law came as part of the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas (1224–1272). Working with newly recovered Aristotelian works as well as the Stoic, biblical-patristic, and Roman traditions, Aquinas set out the account of natural law as that type of law through which humans take part according to their nature as free, intelligent, and responsible beings. He remains to this day the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with natural law.

The Modern Turn

Next you review the major developments that natural law thinking has undergone since the inception of the modern period about half a millennium ago. The big questions here are how and why natural law theory, which for Cicero and Aquinas had seemed a "conservative" force, became a doctrine of sociopolitical transformation and even revolution in the hands of Hobbes, Locke, and others.

At this point, the narrative "comes home" to America as Father Koterski explores the ways, by the American Founders' design, natural law thinking is poured into the foundations of our republican experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional democracy.

You look too at the criticisms leveled against natural law by Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant, pondering all the while Father Koterski's suggestion that they owed natural law theory more of a debt than they were willing to admit or than might be apparent at first glance.

Challenges and Objections

In the course's final third, you leave the narrative historical framework and turn to a series of topical discussions. Natural law theory today has many critics and faces numerous questions. No philosophical treatment of the subject would be complete without a fair and careful consideration of these.

Father Koterski asks whether modern evolutionary biology can claim to have discovered truths about human nature that render natural law theory unintelligible, whether the findings of anthropological research undercut natural law, and whether accepting the idea of natural law means accepting the existence of God and vice versa.

Controversies and Contemporary Applications

The final lectures move from principles to particulars by explaining how natural law reasoning might apply to a range of hotly debated contemporary issues. In the legal arena, you will consider the debates over human rights and the use of the courts in promoting social reform during periods when consensus has not yet developed.

In the sphere of medicine and bioethics, Father Koterski explores natural law arguments regarding the controversial questions of abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. In the sphere of social ethics, he asks how natural law would counsel us to think about the family as well as about structures of human obligation more generally.

Finally, he compares natural law theory to the relativist and positivist views that are commonly encountered today, particularly in the academy, and argues that natural law, to its credit, retains an emphasis on human reason that is not to be found in the many forms of contemporary thought that treat humans primarily as willing, rather than thinking, beings.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Philosophical Approach
    As far back as Sophocles' and as recently as the Nuremberg Trials and Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, humans have appealed to unwritten, universal standards of justice that laws must respect. What does it mean to think philosophically about these experiences? x
  • 2
    The General Nature of Ethics
    Here you will learn how to locate natural law within the larger universe of theories about ethics, and consider both the basic assumptions of natural law thinking and the basic challenges that have been raised against them. x
  • 3
    Law, Nature, Natural Law
    If you're going to talk about natural law, you need a clear understanding of just what you mean by "nature" and just what you mean by "law." Thomas Aquinas gave classic definitions of each, which offer a starting point for thinking through. x
  • 4
    Principles of Natural Law Theory
    The history of thought confronts you with a profusion of "natural law" theories. This lecture is designed to help you see the basics—the family resemblances, if you will, that allow us to group together all the theories for which the name "natural law" makes sense. x
  • 5
    Greek Ideas of Nature and Justice
    If the natural law is unwritten, how did it ever come to be known? The story—like all stories about the philosophical way of grappling with basic questions about being and human life—begins in the ancient Greek world with some pioneering Ionian thinkers, their thoughtful critic Socrates, and his student Plato. x
  • 6
    Aristotle's Clarification of "Nature"
    Plato's student Aristotle described four types of causes (material, formal, efficient, and final) at work in the world. His notion of "nature" as the dynamic inner principle of a being's structure, development, and typical activities played a key role in his own thought, and would prove hugely influential thereafter. x
  • 7
    Aristotle on Justice and Politics
    Despite his importance to the natural law tradition and his own use of the concept of "nature" in his great works on ethics and politics, Aristotle cannot be called a "natural law" thinker. How, then, does he think about "nature" and "law" as they apply to moral and political—that is to say, to human—life? x
  • 8
    The Stoic Idea of Natural Law
    What did the Greek Stoics teach about moral order, human life, and "right reason" that made them giants in the history of natural law thinking? How did the Roman statesman Cicero give supreme expression to their insight, as for instance when he distinguished between just and unjust warfare? x
  • 9
    Biblical Views of Nature and Law
    We know of course that the concept of "law" is a major one in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, but how about the concept of "nature"? Does it make an appearance, and if so, where? Do any Scriptural books use anything like the idea of natural law? x
  • 10
    Early Christians, Nature, and Law
    How did Christians adapt the philosophical concept of nature generally to their own religious beliefs? Why did they find the specific premises of natural law theory compatible with their beliefs about creation, sin, grace, and redemption? x
  • 11
    Roman, Canon, and Natural Law
    Roman law and through it the thought of the Stoics exercised an enormous practical and theoretical influence over natural law thinking. What led the Roman jurist Ulpian (died ca. A.D. 228), to find slavery contrary to natural law despite the Roman tendency to identify natural law with the "law of nations" that had always allowed slaveholding? x
  • 12
    The Thomistic Synthesis
    Why does Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) see natural law as one type of law among several, and natural law thinking formed as one important strand in the larger tapestry of ethics? How does he work with the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle to argue that natural law goes well with a "virtue-based" approach to human excellence? x
  • 13
    Late Medieval and Early Modern Views
    How did natural law go from being part of a larger hierarchical vision to being a part of ideologies of political and social transformation, or even revolution? Why did some early Protestant thinkers take the view that natural law can be shown to be binding whether or not one believes in a God who authors nature? x
  • 14
    Hobbes and Locke
    How does Hobbes, with his famous "state of nature," understand natural law as a set of rules for survival? Why does Locke refocus natural law on a theory of natural rights? How does Locke's notion of the social contract rest on the defense of such rights? x
  • 15
    Natural Law and the Founding Fathers
    What led the American founders to call upon "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God" in declaring independence, and to write a Constitution whose very status as the supreme law of the land rests upon its stated purpose of "establish[ing] Justice"? x
  • 16
    Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant
    Modern thinkers such as Descartes with his methodological skepticism, Rousseau with his social contract, and Kant with his categorical imperative and insistence on the autonomy of human reason appear on the surface to be among the tougher critics of the natural law tradition. But is that the whole story? x
  • 17
    Can Rights Exist Without Natural Law?
    Though the fact isn't noticed much today, when you hear appeals to "human rights" based on claims about what "human dignity" requires, you are hearing natural law reasoning—whether anyone calls it this or not. x
  • 18
    The Question of Evolution
    What are some of the questions that the modern natural sciences, and especially evolutionary biology, raise for natural law theory? How are "natural law" and the scientific concept of "laws of nature" related, and how are they distinct? x
  • 19
    The Paradox of Cultural Relativism
    In the 20th century, anthropology was often an arrow in the rhetorical quiver of relativism. But recent studies have cast doubt on the accuracy of even famous researchers such as Margaret Meade. Is the tide turning toward a position closer to something like what natural law theory has long claimed? x
  • 20
    The Problem of God
    Does natural law count as evidence for the existence of God? Or should you put it the other way around and reason that universal moral duties can only be said to follow from rather than establish God's existence? Or do you, even if you are a believer, need to bring God into the argument at all? x
  • 21
    Current Applications—Jurisprudence
    Are courts and judges purely creatures of positive law? Can they ever use natural law principles? These questions have come up in Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominees. Less controversially, we can see natural law principles at work in tort law, penal law, and the graduated income tax. x
  • 22
    Current Applications—Bioethics
    This field is replete with some of the most heated and complex debates in our public life today. How does natural law ethics understand and weigh these controversies? x
  • 23
    Current Applications—Social Ethics
    In modern societies, vast differences of opinion over a slew of issues are a fact of life. In such a situation, just finding a common basis for reasoned discussion can be a major achievement. Does natural law theory have anything to offer here? x
  • 24
    The Eternal Return of Natural Law
    Although modern political theorists change some terms (human rather than natural rights, etc.), they are still arguing by positing an ideal concept of what it means to be human. In other words, whether they admit it or even realize it or not, they are still "doing" natural law reasoning. x

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Your professor

Joseph Koterski, S.J.

About Your Professor

Joseph Koterski, S.J., Ph.D.
Fordham University
A member of the Society of Jesus, Father Joseph Koterski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, where he specializes in the history of medieval philosophy and natural law ethics. Before taking his position at Fordham University, Father Koterski taught at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He earned his doctorate in Philosophy from St. Louis University, after...
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Natural Law and Human Nature is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 79.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and Concise I am almost finished with this course, but I can say even now what a great teacher Father Koterski is. I only wish I knew of him earlier. I am already planning on getting more of his courses.
Date published: 2018-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and Informative I had Fr. Koterski as a student "in person" and, since I'll soon have to teach a segment on natural law, I thought I would review whilst commuting and exercising. Koterski's lectures represent a fine historical overview of the major sources of natural law thinking--Aristotelian, Stoic, Biblical--and contain enough contemporary applications and anticipated objections to make listening interesting. Well done.
Date published: 2017-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Brilliant, Up-to-Date Tool In a time of rapidly changing fundamental societal direction this course clarifies not only “how we got to where we are, but who is and is not making sense. Koterski’s style reminded me of why similar high school logic courses were much valued and why some collegiate Liberal Arts felt empty. Some have expressed concern that the course is theologically based. Rather, I think the course revolves around the basis for current concepts of ethical relativism, legal positivism (ie: law posited by man), and political/judicial moral authority. His guidebook is the most comprehensive of the 100+ courses I have taken. When I was unsure about a point or wanted to remember exact details, there it was in the guidebook. Some things I felt helpful: L1: Nuremberg’s concept of supra-positive law as natural law (vs “positive” law as posited by men) allowed for the prosecution of Nazis who were carrying out completely legal actions in WWII Germany. Martin L. King on unjust law. L2: The concept of natural “kind”: a vital concept for many of today’s arguments. L3-4: When a president labels groups of his countrymen with derogatory names… L5-12: Koterski reviews the early history of natural law. Very well done. L13: Early modern period: the political Franciscan Ockham’s nominalism (universals, ie: “kinds” are mental fantasies) and his voluntarism: God’s will, not divine reason, is the ultimate source of laws. (Voluntarism, I wondered, might simply echo the Islamic viewpoint rather than being an original idea since Islam occupied Spain/Balkans during Ockham’s lifetime?); protestant Grotius’ “right reason” as the basis of law “even if we should concede…there is no God. This opened a way to attempt to secularize natural law. L14-15: Hobbes’ radical individualism and “the social contract” thus furthering the secular moral purview of human intelligence. John Locke’s ideas regarding property rights were central to the Declaration of Independence yet remain but a subfolder of natural law. L16: Descartes’ “scientific basis for morality”; Rousseau’s evocation of emotive justification for law give us the source for presenting a law binding on all to remedy a single tragedy of an individual and is used daily in modern journalism; Kant’s claim to secular fame for restating “Do unto others…”. Yet Kant leaves a backdoor for natural law and rejects utilitarianism. L17-20: Modern issues: When catchy phrases like “human rights” and “human dignity” become trump cards that end discussions; evolution and natural law; falsified data leading to anthropological cultural relativism; Hemingway’s “subjective ethical” relativism, a Marxist version of natural law (!); theocracies L21-22: Though some feel that judicial ethical review is new and frightening, judicial activism dates back to 1803; bioethics: “arbitrarily treating individuals of the same kind (see L2) is unfair”; species demarcation points; the principle of double effects L23: Though the course was produced in 2002, Koterski even tackles gender as a social construct. L24: The rhetorical switch of today’s verbiage exposes its weakness in Koterski’s brilliant summary (L24 guidebook I.C.2.) and his one liner on “justification of judicial review” (L24: II.B) I have already been able to use these lectures to span generational misunderstandings and recommend it highly.
Date published: 2017-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enormously clear lecture series on the natural law I recall first listening to this lecture more than 10 years ago and found it an enormously mind-expanding experience. I've re-listened several times since then and I am always impressed by the professor's clear presentation and the jaw dropping scope of the material.
Date published: 2017-07-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Should be 'Natural Law through Supernatural Means' This course is below the Great Courses standard I have come to expect over the past eight years. First real disappointment. He implies or states that 'if' evolution is a fact, there is nothing for him to address. It should be in he religion section, not philosophy. I couldn't finish it as it is so biased in theology.
Date published: 2017-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course About America's Constitutional Crisis You cannot understand American political theory, political party conflicts, and Federal Judicial policy until you take this course. I felt like my law school professors missed the big issue. The only problem is the last 1/3 of the course becomes political war stories and no discussion of current events and people.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrifically clear professor. The complex topic is presented with clarity . Very much look forward to each next lecture while driving to work.
