A former colleague, who would be using Porter's latest book in his doctoral seminar on moral methods, asked me what I thought, since he'd not yet had a chance to read the work. I replied that although it would be a tough read for the students, needing a lot of help from the professor to follow many of the themes in the book, but that all in all it would be a worthwhile project. Porter, who is John A. O'Brien Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Notre Dame, has solidly established herself as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Thomas Aquinas in our century.
Building on her Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 1999) Porter takes the scholastic concept as her starting point to develop a constructive theory of the natural law. While establishing this starting point was largely the project of her previous book she seems to find it difficult to leave that former project entirely behind. In many ways this current book repeats and deepens the investigation begun in her previous book, and, for this reader at least, the stated project of developing a contemporary theological natural law ethic in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas is not entirely successful at least for a wider audience that is not already well-versed in, and favorably pre-disposed to the scholastic approach. Porter's long-standing study of the thirteenth century perhaps has left her more at ease in that century than in the twenty-first, though she makes the effort to traverse both. This observation does not mean that the current work is out of touch with the post-modern world, but rather that I am not sure that the audience shaped more by the twentieth century than the thirteenth will be able to follow easily Porter's logic and development.
The book is divided into five rather long chapters. Following the Introductory chapter Porter then considers (2) Nature as Nature: The Roots of Natural Law, (3) Virtue and the Happy Life, (4) Nature as Reason: Act and Precept in the Natural Law, and (5) Theological Ethics and the Natural Law. Copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography (though sometimes lacking notation of available English translations) provide excellent scholarly reference material.
A key point that Porter makes repeatedly is that while the scholastics believed that the natural law could generate specific moral norms, concrete specification of these moral norms was not their project. Rather, they viewed the natural law primarily as a capacity for moral discernment. This means that the natural law should not be understood primarily as a timeless list of detailed moral do's and don'ts. By grounding this approach in a theological vision of morality, Porter believes the scholastic approach can avoid the pitfalls of the classicist world view as well as some of the legitimate post-modern critiques of attempts to specify what "nature" is and/or dictates in concrete moral living. The primary value of the Thomistic approach may not be so much of a complete system of universal ethical norms as a way to reflect theologically about human morality. She also makes a number of valuable observations on the deficiencies of the Grisez-Finnis Basic Goods Theory as well as including some helpful ideas on the possibility of moral pluralism by bringing Aquinas into conversation with the late Jacques Dupuis' theology of religious pluralism.
In her concluding chapter (the strongest in my opinion) Porter argues that the Thomistic account can bridge both the traditional Protestant approach to the distinctively Christian grounding of ethics in Scripture and theology with the Catholic approach which stresses the rational capacity to arrive at moral judgments. As examples of each she shows how Stanley Hauerwas and Richard McCormick can both be "right" and complement each other's approach to ethics.
Stylistically the book is not easy reading. The inherent complexity of the material itself is further encumbered by a lot of ponderous repetition, sometimes word for word (e.g. compare footnote # 2 on p. 55 with # 73 on p. 106). Experts in the field will be very grateful for this meticulousness, but the attention to so much detail often makes reading the work for the development of the main points rather too difficult for the uninitiated. A stronger editor might have enabled Porter to let go of everything she's read and thought and instead focus more on her key points. Such a book might be read more widely, and have a much longer shelf-life. As it is, I fear that this book will be taken up largely by experts in the field and the more dedicated graduate students, though their efforts made to engage this book will certainly be well-rewarded.