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February 3, 2020
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v2.1 Reference

Knowing the Natural Law

From Precepts and Inclinations to Deriving Oughts

Recent discussions of Thomas Aquinas's treatment of natural law have focused upon the "self-evident" character of the first principles, but few attempts have been made to determine in what manner they are selfevident. On some accounts, a self-evident precept must have, at most, a tenuous connection with speculative reason, especially our knowledge of God, and it must be untainted by the stain of "deriving" an ought from an is. Yet Aquinas himself had a robust account of the good, rooted in human nature. He saw no fundamental difference between is-statements and ought-statements, both of which he considered to be descriptive. Knowing the Natural Law traces the thought of Aquinas from an understanding of human nature to a knowledge of the human good, from there to an account of ought-statements, and finally to choice, which issues in human actions. The much discussed article on the precepts of the natural law (I-II, 94, 2) provides the framework for a natural law rooted in human nature and in speculative knowledge. Practical knowledge is itself threefold: potentially practical knowledge, virtually practical knowledge, and fully practical knowledge. This distinction within practical knowledge, typically overlooked or underutilized, reveals the steps by which the mind moves from speculative knowledge all the way to fully practical knowledge. The most significant sections of Knowing the Natural Law examine the nature of ought-statements, the imperative force of moral precepts, the special character of per se nota propositions as found within the natural law, and the final movement from knowledge to action.

About the Authors

STEVEN J. JENSEN is professor of philosophy at University of St. Thomas, Houston and author of Living the Good Life and Good and Evil Actions, and editor of The Ethics of Organ Transplantation, all published by CUA Press.

Reviews

"It is impossible in the scope of a brief review to do full justice to this complex, carefully argued book The NNL analysis of moral knowledge in terms of basic goods, which do an astonishing amount of normative work, offers an impoverished view of practical reasoning and an implausible reading of Aquinas. J.'s welcome book makes this clear."—Jean Porter, Univ Notre Dame, Theological Studies

"There is much meticulous scholarship to praise in this book; it constitutes an important contribution to the discussion and is on the whole remarkable in its subtlety."—William Matthew Diem, University of St. Thomas, Studies in Christian Ethics

"takes the reader back to the 13th century intellectual world of Thomas Aquinas, and in doing so invites us to set aside our own philosophical, intellectual, and cultural approaches to our world and reclaim the vocabulary of Thomas and then armed with that intellectual equipment to do battle with the modern age..."—James T. Bretzke, Boston College, Catholic Books Review

"This important book is an account of how we know the natural law It is a handsome volume."—Stephen L. Brock, Pontifical Univ Holy Cross, The Thomist

"Jensen admirably defends the position that our knowledge of first principles is speculative and that we can and do move from that speculative knowledge to action This book is a clear account of natural law. I strongly recommend it for all moral philosphers and theologians and for use in a graduate classroom."—Carl A. Vater, St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, CrossMark

"Knowing the Natural Law is intended for scholars of natural law theory, Aquinas, ethics, and moral theology—particularly those familiar with the fruitful and ongoing debates over new natural law theory. Yet Jensen's volume can skillfully guide novices in the field through a concise exposition of Aquinas's conception of the genesis of moral knowledge without overwhelming them. It also can introduce them to myriad issues that have dominated Thomistic natural law theory for decades. For scholars, this will remain an essential text for years to come, greatly enriching the field of Thomistic scholarship."—Rev. Thomas Berg, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly

The Catholic University of America Press

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