Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The new atheism, the good atheist, and natural law

Scheduled for 4:00pm–5:30pm 4:30pm-6:00pm Eastern Time, Plenary Session papers and panel discussion 3
Chair: William Mc Vey (Adler-Aquinas Institute/Aquinas School of Leadership)

Speaker: Fulvio Di Blasi (Thomas International/Novareté): “The good atheist and natural law theory”

Can atheists be moral? Do ethics and natural law theory require God? Since my God and the Natural Law (1998 Italian/2003 English) I have maintained that the answer to the first question is “Yes and no”, while the answer to the second is “Definitely yes!” Of course, people can be bad in some things and good in others. From many respects, an atheist may be a much better person than a believer. But this does not make being an atheist a good thing. An important part of moral life and ethical experience of all human beings requires God. Some Catholic philosophers portray an “ethics without God” that is incompatible with Thomistic natural law theory. One of them in particular, Martin Rhonheimer, has often criticized me since I mentioned him in my book. Recently he claimed that I mix up natural law with natural law theory, as if I was neglecting real life experience in favor of some abstract metaphysical discussion. In this paper, I want to address this specific criticism, explaining that the grounds of my approach are quite the opposite. As a Catholic believer and as a moral philosopher, I have always found the attempt to relegate God solely to metaphysics a huge misunderstanding of authentic faith and moral experience. My faith and my ethical experience first guided me to my theoretical approach in God and the Natural Law. Aquinas was well aware that ethical obligations can be known through natural reason unaided by supernatural faith, but he also knew quite well that no true ethics can exist without God.

Speaker: Roberta Bayer (Patrick Henry College) “James Wilson: A Defense of the Aristotelian Tradition of Natural Law”

In his Lectures on Law written in 1790 and 1791, the Framer James Wilson set forth a natural law foundation for American democracy which reconciles the natural law teaching, associated with the Aristotelian tradition of philosophy, through Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker, with republican/democratic government.  Wilson was a leading mind at the American Founding, and one of the few who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Why does he think that the American democracy must depend upon the idea of natural law which issued forth from Aristotle? 

This paper will give Wilson’s account of why aspects of modern (post-Cartesian) philosophy must be rejected. He states, for example, that the philosophy of Locke with its skeptical epistemology, cannot be a foundation for American legal philosophy. Law must be founded on truth, on theological knowledge of God, and this is lacking in the account of natural law (natural right) found in Locke. For Locke, natural right is known by the autonomous individual in a pre-social state of nature who has no recourse to philosophy, and consequently, natural right is a matter of innate intuition, not developed argument. Thus, in Wilson's opinion, Locke takes Law to be nothing but an expression of will, and legislation to be nothing more than an expression of the will of a majority. If law is nothing but a superior power laying down law for an inferior power, sheer power is the source of law rather than goodness and truth.  That is why Locke is simply wrong; law must have a foundation which lies in philosophical knowledge of truth and goodness, and so Wilson relies upon the philosophy of law found within the medieval tradition.

Livestream of video from the Conference will be at the Holy Apostles College and Seminary YouTube Channel.

Next session scheduled for 7:00pm.

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