Academics and students gather to evaluate the American project from the perspective of natural law

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute hosted a conference on Notre Dame’s campus entitled “Natural Law and the American Order” aimed at understanding the compatibility of the American project and the natural law tradition. The conference took place from February 11th-12th, primarily in McKenna Hall. Attendees included students and academics from the University of Notre Dame, Hillsdale College, Louisiana State University , and the University of Dallas. Speakers included a slate of prominent political theorists who led several panel discussions and seminars. The conference was organized by Notre Dame sophomore Luke Dardis.

According to the mission statement of the conference, it sought “to provide students with an overview of American political philosophy and allow them to deepen this understanding through seminars with top scholars.” In an interview with the Rover, Dardis outlined his vision for what participants would gain from attending, saying, “I wanted them to take away a brief but concise understanding of natural law from the experts, and contextualize it in the American project through Tocqueville and the Federalists. [The founders] don’t necessarily quote Thomas [Aquinas], but their principles are sufficiently similar that one can form a regime which conforms to the natural law without going the Catholic confessional state route.”

The conference—commonly referred to as “DardisCon”—invited participants to consider the American founding in light of “the relationship between natural law and common law, the context of this relationship in the American project, and the methodology to address crises within this project.” To address these topics, the conference brought in speakers such as Paul Ray, Philip Munoz, Sherif Girgis, Gabrielle Girgis, Jim Stoner, Daniel Burns, Adam Carrington, and Khalil Habib. 

The weekend began with a lecture by Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Studies Director Paul Ray, entitled “In Defense of American Locality: The Necessary Future of the Administrative State.” Ray evaluated the historic expansion of the administrative state, its effect on the common good, and what strategies opponents can use to combat its power. Dardis told the Rover that Ray was his inspiration for the conference. According to Dardis, Ray had expressed that he didn’t understand how post-liberals squared their critique of the American project with the idea that natural law can bring forth multiple regime determinations.

A Saturday morning panel discussion by Professors James Stoner and Sherif Girigs focused on the relationship between natural law and common law. They explored such questions as: “To what extent is the natural law discernible through pure reason? To what extent can common law in itself remain sufficient justification for law, or must it always reference first principles?” Professors Khalil Habib and Adam Carrington followed, speaking on the philosophical roots of the founding. Habib and Carrington were primarily interested in the continuity between the American project and the European political tradition, as well as the prominence of natural law in these two systems.

The afternoon opened with a panel discussion featuring Professors Gabrielle Girgis and Daniel Burns who spoke on critical threats to the American system and its ability to withstand them. Prof. Burns from the University of Dallas considered the growing threat of secularization in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s call to reject a secularized state, while retaining protections against inordinate involvement of religious structures in governance. Later participants had the opportunity to participate in smaller seminar discussions with presenters from the various panels. Seminars gave attendees the ability to ask questions pertaining to the professors’ presentation or consider broader questions of political theory beyond specified panel topics. 

The ISI Conference on Natural Law and the American Order concluded with a four-person panel addressing the broad questions the weekend sought to answer: “To what extent was and is the natural law part of the American order? Ought we aim to return to a natural law basis for our politics and, if so, what might this look like?” and “What is the relationship between natural rights and natural law?”

 Daniel Martin is a sophomore from Skippack, Pennsylvania in the Program of Liberal Studies. When not writing for the Rover, he philosophizes over why the existence of GrubHub robots opposes the natural law. Email for questions related to this article.

Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency