Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the American Republic
The Annual James Madison Program May Conference
Keynote Address by Michael P. Zuckert, Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
What is the relationship between the free societies of the modern world and the western tradition of political philosophy? The fact of such a relationship is clear, but its exact character is ambiguous. On the one hand, modern free societies were undeniably shaped by modern political philosophy, and in particular by the doctrine of individual natural rights. On the other hand, although this modern natural rights doctrine emerged to some extent in opposition to the older tradition of natural law – which emphasized the priority of the community to the individual, and of natural duties to natural rights – the new tradition in some ways depended intellectually on the older one and may not have broken completely from it. This tension is perhaps most evident in the case of the American republic, the product of a philosophically informed founding bearing evidence of the influence of modern, classical, and Christian thought.
A further ambiguity is introduced by movements within contemporary free societies that would detach those societies from the influence of natural rights liberalism. In America, for example, some question whether the maintenance of a free society requires continued reliance on the natural rights doctrine or, more broadly, the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” suggesting that a more comprehensive freedom will arise if society takes is bearings from notions of historical progress rather than a static concept of nature.
Endeavoring to encourage the careful consideration these issues demand, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions are pleased to announce a conference on Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the American Republic. The program includes scholars from various disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities speaking on issues such as the influence of natural law thinking on the American founders, the role of natural law and natural rights in post-founding American history and politics, the place of natural law in American jurisprudence, and the compatibility of the doctrine of natural rights with prudence and community.
We seek to address a number of questions: How did the leading American founders understand the relationship of their political project to the tradition of natural law thinking? Did the founding generation have a coherent vision of natural law and political society, or was their thinking characterized by as much disagreement as agreement on these fundamental issues? What role has the founding’s account of natural law and natural rights played in subsequent political controversies in American history? To what extent, and with what merit, have conceptions of natural law and natural rights influenced American jurisprudence, including constitutional interpretation? Is a doctrine of natural rights compatible with the traditional political virtue of prudence or practical wisdom? Does the doctrine of natural rights provide a sufficient basis for decent and choiceworthy political community? Finally, what is the philosophic character of the American republic established by the founders? Is it liberal, classical, Christian, some combination of these influences, or something else entirely?
See Schedule for panelist biographies.