Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction

Article excerpt

LISSKA, Anthony J. Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xvi + 320 pp. Paper, $24.95--This book alms to present Thomas Aquinas's theory of natural law as a cogent theory of ethics for those trained in Anglo-American analytic philosophy. To this end, Lisska explains the Thomistic theory in language intelligible to those untrained in scholastic philosophy and also takes up modern criticisms leveled against Aquinas with respect to his naturalism, his reliance on an outmoded metaphysics of essences, his failure to acknowledge the is/ought distinction, the absence of categorical imperatives, and so forth. In addition, Lisska locates his own interpretation of Aquinas's theory among other contemporary interpretations, particularly those of John Finnis and Henry Veatch.

According to Lisska, Aquinas's whole theory depends upon the notion of human nature. This in turn presupposes a general metaphysical theory of essences or natural kinds. Appealing to recent philosophical work (Kripke, Putnam) as well as recent biology, Lisska defends the notion of naturally occurring kinds/species with fixed properties. These properties are, moreover, dispositional, so that to have an essence is to have a set of given potentialities. The perfection of such a being lies in the actualization of its set of dispositional properties or potentialities. As perfections, these actualizations are goods. For human beings, then, fulfillment lies in the actualization of the naturally given set of potentialities, for example, acquiring knowledge or establishing friendships. Such a nature provides an objective measure of actions: actions which actualize our human nature are good, while the opposite are bad.

Given this basic understanding of human nature, Lisska proceeds to show how Aquinas's theory might handle the contemporary objections brought against it. If "good" refers to the actualization of the potentialities built into a nature or essence, then it ceases to be "non-natural" as it seemed to be for G. E. Moore. Moore's problematic, as Lisska points out, arises only for an ontology in which all is reduced to static, nonpotential, simples. So too, if an essence is a set of dispositions or potentials, then to say what a thing is implies immediately what the thing ought to be: the "ought" is, so to speak, built into the "is." Because nature is given, the actualizations or goods are also given, and consequently good actions are "obligatory," in the sense that they are absolutely necessary for the achievement of the good. …

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