Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Natural Law Ethics - Koterski

PHGA 5003 Natural Law Ethics
Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
Fall Semester 2010


The tradition of natural law ethics includes a rather wide variety of theories. From its origins natural law thinking has attempted to identify and defend an objective and intelligible basis for morality by concentrating on human nature, especially in terms of its structures and teleology. For some, the natural law refers primarily to a higher law by which to measure the justice of human institutions and civil legislation. Some thinkers have called on natural law in order to defend the natural rights of individuals. Others prefer to use it to understand what makes agents morally virtuous and what the goal of human development is. What unites these many views under a common title is the appeal to nature as in certain ways normative for human behavior.

An important aim of this course is to acquaint the student with a variety of theories that fall under the heading of natural law ethics and the different sorts of problems they are designed to address. A second aim is to exemplify the application of the natural law/natural rights tradition to current moral problems.   Given the important theological uses made of the natural moral law, a third aim is to explore some connections between philosophical and theological approaches to ethics by considering of certain recent papal encyclicals.

Required texts
  • Yves R. Simon. The Tradition of Natural Law: a Philosopher's Reflections. Bronx: Fordham UP, 1992 [1965]
  • Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law, various editions available
  • Pope John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae [available in various editions]
  • Russell Hittinger, First Grace (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002)

  • Heinrich Rommen. Natural Law. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998
  • John Rist. Real Ethics: Rethinking the Foundations of Morality. Cambridge UP, 2002
  • John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. Who Count as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Univ. Press, 2001
  • Martin Rhonheimer. Natural Law and Practical Reason: A Thomist View of Moral Autonomy, tr. By Gerald Malsbary. Bronx: Fordham Univ. Press, 2000
  • Thomas Hibbs. Virtue’s Splendor: Wisdom, Prudence, and the Human Good. Bronx: Fordham Univ. Press, 2001
Further bibliographical suggestions will be supplied during the course.


Class attendance is expected. 

Final comprehensive examination.

Three short papers (6-8 pages) as preparatory parts of a comprehensive essay on natural law. They will be organized on some aspect of the following themes: 1) human nature as the basis for any theory of natural law or natural rights 2) conscience, moral principles, and the application of natural law 3) the relation of God to questions of natural law. The three writing assignments (due over the course of the semester, respectively) are intended as essays that will involve a limited amount of research rather than as extensive research papers. They are to be combined into a final synthesis paper due at the end of the semester.  But it is also permissible, and especially recommended for doctoral students, to substitute for the previously described project one 20-25 page research paper on a topic to be determined ahead of time in consultation with the instructor, such as a paper on a current moral problem from the perspective of natural law, or a paper on a textual problem in some natural law text, and so on.

The final grade for the course will be based upon final paper (50%) and the final exam (50%). Class participation may modify the final grade. The final paper is due at the time of the final exam. It will be accepted later but at the penalty of one letter grade.

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