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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Polis and the Natural Law

First, thanks a lot to my fellow Prawfsblawggers for the warm welcome.

Today, at Notre Dame's workshop series, my colleague in the Architecture Department, Philip Bess, gave a fascinating presentation, "The Polis and the Natural Law:  The Moral Authority of the Urban Transect."  [RG:  I have updated this post, adding a link to a more recent version of Bess's paper].    Although my wife, Nicole Stelle Garnett, is the property guru in our house, I have a longstanding interest in -- or maybe a wary attraction to -- the "New Urbanism".  (Or, maybe just "urbanism."  After all, I'm not sure Jane Jacobs needs updating.)  And, we have had many discussions on cities, suburbs, planning, and religion over at my other blog, Mirror of Justice.  (For example, here, here, and here).

Bess pushed a few buttons by taking the urbanism / smart-growth discussion beyond aesthetics (e.g., "Annapolis looks nicer than Tyson's Corner") and NIMBY-ism, and pulling out the big natural-law-morality guns.  Here's his introduction:

The Aristotelian-Thomist intellectual tradition’s understanding of natural law---which is the broad pre-modern tradition of western culture---is that there are certain foundational principles of morality that are (according to Thomas Aquinas) “the same for all, both as to knowledge and to rectitude”---in other words, principles of morality that are not only right for all human beings but knowable (and at some level known) to all human beings. These foundational principles of morality, along with their first few rings of implications, are known as the natural law.

The Urban Transect refers to that range of human habitats conducive to human flourishing within which human settlements are part of a sustainable (albeit not necessarily locally bio-diverse) eco-system. These habitats, diagrammatically depicted as Transect-zones (“Tzones”), range from less dense human settlements to more dense human settlements; but each urban T-zone denotes a walkable and mixed-use human environment wherein within each urban zone many if not most of the necessities and activities of daily life are within a five-to-ten-minute walk for persons of all ages and economic classes.

It is the thesis of this paper that, given this understanding and characterization of both natural law and the Urban Transect, the proposition “Human beings should make settlements in accordance with the Urban Transect” is generally valid for all human beings in all times and places---and therefore constitutes a natural law precept. If this is true, such a precept would be binding in conscience for---and acted upon with prudential judgment by---all persons who act in accordance with right (practical) reason; and especially for and by persons who understand themselves to be a part of the Aristotelian-Thomist intellectual tradition.

I am inclined to agree with many of the claims associated with this "tradition":  It seems to me that it is meaningful to talk about "human flourishing," and also that there are some ways of arranging "settlements" that are more (or less) conducive to that flourishing.  And, I suppose that governments ought to enact policies and facilitate developments that are conducive to, or consonant with, good arrangements, not bad.  On the other hand, I hesitate a bit about "baptizing" what might be seen by some as just the latest development fad.

So, what do people think?  The claim is (obviously) not that people who live in urban areas (or walkable sub-urban areas) are "better" or more moral than those who live in "sprawl."  It is, though, that there is some strong "ought-ness" behind the claim that our "settlements" should be structured and arranged in a particular way.

Posted by Rick Garnett on November 8, 2005 at 11:23 PM | Permalink


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Peter Lawler has some thoughts on the possible Catholic majority on the Court and what that might mean. He argues that Catholics are comfortable arguing in natural law terms and are therefore better allies of what Evangelicals want than Evangelicals th... [Read More]

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Peter Lawler has some thoughts on the possible Catholic majority on the Court and what that might mean. He argues that Catholics are comfortable arguing in natural law terms and are therefore better allies of what Evangelicals want than Evangelicals th... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 12, 2005 5:35:36 PM


I have Phil's complete essay on my blog here.

Posted by: john massengale | Dec 1, 2005 11:07:20 PM

I'll give credit to Risen for at least visiting Seaside and looking at the preliminary ideas generated by the Mississippi charrette -- something most critics do not bother with. But even so, he has a very limited knowledge of the work of new urbanists in the U.S. and worldwide, and he has a mistaken concept of the work of a charrette.

In Risen's mind, the products of a new urbanist charrette are nearly pre-determined, and in the final analysis, there would be no reason really for the designers even to leave home. The reality is hundreds of person-hours devoted to hearing what local residents desire for their communities, local charrette participants outnumbering the the visiting designers, and in general a positive reception for the various ideas presented. Transit service was initially proposed by the Governor's Commission, and then later elaborated by new urbanist designers. Also, the Commission identified affordable housing, and support for disadvantaged populations and small businesses as high priorities.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach | Nov 9, 2005 9:32:12 PM

Yesterday, the Morning News printed a piece talking about the possible use of New Urbanism techniques when rebuilding the Katrina stomping grounds. When discussing the practicality of such an option, Clay Risen noted:

"What they have not done—and what New Urbanism in general has yet to confront—is figure out how to rebuild a vast, diverse community, one that might lack the desire or resources to maintain the added expenses, such as light rail systems and community centers, that New Urbanism celebrates."

Although this does not speak directly to the natural law characteristics of New Urbanism, it does speak indirectly to the assumed normativeness (that doesn't sound like a good word, but it's all I've got) that any reference to natural law would bring to the table when discussing the new style. In other words, some people don't want (and perhaps, don't need) the style that New Urbanism champions.

Though this is far from conclusive, it seems to suggest that New Urbanism is probably more of a fad than an endpoint in natural law and should be met with some level of skepticism (but I still think it looks cool).

Posted by: Nick | Nov 9, 2005 11:13:33 AM

While I'm heavily in favor of the sort of environment suggested above (assuming there are reliable ways to get between the areas you can walk around in, too- it's also no good be be isolated w/in a neighborhood or region), it seems pretty unhelpful to me to try to claim that this is dictated by natural law. My understanding of natural law has always been that such things are supposed to be open to the "natural light of reason"- that you can know it not through, say, sociological study on how people are affected by their environment, but in a more direct way. Already proponents of natural law regularly claim that all sorts of things that are manifestly not avaliable through the natural light of reason to most people are so avaliable, and this (rightly) opens them up for ridicule. (I have this feeling every time I read John Finnis or, even more so, Robert George.) Why burden a perfeclty good research program or design initiative with the deeply dubious claim that it's open to the natural light of reason? Just argue for the thing!

Posted by: Matt | Nov 9, 2005 7:43:29 AM

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