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Monday, March 27, 2017
What are they saying about Natural Law? Reflections on a conference in memory of Amanda Perreau-Saussine de Ezcurra
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Dr Amanda Perreau-Saussine de Ezcurra

Amanda Perreau-Saussine de Ezcurra died of cancer in 2012, only 18 months after the death of her first husband, Emile Perreau-Saussine. As a couple, they incarnated all that was best in Catholic intellectual life in Britain: they were intellectually courageous, open-minded, faithful, imaginative, wide-ranging, serious, wise and perceptive. Shortly before he died, Emile had finished his book Catholicism and Democracy (Princeton 2012). Amanda was prevented by illness from completing the book she was planning: Law as a Guide to Justice Old Questions for New Natural Lawyers. This would have fused her two academic interests, in law and in moral and political philosophy, in a way also shaped by her deep faith, to develop an understanding of actual legal systems as infused by morality, precisely because the human beings that create them have a natural capacity for moral life. This capacity is identified, especially in the Catholic tradition, as 'natural law', the human capacity to participate in eternal law.

It was another Catholic, John Finnis, whose book Natural Law and Natural Rights, published in 1980, reintroduced natural law into the debate among secular lawyers. Amanda had written her thesis on Finnis, and while she appreciated his achievement in getting the wider world to think about natural law again, she herself took a very different approach to the topic.

On March 4th a conference at Cambridge University brought together leading philosophers and lawyers to discuss and develop Amanda's ideas. These included the way in which the world, and especially human beings, have a certain order, which Christians would recognise as providential. We can recognise what is good, as one speaker argued, because God has given us a conscience, which we can tune into if we are open to learning how. Again, our natural instincts support and guide our moral lives. The Ten Commandments need to remind us to love our parents, but not to love our children: that is something that, for the most part, comes quite naturally. A small number of natural laws of justice hold true without exception: do not kill the innocent would be the classic example.

It is because we have a natural sociability and a natural propensity to recognise justice that the customs and laws we create already reflect, albeit sometimes very imperfectly, morality. To take an example: the basic natural law 'do not kill' gives little positive guidance. But we instinctively understand that we should also feed ourselves and our families, so that the customs for producing and cooking food grow up, differently in each culture. Because we know why we need food, and that it is wrong to give people harmful food, more complex societies need to pass laws about food safety. But each society will make this sort of detailed decision for itself: for law to work, it must be rooted in the community to which it belongs, and acknowledged as appropriate by its members.

Finally, although positive law is often a guide to justice, our natures are not only sociable, but also flawed. Every country has some unjust laws. For example, is it right for some human beings to be counted as 'non-persons', so that the principle 'do not kill the innocent' doesn't apply to them? And what of laws which perpetuate the massively unjust distribution of wealth across the globe? How do we identify when state laws or social customs guide, and when they conflict with, justice?

These are urgent questions at a time when political communities across the globe are dramatically redefining themselves, and immense numbers of people are forced to live in communities that are not their own. Does our common humanity provide us with the resources to live together in peace? How can our legal systems adapt, and help us to adapt, to the new realities? How might faith or secularism be connected with practical questions of justice? The sort of question that Amanda was so skilled in asking continue to stimulate her colleagues and pupils. But they are not questions just for academics: the answers we give to them shape all of our lives.

Sr Margaret Atkins CRSA, works at Boarbank Hall, Cumbria and Venerable English College, Rome.

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Tags: Amanda Perreau-Saussine de Ezcurra, Natural Law, Sr Margaret Atkins CRSA


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