What a Natural Law Theory Claims
My aim here is to provide an account of how an adherent of the natural law tradition should approach the topic of the desirability of a uniform planetary ethic.
The term ‘natural law theory’ is notoriously slippery, and there are uses of it that are so broad as to fail to distinguish it from a variety of moral views (for example, utilitarianism, Kantianism) with which it is customarily taken to compete. While much is controversial about the definition of ‘natural law theory,’ it is not controversial that Thomas Aquinas is the paradigmatic natural law theorist, and that there are certain general features of Aquinas's view that structure his ethical thought. So I will take these features of Aquinas's view to be what distinguishes natural law theory from other moral views. What are those features?
For Aquinas, natural law can be examined from the ‘God's eye’ and the ‘human's eye’ points of view. When we focus on God's role as the giver of the natural law, the natural law is just one aspect of divine providence. When we focus on the human's role as recipient of the natural law, the natural law constitutes the principles of practical rationality, those principles by which human action is to be judged as reasonable or unreasonable.
I will here put to the side Aquinas's emphasis that the natural law is tied to divine providence, instead focusing on the natural law as the basis of practical reasoning.
The Place of Punishment within a Natural Law Account of Politics
There is no doubt that a great deal of ordinary thought about law involves thought about punishment. But one might think, for more than one reason, that the place of a theory of punishment is bound to be at the periphery of a natural law account of political matters.
First, recall that the central thesis of a natural law political theory is that the authority of law derives from its privileged place with respect to the common good (0.1). Natural law political philosophy is concerned with law's authority. Punishment, by contrast, is concerned with law not as authoritative but with law as coercive: punishment involves the wielding of force against the unwilling to bring about certain desirable actions or outcomes. But bearing authority and having the right to coerce are two fundamentally different conditions, and neither entails the other. Needing the direction of a personal trainer, I might promise to follow your directions with respect to my exercise regimen. While that promise establishes you as an authority over me – at least in this limited domain – it does not of itself give you a right to coerce me if I fail to comply. Nor does a right to coerce entail authority. Needing help in stopping smoking, I might grant you a right to knock a cigarette from my hand if you ever see me lighting up.
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