Date published: 2017-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sweeping overview of a grand idea! Professor Koterski has packed a lot of information in these series of lectures. The subject of natural law underlies much of what we take for granted in our democracy; but the sources of this idea are often either unknown to most people or dismissed by those who ought to know better. These lectures offer an informative and thoughtful overview of a grand idea!
Date published: 2017-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Introduction After having listening with great pleasure to the same professor's course on Wisdom Literature -- which I highly recommend -- I decided to delve into Natural Law and Human Nature. Not only a very thoughtful and careful introduction to natural law as a multifaceted philosophical tradition, this course also make bridges to ethics and theology effectively. The historical as well as thematic lectures convey much knowledge in a succinct manner which will leave one wanting more.
Date published: 2017-02-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Academic, but worth it and relevant I've an M.A. in philosophy from a Catholic University near the Indiana toll road. That is not said as a qualification for understanding, but as a useful reviewer. Among the actual classroom courses I've had, similar in topic, I'd put this one at at least the 75th percentile. The course is well laid out and very well presented. Of course the opportunities for humor and drama may be limited. I find the course particularly relevant today when in so many pursuits, even the U.S. Supreme court, we seem to rely on purely human values and viewpoints, disregarding the fact that the world and our creation are actually built, not necessarily with intelligence (though I would argue for that), but with clear traits that cannot be ignored and which must affect behaviors. This is natural law.
Date published: 2016-12-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from enjoyable course I enjoyed this course. I knew when I bought it that the teacher was a Jesuit, so I was not surprised by his views. It is a good low key introduction to Catholic Natural Law, and as a religious nothing (who was a Protestant) I appreciate a different point of view. Father Koterski is a likable person, and I looked forward to the lectures as the course progressed. He does not have Bart Ehrman's instinct for the jugular, and if that is what you want you probably will not like this course.
Date published: 2016-01-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Much Information Here Both presentation and content are a problem with this course. The presenter, of no fault of his own, has a monotonic voice that makes it difficult for him to emphasize or de-emphasize various points. He spends way to much time on Aristotle, who is very peripheral to this course, and little time on figures such as Locke. Worst of all, a significant part of the presentation borders on incoherent. The bottom line is that you will not learn as much about the subject as would be expected from such a course.
Date published: 2015-05-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Conflicting Scholarly and Religious Commitments Father Koterski presents the idea of natural law in its history through the Greek, Roman as well as Medieval, Renaissance and Modern European periods. He also presents several important current issues that the ideas of natural law can be applied to. It seems though that Father Koterski's commitment to his religious beliefs takes precedence over his commitment to the scholarly presentation of both the idea of natural law and of the current issues he presents. The intersection of Christian ideas and the development of the ideas of natural law is central to the subject, but at times it seems that Father Koterski is speaking more from the pulpit than from a scholar's lectern. At one point he uses the fact that we have the idea of natural law as a part of a proof of the existence of God, saying that for there to be a law, there must be a lawgiver. He had also stated earlier that given the any reasonable person would have to admit to the existence of God. While to many philosophers God is seen as the cause of "human nature" and thereby the source of "natural law" that has by no means been the only view, or even always the prevailant view from the start. Further Father Koterski's discussion of homosexuality, abortion and gay marriage seem to be more informed by his religious commitments than by how the issues may be looked at under a broader understanding of natural law.
Date published: 2015-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intelligent Professor, Great Overview The Prof spends time on both the historical and contemporary thought on natural law. Those afraid of religion will probably dislike the course because the Christian God is discussed fairly often and with sympathy. The discussion of modern applications is particularly interesting and insightful. I would certainly buy a course with this well-spoken and eloquent again!
Date published: 2015-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Closed minded I tried to ignore the early clear prejudicial statements showing, the admittedly not surprising, totally robotic following of Roman Catholic views on all subjects,. Unfortunately I could stand it no longer. The "professor's" complete inability to present an open minded presentation was appalling. The fact that the Teaching Comany has hired this individual and published this product has caused me to question it's motivation. I am returning this course as something I would have expected in a Jesuit school not an open educational system. Is my understanding of the Teaching Company misplaced?
