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  • Universal Principles, Global Cooperation, and Moral Disagreement:A Natural Law Account
  • Joseph Boyle (bio)

I. Introduction

Since ancient times a number of Western moral views have been described or self-described as "natural law" ethics. These views claim that there are universal moral principles and norms. Moral principles, according to natural law views, are somehow "natural," and, thus, are the common property of those who share human nature. That implies that the principles of the natural law are in principle accessible to all humans.

Those who accept this ethical approach are not in full agreement about the precise sense and reference of the expression "natural law" or about the specific moral norms justified by the principles of the natural law. I do not here propose to address these differences among natural law theorists. Instead, I will sketch the approach to universal moral principles that I, as a philosopher working within the natural law tradition, think correct. My approach is within the broad tradition of natural law theorizing inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas; it is the version of Thomistic natural law called the "new natural law theory."1

Natural law theories include a conception of the nature and purpose of morality. Two closely related theses comprise the key elements of this conception. The first is that moral principles, and their implications in moral norms and judgments, are propositional realities having logical relationships and normative content that can be formulated, debated and judged either correct or incorrect. Thus, natural law theory is a form of ethical rationalism; moral judgments are a form of knowledge. The second thesis holds that moral principles are universal in two senses: they are applicable to all human actions, and they are accessible to all human beings capable of the reasoning needed for choice and action.

Some immediate implications of these theses are obviously important for thinking about moral diversity, difference and consensus. First, the universal applicability of moral principles implies that there are no human actions, however complex their circumstances and obscure their significance, that are in principle immune from moral assessment.

Second, the universal accessibility of the principles of the natural law implies that moral norms, customs, and practices are not finally a matter of local custom or particular circumstance. Criticism in the light of accessible moral principle is always possible.

Third, the conjunction of the universal accessibility of natural law and its ethical rationalism makes the possibility of recognizing mistaken moral judgment and practice more than an abstract possibility, but, instead, an ordinary, intelligible aspect of moral life and thought. Any person capable of practical reasoning and choice can access enough of moral principle to criticize his or her own moral beliefs and those of his or her society. That capability is obviously ethically significant. Its availability in reflection to people generally implies that they are not simply stuck with the moral limitations and corruption of their culture, upbringing, and life experience; they have the resources for critical judgment and autonomous action based on that reflection.

These claims about the nature of morality may now seem quaint given some defining features of post-modernity. The conjunction of two features of our post-modern world poses a special problem for natural law theory: (1) the rapidly emerging globalization of economic, social and political life; and (2) the pervasiveness of post-modern relativism, and "local-only" conceptions of morality. These conceptions reject the universalist theses I listed above. But they do so in a globalized context calling for moral guidance for the world-wide interactions that transcend the moralities of local communities and their members. Together these features challenge the core convictions of natural law theory.

In this contribution, I will briefly articulate and defend these strong natural law claims about the nature of morality, and will bring natural law theory to bear on the challenge posed to them by the realities of our post-modern and globalized situation. I will develop this account as follows: In part II, I will summarize the account of the human good that underlies morality according to natural law theories that follow Aquinas's classic treatment. In Part III, I will sketch an account of how universal moral principles are justified...


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pp. 66-74
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