Natural law

St Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of natural law was the dominant moral theory prior to modernity. Although his formulation of the subject is considered to be definitive, the natural law tradition evolved over the centuries from the pre-socratics to the medieval scholastics.  In this course, Dr Shaw explains the origins of the natural law tradition in ancient Greek philosophy, its role in the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas, its rejection, in the eighteenth century, by some key figures of the Enlightenment, and what subsequently took its place.  St Thomas Aquinas understood the natural law in the context of eternal law, human law, and ecclesiastical law, as well as our place in creation as rational creatures, and the relationship between the individual, the Church and the state. St Thomas combines an approach to ethics focused on the virtues with an acknowledgement of the importance of duty and moral obligations.   By examining what happened after Aquinas, we will see the difference between the classical Catholic approach to ethics and the approaches of modern theories, and ways in which natural law can be used to approach practical moral questions today.


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Plato, Gorgias

Aristotle, Nicomachaean ethics, book 1&2

Augustine, De mendacio (“On Lying”)

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica

1a 2ae, Q. 5, a.3&5Whether goodness is prior in idea to being?
1a 2ae, Q. 91, a.1&2Whether there is an eternal law?
1a 2ae, Q. 94, a.1&3Whether the natural law is a habit?
1a 2ae, QQ. 95 Of Human Law
1a 2ae, QQ. 96 Of the Power of Human Law
1a 2ae, QQ. 97 Of Change in Laws

Ralph McInery, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America, 1997)

David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, book 3, part 1; part 2, sections 1 and 2.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, first section.

J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter 1

Elizabeth Anscembe, “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958)

John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Right (1980)

Sherif Girgis, Robert George & Ryan Anderson, “What Is Marriage?” (2010)

About Instructor

Dr Joseph Shaw

Joseph Shaw is a philosopher and author. For many years he was a senior research fellow at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford and a member of the faculty of Philosophy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, and president of the Una Voce International Federation. He has a doctorate in philosophy, a diploma in theology, and a bachelor's degree in politics and philosophy.

He has published on academic philosophy, the traditional Catholic liturgy and on Catholic culture and politics. He edited The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Studies on the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2019). His work has been published by the European Conservative, the Catholic Herald, the Voice of the Family Digest and Calx Mariae, and in many other publications, and he has his own blog:

He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and nine children.