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Robert G. Moser, Chair BAT 2.116, Mailcode A1800, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-5121

Fall 2006

GOV 382M • Natural Law Theory

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
39960 T
3:30 PM-6:30 PM
MEZ 5.104

Course Description

Consent of the graduate adviser must be obtained. Course number may be repeated for credit when the topics vary.

The theory of natural law -- so called "higher" law -- is the spine of the Western tradition of ethics, law, and politics. The core of this perennial philosophy, many times buried and many times resurrected, is the idea that certain universal standards of good, right, and justice are not only true for everyone, but have certain other properties as well: According to proponents, they are really natural in the sense that they are built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind; they are really law because they convey obligation which does not depend on human enactment; and they are known or knowable to rightly ordered reason. Needless to say, all of these notions are controversial. Contrary to common opinion, they have always been controversial, not only in our age but in every age. The history of these controversies encapsulates much of the intellectual drama of political theory. We will consider the concept of natural law; its content; its philosophical, theological, and jurisprudential sources; the classical synthesis, along with its unraveling, its contemporary renaissance, its quarrels, and its research agenda; and its use and abuse in politics, jurisprudence, and everyday life. The seminar is arranged in three units. Unit one focuses on sustained close reading of the single most important text on natural law by the single most important theorist of natural law, Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law. Unit two focuses on a series of shorter readings, many of them contemporary, provided in a readings packet. Unit three is devoted to student presentations on topics of special interest. Participants in the seminar should already be familiar with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which is necessary background for understanding classical natural law. I also assume that participants have had previous exposure to Hobbes and Locke, who are amply represented in other political theory courses. These early modern natural right thinkers took an interesting detour which we cannot afford to ignore. However, our chief interest in this seminar lies not in their detour, but in the classical natural law tradition that they detoured from.

Grading Policy

Brief weekly outlines of the readings: One third Research presentation: One third Vigorous participation in seminar: One third


1. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law, available at Co-Op. 2. Packet of readings, available at Abel's Copies.


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