Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas mentioned it during his Senate confirmation hearing; Martin Luther King Jr. invoked it in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Some of the nation’s leading experts will discuss “it” – natural law – Nov. 21-22 at Wake Forest University in the Tenth James Montgomery Hester Seminar in Philosophy, “Natural Law Theory: Historical and Contemporary Issues.”
Natural law is the idea that there are unwritten, natural moral laws, such as the right to life and the right to own property, that arise not from legislative decrees but from the fundamental moral truths and reasoning that provide the foundation for all human communities.
Some of the conference’s guest scholars, such as Robert George, an associate professor of politics at Princeton, argue that the nation’s courts have ignored natural law to write moral relativism into the judicial fabric of government – denying the existence of moral grounds for such laws as those prohibiting abortion or physician-assisted suicide.
Because of these court decisions, George says, the governed are losing their natural rights to collectively determine the guiding moral principles that comprise the nation and their communities. Others disagree, accusing George and those natural-law theorists who agree with him of trying to impose their religious values on others and erode judicial authority.
Win-chiat Lee, associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest and the conference’s organizer, said that the debate among conservatives about whether moral truths supersede court rulings is only one sign of a much more widespread resurgence in interest about natural law, a theory most commonly associated with St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian and philosopher.
“This is a hot topic in the profession at the moment,” Win-chiat Lee said. “Even though natural law theory in contemporary law is often associated with some kind of political conservatism, there is a much broader historical and political context for it.
“The conference intends to refer to this much broader context.”
All sessions of the conference are open to the public. The conference begins at 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, in DeTamble Auditorium of Tribble Hall. The conference schedule resumes at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 22.
The Friday, Nov. 21 schedule:
2:05 p.m., “A Problem About Practical Reasonableness in Aquinas,” John Finnis, professor of law and philosophy at Oxford University and Biolchini Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame (moderated by Elizabeth Kiss of Duke University);
4 p.m., “Intrinsic Rightness, Duty and Obligation: Suarez and His Critics,” Terence Irwin, Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy and Humane Letters and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Cornell University (moderated by Win-chiat Lee, Wake Forest); and
8 p.m., “Natural Law Theory: One Tradition or Two?” Jerome Schneewind, professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University (moderated by Gopal Sreenivasan, Princeton University).
The Saturday, Nov. 22, schedule:
9 a.m., “The Passage of Rights in Early Modern Philosophy,” Knud Haakonssen, professor of philosophy at Boston University (moderated by Josefine Nauckhoff, Wake Forest);
11 a.m., “Issues in Contemporary Natural Law Theory,” Robert George, associate professor of politics at Princeton University (moderated by Terrance McConnell, University of North Carolina at Greensboro);
2:30 p.m., “Natural Law and the Single Mind,” Jeremy Waldron, Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia University (moderated by Christopher Wellman, Guilford College);
4:30 p.m., “Roundtable Discussion” (moderated by Gerald Postema, Cary C. Boshamer Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
Additional information about the conference is available through the Wake Forest philosophy department’s Web site.
The conference is supported by the A.C. Reid Philosophy Funds.
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