Law's Virtues

Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society

Cathleen Kaveny

"A rich and, finally, polemical commentary on how Americans committed to Catholic teaching should respond morally and jurisprudentially to certain new moral problems."
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Can the law promote moral values even in pluralistic societies such as the United States? Drawing upon important federal legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, legal scholar and moral theologian Cathleen Kaveny argues that it can. In conversation with thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul II, and Joseph Raz, she argues that the law rightly promotes the values of autonomy and solidarity. At the same time, she cautions that wise lawmakers will not enact mandates that are too far out of step with the lived moral values of the actual community.

According to Kaveny, the law is best understood as a moral teacher encouraging people to act virtuously, rather than a police officer requiring them to do so. In Law’s Virtues Kaveny expertly applies this theoretical framework to the controversial moral-legal issues of abortion, genetics, and euthanasia. In addition, she proposes a moral analysis of the act of voting, in dialogue with the election guides issued by the US bishops. Moving beyond the culture wars, this bold and provocative volume proposes a vision of the relationship of law and morality that is realistic without being relativistic and optimistic without being utopian.

Table of Contents



Section I: Law as a Moral Teacher
1. Autonomy, Solidarity, and Law’s Pedagogy
2. Law and Morality: Understanding the Relationship

Section II: Life Issues and the Law
3. The Pro-Life Movement and the Purpose of Law
4. Bad Pedagogy, Bad Law: What FOCA Is—and Isn’t
5. Genetic Information and Razian Autonomy
6. Dying Gracefully
7. Dying Well, Assisted Suicide, and Constitutional Law

Section III: Voting, Morality, and the Law
8. Voting and Faithful Citizenship
9. Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility
10. Voting and Complicity in Wrongdoing

Concluding Reflections



"A rich and, finally, polemical commentary on how Americans committed to Catholic teaching should respond morally and jurisprudentially to certain new moral problems."—Journal of Religion

"Thought provoking."—Choice

"Moving beyond the 'culture wars' model of political engagement, Cathleen Kaveny digs deep in Law’s Virtues to deliver a must read for anyone who cares about the relationship of law and morality in our pluralistic society."—America Magazine

"Professor Kaveny's book is an excellent resource for understanding the relationsihp that ought to exist between law and ethics."—Health Progress

"Given [the author's] intellectual gifts and also her position as professor of both theology and law at a prominent Catholic University, the arguments of this book will very likely have an influence, especially in Catholic circles, during the presidential campaign season of 2016."—Kevin L. Flannery, First Things

"Cathleen Kaveny, a moral theologian and law professor, writes this book from the perspectives of a pro-life commitment and acceptance of some moral teaching function for law, and a deep respect for our pluralistic representative democracy with its recognition of individual freedom. Her scholarly, thoughtful, well-written, balanced exposition of the complex issue of the role of law and its application to the burning issues of abortion, euthanasia, and genetics is must reading for all those interested in this contemporary discussion."—Charles Curran, Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values, Southern Methodist University

"Through an impressive analysis that draws on her scholarly training in law and theology, Kaveny argues for a more nuanced view of how law can function as a moral teacher in a pluralistic society, reminding us that good lawmaking is practical, not merely theoretical, and the laws we make must teach lessons to ordinary people, not saints."—Vincent Rougeau, dean, Boston College Law School

"Seeing and championing the view that the law incorporates and inculcates morality, Kaveny balances this insight with realistic recognition of the limitations of law in a society marked by moral controversies. Intelligently, vigorously, and very specifically, she charts a course between legal laissez-faire and moral absolutism."—John T. Noonan Jr., Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

"Cathleen Kaveny's Law's Virtues offers a lively, carefully nuanced, freshly creative approach to law and morality in a pluralistic society. Here is a major contribution to substantive dialogue and debate on controversial issues, and a welcome model of respect for conversation partners."—Margaret Farley, Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, Yale University Divinity School

"Cathleen Kaveny's Law's Virtues is a wonderful book. It makes a clear, rich, nuanced, and compelling case for law's function as a moral teacher in a pluralistic society."—James F. Childress, University Professor and Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics, University of Virginia

"Law's Virtues is an important and timely book. As the US faces another presidential election, the fundamental questions Kaveny addresses about the relationship between law, moral theology, and political action will loom large before the public. In lucid prose, she explicates a convincing, broadly Thomistic theory of 'the law as teacher' and applies that theory to such vexing questions as abortion, euthanasia, and genetic testing. Moreover, she provides a truly traditional understanding of such misunderstood and frequently abused terms as 'intrinsic evil' and 'immoral cooperation.' Kaveny helps us to understand what it means for voting to be a moral act, and how to navigate our way through the culture wars using sound theology as a compass. This will be an important book to read during this election season and in the years to come."—Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, University of Chicago

"True to her title, the author aims to model ways to think of law as a teacher of virtue in a pluralistic society, thereby melding Aquinas’ classical reflection on virtue with the rich way legal theorist Joseph Raz assesses autonomy, enriched by John Paul II on solidarity. A tall order executed elegantly in prose accessible to all while deftly clarifying distinctions, expressly to counter the way ethical tools (like ‘intrinsically evil’) have been harnessed to misleading rhetorical use in ‘culture wars’ rather than used to illuminate taxing ethical issues. This painstaking study of the ways ethics and law intersect invites an illuminating exchange between theory and practice to guide citizens in voting as well as ethicists in assessing."—David Burrell, CSC, Hesburgh Professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the 2013 Catholic Press Association Book Award for Faithful Citizenship

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a JD and a PhD in religious ethics from Yale University. She is a regular columnist for Commonweal.

304 pp., 6 x 9

Sep 2012

304 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-932-4
Sep 2012

304 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-933-1
Sep 2012

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

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