Mirror of Justice

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Friday, February 6, 2004

Law and "Moral Anthropology"

One of our shared goals for this blog is to -- in Mark's words -- "discover[] how our Catholic perspective can inform our understanding of the law." One line of inquiry that, in my view, is particularly promising -- and one that I know several of my colleagues have written and thought about -- involves working through the implications for legal questions of a Catholic "moral anthropology." By "moral anthropology," I mean an account of what it is about the human person that does the work in moral arguments about what we ought or ought not to do and about how we ought or ought not to be treated; I mean, in Pope John Paul II's words, the “moral truth about the human person."

The Psalmist asked, "Lord, what is man . . . that thou makest account of him?” (Ps. 143:3). This is not only a prayer, but a starting point for jurisprudential reflection. All moral problems are anthropological problems, because moral arguments are built, for the most part, on anthropological presuppositions. That is, as Professor Elshtain has put it, our attempts at moral judgment tend to reflect our “foundational assumptions about what it means to be human." Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Dignity of the Human Person and the Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries, 14 JOURNAL OF LAW AND RELIGION 53, 53 (1999-2000). As my colleague John Coughlin has written, the "anthropological question" is both "perennial" and profound: "What does it mean to be a human being?” Rev. John J. Coughlin, Law and Theology: Reflections on What it Means to Be Human, 74 ST. JOHN’S LAW REVIEW 609, 609 (2000).

In one article of mine, "Christian Witness, Moral Anthropology, and the Death Penalty," I explore the implications for the death penalty of a Catholic anthropology, one that emphasizes our "creaturehood" more than, say, our "autonomy." And, my friend Steve Smith (University of San Diego) has an paper out that discusses what a "person as believer" anthropology might mean for our freedom-of-religion jurisprudence that fleshes out excellent article. I wonder if any of my colleagues have any thoughts on these matters?

Rick

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