Natural Law and Medical Ethics: Reject, Revise, or Recover?
Last Name Abbottsmith
Terminal Degree(s) MPhil, MAR, current MD/PhD student
Title/Position MD/PhD student
Institution/Organization Yale School of Medicine, Department of Religious Studies
The natural law tradition has persisted for centuries as a response to the questions that have most concerned medical ethicists: what is the source and grounding of morality, why should we seek to live a moral life, and what does such a life entail? From medieval scholastic accounts of the eternal, divine law to early modern efforts to derive the moral law from nature and reason, natural law thinking has developed over time in response to problems in earlier versions or to deeper intellectual concerns of the day. With alterations at times modest and at times profound, new articulations have also found themselves open to new critiques. The “new natural law” theory is one of the most recent, and among the most controversial, articulations of natural law thinking in this tradition. Emerging amidst divisive twentieth-century debates about abortion and contraception, it presents itself as a modern reimagining of a Thomistic natural law theory and a response to persistent moral disagreement in a pluralist world. Its goals are threefold: to articulate a moral law that is universally accessible and persuasive; to demonstrate that this law is universally applicable to all humans; and, by means of this law, to offer practical moral guidance that resolves prevailing moral controversies. In what follows, I will evaluate these goals of the “new” natural lawyers. First, I will address how their goals relate to those of earlier natural law thinkers, medieval and early modern, and to alternative approaches today. Second, I will assess in what ways the new natural law theory realizes these various goals. And third, I will consider whether natural law thinking is a promising path forward for medical ethics today.