Bonae litterae and business law

Note: This is the second of several blog posts devoted to Week 6/Module 6 of my business law summer course.

I begin my ethics & morality module with the following legal philosophy question: What is the relation between law and morality? Specifically, are they two separate and distinct domains (the “legal positivist” view), or is law a branch of morality (the “natural law” view)? After I explore both sides of this deep legal philosophical question, I then identify a huge blind spot in the natural law tradition–one that hits close to home as I consider myself a classical natural lawyer in the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas. The blind spot is this: even if there is such a thing as a timeless or universal God-given higher law (cf. the Declaration of Independence of 1776 or MLK’s famous “letter from a Birmingham jail”), how do we go about discovering the actual content of this natural law?

In other words, natural lawyers like myself are still going to need a substantive theory of ethics to tell us the difference between right and wrong and thus help us figure out what man-made rules and behaviors are consistent with natural law. (For the record, legal positivists will also need to study ethics; the leading legal positivist, the late great H.L.A. Hart, for example, famously pictured the law from “the internal point of view”–i.e. the subjective viewpoint of judges and other public officials–and this internal POV therefore allows ethics and morality to slip into the positivist legal picture through the backdoor, so to speak.) Accordingly, the next part of my ethics & morality module explores several major theories of ethics (or, what I like to call collectively “The Big Three”), beginning with crude consequentialism and utility maximization, then proceeding with hardcore Kantian duties and categorical imperatives, and concluding with ancient Aristotelian virtue ethics. I not only introduce my students to these three major theories of ethics; I also discuss the main strengths and weaknesses of each moral theory.

Why do I introduce my students to the major theories of ethics? For two reasons. One is to show them the leading alternatives to consequentialism, but the other (more important) reason has to do with the way in which I conceive the role of a university as well as my role as a scholar. To the point, at a minimum my job as a professor and the role of universities generally should be to cultivate what the great Erasmus of Rotterdam (whose portrait is pictured below) referred to as the bonae litterae (or “good learning”) of our students, and what better way of imparting this good learning by spending time on two of the most important aspects of the liberal arts tradition: ethics and morality, right and wrong, good and bad.

With this liberal arts/bonae litterae background in mind, I will discuss the moral status of animals in my next blog post (a topic that is especially relevant to the Tiger King docuseries), then proceed into business ethics and say a few words about the legal regulation of sex (remember all that polygamy in Tiger King!), and conclude with my course’s final project.

File:Portrait of Boniface Amerbach, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg

Artist Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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