Ralph McInerny

title.none: Lisska, Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law (McInerny)

identifier.other: baj9928.9801.010 98.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ralph McInerny, University of Notre Dame,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Lisska, Anthony. Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction. New York: Clarendon Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 320. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-826359-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.01.10

Lisska, Anthony. Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction. New York: Clarendon Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 320. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-826359-7.

Reviewed by:

Ralph McInerny
University of Notre Dame

This is not just another book about natural law. Lisska is out to do two main things: First, to lay before a reader whose lingua franca is analytic philosophy the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the first principles of moral reasoning, a.k.a. natural law. Second, to position his statement of Thomistic natural law vis-a-vis the best known previous attempt of this kind, that of John Finnis. The book is divided into ten chapters.

Lisska opens with a tour de monde morale, drawing attention to the resurgence of interest, friendly and hostile, in the very idea of natural law. He traces the influence of Elizabeth's Anscombe's little bombshell of an article "Modern Moral Philosophy", paying particular attention to one who heeded Miss Anscombe's caveat, namely, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre provides Lisska with a convenient window onto the wider world of contemporary jurisprudence and its internecine battles. A second chapter provides focus after this survey, discussing meta-ethics and its relation to jurisprudence.

Chekov said of his fellow Russian writers, "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat.'" Analogously, analytic moral philosophy came out of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica. The so- called naturalistic fallacy stood as an aporia to any continuation of ethics in the traditional sense, and of course that meant that the thought of Aquinas, along with any other "naturalism" in ethics, was excluded. Lisska sees the shadow of Kant in all this. His presentation of efforts made to break through the impasse is brief and masterful.

With this background, Lisska is ready in Chapter 4 to give his own reconstruction of Aquinas's theory of natural law. This is a workmanlike rethinking of the key passages from the "Treatise on Law" in the Summa theologiae. Chapter 5 is devoted to an extended discussion of the role of knowledge of or belief in God for natural law theory. If eternal law is law par excellence and other kinds of law, including natural law, are a participation in it, it looks as if moral philosophy cannot get under way until some metaphysical heavy-lifting has been accomplished. Lisska's discussion of this matter deserves and will receive close scrutiny and discussion.

The better to set off his own account, Lisska in Chapter 6 turns to the work of John Finnis, the Oxford/Notre Dame legal scholar who brought the work of Germain Grisez to the attention of a wide audience. Finnis moved out from Grisez's seminal article on Summa theologiae IaIIae, q. 94, a. 2. It may not be too much of a simplification to say that Finnis/Grisez accept as good money the naturalistic fallacy and attempt to construct a non-naturalist account of natural law, something critics have characterized as natural law without nature. Lisska discusses the extremely complicated and important Finnis/Grisez position by invoking, in Chapter 7, the work of Henry Babcock Veatch.

In Chapter 8, Lisska is ready to make clear how his own reconstruction of Aquinas's natural law fits into the richly detailed historical setting he has provided. What about Thomas as meta-ethician? Can Aquinas get around the naturalistic fallacy? Can he overcome the hypothetical/categorical imperative problem? Lisska argues in the affirmative on all these and adds a neat little defense of essentialism to top it off. Chapter 9 returns to Finnis's problematic, though no longer as commentary on him. What is the relation between natural law and natural rights? This is inevitably schematic, but the book would have been much less without the discussion. The final chapter provides brief remarks on the prospects and pitfalls of natural law theory.

All in all, this is a most welcome book. It casts light, sometimes a great deal of light, on everything it takes up. Let me draw particular attention to Lisska's treatment of the naturalistic fallacy. It involves two questions (p. 196 ff.): (1) Is it possible to derive a value claim from any proposition referring to a factual claim -- or any reference to being? (2) Does the fact/value dichotomy expressed in Moore's naturalistic fallacy assume a particular kind or theory of ontology? Lisska maintains that the answer to (2) makes clear the answer to (1) As for (2), "Moore ... assumes as a theoretical presupposition, an ontology of simple, discrete, complete properties. Recall Moore's analysis of simple properties as discussed in [Lisska's] Chapters 3 and 7. Moore assumed ontologically that there existed both simple natural and simple non-natural properties. The properties were in some way fundamentally simple entities" (197). The conception of a fact that emerges from such an ontology is a complex of simples. "If a 'simple' is complete in and of itself, there is no sense theoretically that can be made of the concept of a disposition or of a potentiality" (197). But potentiality and/or disposition is essential to resolve fact/value difficulties. By contrast, Aristotle and Aquinas do moral philosophy against the background of a quite different ontology which obviates the difficulties of Hume etc. The fact/value problem does not arise.

Lisska's solution pushes the matter into the domain of ontology, accordingly, something which will be unwelcome to those who think we can waive such arcane matters and just do ethics. But to waive them turns out to be acceptance of a bogus ontology that creates havoc in moral philosophy. Lisska accepts his own challenge and proceeds to a defense of essentialism.

Well, one could go on. But perhaps this will suffice. The range of the book is impressive, but just what it must be if the interpretation is to be sustained. Lisska's readers are confronted by a number of deconstructions. Fact/value and essentialism have become part of the standard repertoire or, worse, deep assumptions that are not discussed. Lisska, in his workmanlike way, gains the respect and confidence of his reader. His book should be read and debated. It is a genuine contribution to the effort to decide what in the world moral philosophy is.