Date published: 2014-10-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Valuable overview of Important Topic Is Law simply the set of rules created by a society or does the notion of law include fundamental/eternal values that transcend those created by man? That is the fundamental question addressed in this informative and penetrating analysis of Natural Law. The core of Natural Law theory is predicated on a theory of the nature of humanity and its ultimate purpose and relies much on Aristotelian philosophy. The course spends the first two thirds of lectures tracing the history of the notion of Natural Law within Western history. This covers the period from the classical Greeks(though the concept surely originates in the mists of pre-history)through Aquinas and the Reformation and modern period to include thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. This is a fascinating analysis and the development (in varying and sometimes competing ways)is absorbing. The last third of the course applies the principles of Natural Law to specific issues such as evolution and bioethics. These are thought provoking and challenge the dominant 20th and 21st century paradigm in law which greatly diminishes if not eliminates notions of Natural Law. I have been stimulated to explore this issue further as a result of the course and recommend this to anyone seeking to understand a topic of fundamental importance in the history of western society.
Date published: 2014-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ratio Studiorum I enjoyed these lectures very much. I had the privilge of having a Jesuit education and am glad to be able to continue that education.
Date published: 2014-05-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing On the face of it this course should be very interesting, and, in some ways, it was. Certainly the broad historical review of natural law thinking from the pre-socratics, through Aristotle, Aquinas, to the Enlightenment and modern thinkers was expansive and well-structured. However, the impact was let down badly by the reversion in the final few lectures to a series of Catholic talking-points on abortion, gay marriage and (somewhat surprisingly) a fairly emphatic support for the institution of the death penalty. Another equally disappointed reviewer thought the course would have fitted better into the category of religion rather than philosophy, and I agree. We should have been more suspicious when we read the background and experience of the lecturer. A case of mis-representation by the teaching Company, I'm afraid.
Date published: 2014-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a great course This has been the best course that I have watched. An excellent introduction to the idea of natural law theory, which traces the history of thought and then provides a framework of analysis by considering current topics. Professor is very knowledgeable and delivery style is excellent.
Date published: 2014-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rigorous and balanced Quite frankly, this was a tough course to master as I do not have a background in philosophy, much less natural law. So, after listening to several lectures numerous times I think I have at least a basic grasp of the principles of natural law and its applicability to issues of the day such as abortion and doctor assisted suicide. The course is well worth the effort as the lecturer does not dummy it down but does proceed in a well organized fashion in laying out the history of natural law and how it relates to ongoing issues such as those mentioned above. Despite his background as a catholic priest, I believe he does present both sides of the "God issue" fairly, although it's clear where his preference lies. One also gets an introduction of all the leading philosophers as he discusses the influence of natural law in their works. I now find myself applying natural law principles to an analysis of books, movies, and political propaganda . It's everywhere!
Date published: 2014-02-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Wrong category This course should be offered in the category Religion and not under Philosophy & Intellectual History. For the first time a course of the Teaching Company is a profound disappointment for me.
Date published: 2013-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Solid Presentation; Can Be a Slippery Subject AUDIO DOWNLOAD Is there a higher law or moral standard, a natural law, based on our human nature that transcends time and cultures, to which we can appeal, claiming rights and human dignity in spite of or in the absence of man-made laws? Early on Father Koterski compels our assent to the existence of a higher law by reference to these widely separated instances: Antigone’s refusal to obey Creon’s order not to bury her brother, in which Sophocles has her maintain that “For me it was not Zeus who made that order. Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below mark out such laws to hold among mankind. Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws. Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live, and no one knows their origin in time …”; the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg on the basis of an unwritten “crimes against humanity”; and, the higher law justification for the civil rights movement, as laid out in Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, maintaining that “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 Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law’” (Course Guidebook, page 4). Assuming agreement on the existence of a natural law, what does it cover and what rights does it consist? Considering the proliferation of “rights” in recent times, how does one determine if a claimed “right” is indeed grounded in natural law? Father Koterski addresses these and related questions not only by examining the background and development of thinking on natural law, but also by a careful definition of terms and criteria for assessing claims to rights under natural