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 3 out of 5 by from Unfortunate triumph of opinion over thought The course is very good where it presents the history and development of Natural Law theory; the last sections which discuss present day application, however, spoil the course with prejudice rather than reason. Two instances: 1) the assertion that homosexuality is often the result of the childhood trauma of paternal rejection 2) the idea that the mere description of rights as "inalienable" somehow establishes a proof (though definition of that adjective) that such rights cannot be discarded Fr Koterski acknowledges in the lectures that his interest in Natural Law theory is to establish a secular justification for Catholic teaching - his lack of rigor spoils both his objective and the course as a whole.
Date published: 2020-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear, concise, and comprehensive I bought this quite some time ago but hadn’t been able to complete it until recently. Koterski is crystal clear and balanced in his presentation- giving a solid explanation of the origins of natural law in antiquity and carrying it to the present. One can hardly be surprised he has included substantial reflections on modern day issues of abortion, death penalty, etc as these are profoundly impacted by our understanding of natural law. I’m actually glad he isn’t afraid to advance a view on these matters- otherwise we might have a banal collection of platitudes but nothing that helps us think clearly on these matters. Incidentally, I also have his work on Aristotle- profound and engaging. I wish the Teaching Company would have him prepare additional courses - I’d buy them!
Date published: 2020-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Crucial to understanding the West I loved this course for a number of reasons. First of all, Father Koterski has a warm and jovial style while explaining material that might otherwise seem complicated and dry. Secondly, in 24 lectures he provides a sweeping survey of Western intellectual thought as it pertains to the notion of a natural "higher law" - that is, the idea that there is a set of pre-existing norms for human behavior and human interaction which stem from the nature of human beings. I found the course to be extremely intellectually invigorating and satisfying. Koterski starts by providing three examples of appeals to a higher law from throughout history (from the Greek play "Antigone", when the titular character resists the king's edict not to bury her brother because he has been declared an enemy of the state; the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, when the judges of various nationalities decided to prosecute Nazis for "crimes against humanity" rather than for violating any nation's specific law; and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he states that any human law that violates the higher natural law is invalid). Koterski then examines the contributions of the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, the Old Testament, early Christian church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and others to the development of an understanding of natural law. As a historian of the American Revolution, I was particularly interested in the lecture on the Founding Fathers and natural law. As Koterski explains, the use of natural law to justify revolution appealed to both those Americans who had been influenced by the European Enlightenment as well as the more religiously-minded in predominantly Protestant America. While the first group viewed natural law as something which could be discovered through the use of one's reason, the second viewed reason as a gift from God - the author of "the laws of nature". Thus, both could lend their assent to the Declaration of Independence. Koterski wrapped up the course with several lectures applying natural law philosophy to contemporary issues and concerns including social ethics and bio-ethics. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-06-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More S.J. than PhD. This is the second course I’ve taken from Father Koterski, the other titled “Ethics of Aristotle”, which I quite enjoyed. When expositing on Aristotle, Dr. Koterski maintained a scholarly approach. Indeed expect for his occasional self-reference as “Father”, his religion never crept into his lectures at all. Of course, as the title suggests, ethics were at the heart of the course. In this course however, his religiosity comes to the forefront. To be sure, his approach is measured and thoughtful and full of arguments that had never before occurred to me. For this I am much indebted. Although his arguments were well constructed, some of his premises were difficult for me to accept—for example, his assertion on the necessity of the existence of God in Natural Law. Of course this may be my limitation, not his. Still in his initial lectures on classical Greece, that did not necessarily seem to be a solid requirement. So long as the lectures centered on Western philosophical grounds (especially Thomas Aquinas) Professor Koterski was on solid ground (even though I had some nits to pick in a few places). I found lecture 20 on the existence of God to be absolutely fascinating and reasonably well balanced (full disclosure, I am an atheist). Father Koterski’s Jesuit training works very well here. But beginning in the very next lecture his reasoning, for me, becomes problematic. First, I must applaud his decision to introduce and tackle subjects that I am sure he realizes that much of his audience will either reject out of hand, or will substantially disagree. Aside from that, here his reasoning does not seem to me to be built on a solid platform. Now this may seem a bit presumptuous coming from someone who has had no formal training in philosophy, but in areas that I know better, the arguments break down entirely. As other reviewers have mentioned, his reliance on Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” as a credible source, completely obviates his arguments. Now those arguments may still be valid, but not supported as they are. And I find his arguments as to same-sex marriage to fall completely apart. Professor Koterski’s course is based completely on Western, Christian (centered on Aquinas’ theology) thought. While I think that this would be acceptable if he did not make so many sweeping statements about universality, in point of fact he never really makes much of an effort to justify why Natural Law is universal. A significant failing. Prfessor Koterski’s delivery is slow, measured and academic. Nothing worth criticizing, but also nothing about it being exciting. I’d like to be able to give this 3 1/2 stars, but as I think that the solid scholarship outweighs the negatives, four stars with a provisional recommendation.
Date published: 2019-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course in all respects. Although some reviewers had a problem accepting the concept of supra-positive (natural) law, I feel that Father Koterski's presentation, recorded in 2002, was so clear (and beautifully delivered) that no one should maintain a question-mark, or thoroughly disagree with him on this score. His talk on the problems that "natural law" presents is classic; I believe he acquitted himself remarkably and powerfully well. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Although some of the lectures are quite challenging, I found that paying STRICT attention (and NOT doing anything else while viewing -- e.g. emailing), that potential was immediately resolved. I enjoy multi-tasking, but this course hardly allows for that. Father Koterski's delivery is superb; clarity and pace are spot-on; no weird tics; emphasis given in precisely the right areas. He is a treat to listen to. Btw, I bought the DVD set, I very rarely purchase audio.
Date published: 2019-02-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Agenda I didn't like the instructor inoculating tenets of the current Catholic agenda. Infuriating.
Date published: 2018-12-16
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
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