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The Foundations of Natural Morality

On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law

Recent years have seen a renaissance of interest in the relationship between natural law and natural rights. During this time, the concept of natural rights has served as a conceptual lightning rod, either strengthening or severing the bond between traditional natural law and contemporary human rights. Does the concept of natural rights have the natural law as its foundation or are the two ideas, as Leo Strauss argued, profoundly incompatible?

With The Foundations of Natural Morality, S. Adam Seagrave addresses this controversy, offering an entirely new account of natural morality that compellingly unites the concepts of natural law and natural rights. Seagrave agrees with Strauss that the idea of natural rights is distinctly modern and does not derive from traditional natural law. Despite their historical distinctness, however, he argues that the two ideas are profoundly compatible and that the thought of John Locke and Thomas Aquinas provides the key to reconciling the two sides of this long-standing debate. In doing so, he lays out a coherent concept of natural morality that brings together thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke, revealing the insights contained within these disparate accounts as well as their incompleteness when considered in isolation. Finally, he turns to an examination of contemporary issues, including health care, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty, showing how this new account of morality can open up a more fruitful debate.

184 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Philosophy: Political Philosophy

Political Science: Classic Political Thought, Political and Social Theory


“Seagrave offers his readers a remarkable intellectual journey from ancient through modern and even contemporary times. This is one of the most important books on natural law and natural rights in a generation. Not only does Seagrave skilfully and fluently explore the philosophical foundations of natural morality, he also shows how the concepts of natural law and natural rights, properly understood, can enrich current public policy debates surrounding such controversial issues as universal health care, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty. Seagrave gives the venerable natural law and natural rights tradition a new breath of life that will challenge and provoke many contemporary political theorists and public policy thinkers out of our often complacent assumptions about justice.”

Lee Ward, University of Regina

“This book has many virtues. S. Adam Seagrave presents provocative, but carefully constructed arguments about an issue of great importance to political theorists and historians of political thought. His prose is very clear and engaging, even in the midst of his tussles with other scholars.”

Bernard Yack, Brandeis University

"This is an extraordinary book, combining very original work in history of philosophy with very original work in political philosophy itself to produce striking new answers to some very old questions."

Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame

The Foundations of Natural Morality is a terrific book. It is well researched, carefully and judiciously argued, lucidly written, and timely—though discussion of its subject matter could never be truly out of season. It is also an admirably ambitious undertaking. As he thinks through long-standing disputes over the relation between natural-rights and natural-law doctrines, Seagrave offers constructive, illuminating contributions to diverse controversies philosophical and political, ranging from the first principles of moral and political life to selected public policies lately in dispute. In every case, he pays scrupulously respectful attention to contending arguments and writes with a view toward repairing or narrowing divisions and elevating the terms of debate. A most impressive achievement—impressive for any scholar at any stage and especially so for one so early in his career.”

Review of Politics

“Self-consciousness gives rise to a sense of self-ownership which in turn, Seagrave points out, provides the foundation of our claim to natural rights. . . . This is an innovative and powerful theoretical contribution that merits serious examination and study.”

Heythrop Review

“Seagrave enters into a modern controversy about the continuity and compatibility of modem natural rights with the much older natural law tradition. It is a welcome and ingenious contribution to a debate in which some theorists, such as Leo Strauss and his students, have argued that there is a major break between ancient natural law doctrine and the modern idea of natural rights.”

Catholic Social Science Review

The Foundations of Natural Morality is an extraordinarily ambitious work. Seagrave’s book takes up a question that is coeval with political philosophy: Are some things moral by nature, and if yes, how so? . . . Entering a debate that has roiled since the beginning of modernity, Seagrave focuses on the essential relationship of ancient and medieval natural law theorizing and modern natural rights doctrines. . . . His arguments raise hosts of fundamental political, philosophical, and, in some cases, theological questions we are likely to gloss over precisely because they are fundamental or first questions. . . . There is a good deal to admire about [this] book.”

Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Locke on Natural Rights and the Natural Law
Chapter 2: Self-Consciousness, Self-Ownership, and Natural Rights
Chapter 3: From Natural Rights to the Natural Law
Chapter 4: Natural Morality
Chapter 5: Practical Applications

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