law. His approach is a rigorous one and requires equally careful attention on the part of listener. Especially important are Father Koterski’s three philosophical criteria that he uses throughout the course in assessing claims to natural law: Objectivity (arguments that are compelling to anyone of open mind and good will, not merely arguments that rest on subjective preference); universality (application to every human being); and intelligibility. The first 16 lectures are historical, tracing the development of natural law thinking, including the Old Testament Wisdom literature, Plato, Aristotle, Roman Stoics, and on into the Christian era, notably Augustine, with the first treatise on the subject by Aquinas in the 13th century. I found Father Koterski’s treatment of Nominalist reaction to Aquinas and later philosophical thinking by Locke and Kant especially good. One would assume that slavery would have been considered wrong under natural law, but denial was long and acknowledgement required a struggle. In this regard, Father Koterski acknowledges not only the possibility of moral progress, but also that regress and blindness are part of the history of natural law, though he posits an “eternal return” over time. Father Koterski ably tackles some interesting matters that one might assume would make the case for natural law difficult for some, such as dependence on belief in the existence of God (assuming a “law” requires a lawmaker), but he also provides examples of arguments for natural law that do not depend on belief in God, notably by a Marxist. Father Koterski does find this lacking, however, when subjected to his analysis. One would assume that the theory of evolution would constitute a major challenge, as well. Father Koterski goes on at some length to dispute the challenge, though I wonder how well his extended criticism of random variation stands up, based as it is on Michael Behe’s 1996 study, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. I’ll leave that to the scientists. What I do like is Father Koterski’s perspective on natural law. He refrains from claiming too much for it and promotes the role of the intellect in determining natural law, as opposed to its being a dictate from on high or a want that we dignify by the designation: “…the natural law tradition has always stressed the priority of intellect over will (both in theological and in secular versions of natural law). It has relied on the capacity of the intellect to know the essences of things in order to discern right from wrong and good from bad in matters of morality” (Course Guidebook, page 124). There is a considerable amount of material on the United States, especially on the Constitution and the Supreme Court (acknowledging the key role of an activist court in addressing racial injustice, but also concerning the Court’s wandering from justifiable limits in other areas), which is absolutely fascinating. Father Koterski does not shy away from discussions of natural law as it applies to such contemporary issues as bioethics, abortion, and euthanasia. Noteworthy here are Father Koterski’s helpful contrasting of natural law with its perennial adversaries, utilitarianism and relativism. His conclusions are bound to rub some the wrong way, as we are all often lined up on one side or the other on these and other social issues, but throughout Father Koterski sticks close to his definitions and three criteria. I really enjoyed this course: it requires attention and perseverance to appreciate. Father Koterski’s lectures are well-organized, his delivery is excellent, and he is true to his original purpose, terms, and criteria. Natural law (and its contemporary analogues human rights, human dignity, etc.) is a tough subject that has grown by fits and starts over more than two thousand years and even today can be easily finessed to bring in so much under a “higher law” kind of rationale. Father Koterski does not have all the answers, but this course definitely provides the tools for more rigorous thinking about appeals to natural or higher law.
Date published: 2013-09-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not recomended I tried listening to Professor Father Koterski’s lectures on Ethics, but stopped about half way through. The issues that plagued that series are still present in this series on Natural Law. Father Koterski is blessed with the gift of words. Each lecture is filled with words but there is little direction or overall clarity about the points he’s making. Each lecture could be half as long. There is also a strong Christian bias. When speaking about Greek civilization he says there was an abundance of gods all with “unpronounceable” names. Aristotle does not believe there is a personal god, but Father Koterski says we, however, know a personal God exists from our long experience on Earth. This kind of bias does not belong in an academic course.
Date published: 2013-09-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Should be listed under religion This course contains some interesting material but it is frustrating when the professor follows his own biases -- especially when he strays on to material (e.g. biology) where his grasp of the fundamentals is very weak. Instead of an interesting philosophical discussion these lectures provide a boring, one-sided, religion-tainted assessment of almost every topic.
Date published: 2013-07-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from great for a Thomist, not for a general audience Dr. Koterski does a reasonably good job presenting the material he's selected to present. On that I'd give him 4 stars. However, he argues that abortion is wrong according to natural rights; that natural rights can't be grounded in reality without God; that suicide (and certainly euthanasia# of a suffering and terminally ill patient is wrong according to natural rights; etc. He presents alternative views in some cases, but not always, and never even nearly as strong. This course might better be titled: Thomism and a Response to Modern Criticisms Thereof. That also wouldn't quite fit, but it would be more accurate in my personal judgment. If you buy this course, just be aware you're listening to a very religious speaker, with a fortunate dose of rationality thanks to his admiration for Thomas Acquinas. If you're religious and want to get a grounding on natural rights and how they might be able to be integrated into your beliefs, this may be a good course for you. If you are an atheist and want to learn about religious views, you won't find much that's non-obvious. He spends tons of time setting context, and diminishes the Enlightenment and the American Founders' conception of rights in particular. He spends but a third to half a lecture on Locke, but four on ancient Greece just setting background context for some predecessors to rights as we think of them today. His choice of topics will make clear his views on the subject and affect his presentation significantly. While he will make some attempt at arguing ideas he disagrees with, the very choice of topics and contrasts is highly skewed to his viewpoint. For example, he will spend an entire lecture on abortion and infanticide #rather than, say, abortion and amputation#. He will spend time debating evolution vs. creationism, but doesn't cover much additional science #no time is spent on Newton or the scientific revolution and how scientific "natural law" relates to or sheds light on the more moral/political "natural law" more commonly associated with rights#. That said, I didn't actually find the course entirely disagreeable. I liked his discussion of civil, human, and natural rights. Although it went on for a long time, I learned the most from the context and background studying predecessors of natural rights. He's good at teaching the material he chose to present; I just wish his choice of what to present would have been a bit more objective. If I agreed with him in this area I may not have even noticed, so just be aware what you're getting yourself into and I do think there's an audience for which this is a great course -- I'm just not part of it.
Date published: 2013-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cogent and Sympathetic Treatment Fr. Koterski presents a sympathetic understanding of Natural Law, its classical underpinnings, and its reliance on reason and experience. He traces Natural Law from its beginings into its Christian synthesis and beyond. In explaining the Christian viewpoint (which no one discussing the development of Natural Law could honestly avoid), he discusses the position of Aquinas and others that certain aspects of Christian morality comport with Natural Law. He presents the dissenters and the objections, but there is little doubt of his enthusiasm for his topic, which I found contagious. If you want a cogent discussion of Natual Law from a brilliant professor who believes it remains relevant today (Nuremburg, the Civil Rights Movement), this is an excellent course. If you would be displeased or annoyed with any discussion of parallels between Christian morality and Natural Law, this may not be the course for you."
Date published: 2013-04-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Waste of Time It should be an interesting subject. However, the organization is poor and presentation is slow. Of the scores of Great Courses I have purchased and used this is the only one I have decided not to finish.
Date published: 2013-04-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Natural Law and Human Nature I thought Father Koterski did a nice job with Aristotle, but listening to this set of lectures was painful. I have listened to over 80 courses - some really great and some not so great - but this is the first one I simply stopped listening to before the end. This is also my first review; I felt obligated. Boring and sloooooow is all I can say. Often, I found my mind wandering away from the lectures. Still would like to listen to a more concise, interesting course on natural law
Date published: 2013-04-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Moves Much Too Slowly It pains me to give this a negative review because I really like this presenter. He seems like a nice guy. And this topic is very important. But this course needs to be redone. He should spend 1/2 as much time getting through the same material. He tends to repeat himself and go over the same points ad nauseam.
Date published: 2013-02-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Catholic View of Natural Law Audio CD. I am grateful for this course even though it was not even close to what I expected. I took this course expecting to hear how to construct a system of ethics without regard to any religion. What Father Dr. Koterski actually does is to present conventional Catholic doctrine, particularly within the framework of Thomas Aquinas. Father Dr. Koterski quite frankly explains that “natural law” is a presentation of that conventional Catholic doctrine in terms that people who do not buy into that doctrine might accept anyway. Toward the end of the series, he addresses several controversial topics such as evolution and abortion and, based on his natural law principles, he draws conventional Catholic doctrine answers. I suppose that some might not like Father Dr. Koterski’s presentation style. He speaks in a slow and clear style, perhaps like a kindergarten teacher. Also, he assumes familiarity with Christian thought and terminology. I myself did not have a problem with his style but I would understand if somebody else did. While I am not an adherent to Father Koterski’s religious persuasion and while I was looking for a significantly different approach, I still appreciated the lectures. I recommend this course for anyone interested in ethics. Given these criticisms, why do I rate the course so highly? I appreciate it because it provides excellent insight to a significant cultural force in our society.
Date published: 2012-10-21
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