The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Memories of Ralph and Lessons for Lawyers in Crisis”: Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing

In his column for The Catholic Thing, Prof, Arkes honors his late friend Ralph McInerny by drawing on McInerny’s explanation of natural law as “something your grandmother would understand.” Rather than being an esoteric theory, natural law is fundamentally about common sense propositions that your grandmother would have instinctually apprehended and that only a professional philosopher could seriously doubt. Prof. Arkes argues that many problems in both academic philosophy and public policy come from errant abstractions which both implicitly assume and explicitly deny the common sense propositions which must be affirmed even to make philosophical claims. However, Prof. Arkes is hopeful that in the wake of Bostock and growing criticisms of originalism more conservative lawyers will support the common sense understanding of natural law promoted by James Wilson.

Some quotes from the article:

“[Ralph McInerny’s] path of entry would come through Aristotle and Thomism, and that would be an enduring blessing.   ‘Only later,’ he said, ‘would I realize what an enormous advantage this was.  Aristotle and Thomas were realists.  They thought the human mind was a capacity to know the world and ourselves, the way things are.  Your grandmother thought the same thing.'”

“One of the leading misadventures of modern philosophy, he thought, began with Rene Descartes;  it came with the conviction that, unless our minds were first ‘rinsed in methodic doubt your grandmother cannot truly say she knows anything.'”

“Some conservatives still think of natural law as a foggy theory lofted in the sky. But the breakthrough comes these days as more of them come to see that the natural law is grounded in that same common sense that they use every day in the business of life as lived.  And as Ralph McInerny would tell them, their grandmothers would still understand it.”

The full article can be found here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790