Jean Porter’s most recent book is the fruit of her participation with the Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion since 2005. In this project she undertakes two interrelated tasks. First, she provides compelling reasons for Christian ethicists to engage in questions internal to the discipline of jurisprudence. Second, she demonstrates how a natural law theory grounded in the work of the medieval scholastics can address some of the questions of contemporary jurisprudence. Readers familiar with her previous work will be delighted that she has extended her constructive account of natural law into the realms of jurisprudence and in the process also engages cultural psychology, rhetoric, political philosophy, and international law.
Porter begins her engagement with jurisprudence in chapter 1 by noting a paradox recognized by many legal philosophers in the Anglophone world. Legal systems, as they have developed in the West, are characterized by a high degree of autonomy and independence vis-à-vis other social dynamics such as politics or morality. At the same time, however, no legal system can function in complete isolation from considerations of politics and morality. How can we account for the paradoxical autonomy of legal authority? Porter suggests that a scholastic account of natural law can provide a rationally defensible solution to this paradox by developing an account of natural authority (in chapter 2).
The force of Porter’s argument rests on the capacity of her account to justify political and legal authority as a natural expression of the authority that any community exercises vis-à-vis its individual members. A community’s authority over its members is justified on the grounds that in prescribing or prohibiting particular acts, it must appeal to claims that could potentially be recognized as justifiable by any rational member of that community. The concept that creates this important hinge between an individual’s good and the good of the community is, of course, the common good. Scholars interested in the concept of the common good will find that her reflection upon it is both rooted deeply in the Christian tradition and applied with fresh insight to the realm of politics (chapter 3) and law (chapter 4). [End Page 210]
One potential objection to Porter’s account of natural law could arise in response to her insistence that natural inclinations “underdetermine” the normative content of a natural law morality, leaving her account open to charges of cultural relativism or of being merely descriptive as opposed to normative. However, in this work she is able to turn these criticisms into assets for her account of natural law. She shows (successfully, I believe) how her theory of natural law is able to account for the plurality of moral, political, and legal systems that exist in our world today while still providing normative grounds for critiquing existing social systems. And in chapter 5 she demonstrates how nonderogable, jus cogens principles can be developed from her account of natural law and applied to the field of international law and human rights. In fact, the final section left me hungry for further development of her insights regarding the relationship between natural and international law.
This book is written with the same rigorous logic and careful research that has made Porter one of the leading scholars of natural law theory in the field today. As such, this book would be suitable for academics in a wide variety of fields, such as law, political theory, and of course Christian ethics, or for advanced graduate students. It is most certainly a groundbreaking work for demonstrating how a theological account of natural law can engage in constructive dialogue with legal theory and politics at both a theoretical and a practical level.