Aristotle and Maimonides on Virtue and Natural Law

Jonathan Jacobs

Abstract: This essay examines connections between two related clusters of issues. The first concerns fundamental matters of moral psychology and moral epistemology as treated by Aristotle and Maimonides. It explicates crucial differences in their conceptions of self-determination, virtue, the plasticity of character, and moral knowledge. The second cluster of issues concerns natural law. Are there grounds for regarding Maimonides’ understanding of Judaism as involving elements of natural law? How are we to understand the relationship between natural law and reasons for the commandments? What would be the merits of Judaism having a natural law dimension, and how should that dimension be characterized? I suggest respects in which Maimonidean moral thought (and Jewish moral thought more generally) indicates an approach to underwriting the objective validity and universal applicability of moral thought without involving natural law elements. This connects the question of natural law with issues of moral psychology and epistemology in the earlier portions of the essay.

Biography: Jonathan Jacobs is a professor of philosophy at Colgate University in New York. He is author of several books including Choosing Character: Responsibility for Virtue and Vice (Cornell, 2001), Dimensions of Moral Theory: An Introduction to Metaethics and Moral Psychology (Blackwell, 2002), and Aristotle's Virtues: Nature, Knowledge, and Human Good (Peter Lang, 2004). He has written widely on moral psychology and metaethics, as well as on topics and figures in medieval philosophy (chiefly Maimonides and Aquinas). He has served as director of the Division of the Humanities at Colgate University and he is a life member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. He has been John MacMurray Visiting Professor at the University of Edinburgh, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews.

Volume 2, Number 1 (Winter 2007) pp. 46-77