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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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 60 portraits. There are portraits of the thinkers who've proved critical to our understanding of the concepts of natural law and human nature, including Socrates, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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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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Reviews

Natural Law and Human Nature is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 73.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Could not get through this course I found the lectures to be boring and lacking in clear definitions of the subject matter. I also was hopeful that a course taught by a priest would be more objective and not so tainted by his own religious faith.
Date published: 2018-08-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well worth a listen The lecturer was very clear in his presentation. The subject is interesting - is there a natural moral law that humans feel compelled to follow regardless of religion, tradition etc? The first principle is that we should do good and refrain from doing evil because this is what generally comes naturally to us. I was only slightly disappointed to see almost no reference to animal rights. A couple of times, the lecturer said that a difference in kind warrants a difference in treatment. "Clearly a plurality of kinds exists in the world; denying that these are genuinely distinct kinds would entail unacceptable consequences. For instance, there would be no difference between killing a human being and killing a horse" He emphasised this point again by saying that although it's not right to torture animals, killing them is acceptable and nothing like killing a human. This point is denied by vegans who see animals as sentient beings that have rights and that we don't have a right to use their bodies for food or clothing as they have feelings, not totally dissimilar to humans. To my conscience, not killing animals is completely natural to me. This feels like doing good and refraining from evil - the first principle of natural law. To others, it feels natural to wring the neck of a duck or to slaughter a cow - something that feels almost 'evil' to me and explicitly evil if done for a handbag or a coat. I'd like to know how natural law theory resolves this clash but the answer didn't emerge in this course.
Date published: 2018-07-17
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
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