Black Natural Law

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Vincent W. Lloyd
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Black Natural Law represents Vincent Lloyd’s attempt to intervene simultaneously in practices of black political engagement and the natural law traditions of Christian ethics. To his mind, these two need each other: natural law theory needs the self-aware situatedness of reflection on black life, while current pragmatic styles of black political engagement lack the integrity and depth of the reflection of their forebears. For Lloyd, these two can be reunited through reconstruction of the black natural law tradition, the threads of which are distinct from the largely Roman Catholic and Thomistic accounts that the term usually denotes. Thus, this book seeks to demonstrate “that African Americans have their own tradition of ethical and political reflection,” and that this tradition is not only autonomous from European and Catholic traditions: it “gets things right” where they go wrong (ix).

For Lloyd, several themes set apart the black natural law tradition. First, and paradoxically, the ineffability of human nature (158): to be created in the image of an infinite God, all attempts to describe whom ultimately fail, is just to be beyond essential description. This entails that we must “reject those views that would exclude certain classes of people from the category of the human,” since to believe that any such description comprehends human potential is to reduce the infinite to the finite (8).

Several other features seem follow from this. Where the white natural law tradition has reductively overemphasized, on Lloyd’s accounting, the rational character of human life, black natural law “appreciates the mix of reason, emotion, and imagination that makes up our humanity” (ix). As a result, Lloyd attends to his figures’ performative enactments of natural law, showing how these paradigmatic thinkers embody an ethical provocation that appeals to the whole person. Natural law is, therefore, not the result of lonely, rational introspection, but rather the inner telos of collaboration amongst a community seeking to promote human flourishing. This means, ultimately, that black natural law is critical and constructive: defined at once by ideology critique of the “ways of the world,” and by the struggle for what justice we may wring out of the structures of the world—the specter of mass incarceration looms over this text, receiving, finally, more explicit treatment in the conclusion and afterword.

Lloyd outlines this theory through a reading of Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These figures sing on Lloyd’s pages, incarnating in the poetry of their work the conscience of natural law theory without a whiff of its bloodless, rationalistic instances. In many of these interpretive moments, Lloyd is at his best: for instance, in reading Cooper according to the resources he has developed from interpreting her whole life and thought in this tradition, and against some other available accounts of her work, without lapsing into hagiography (56). Among its other virtues, this book rewards one’s effort for its display of Lloyd’s attentive explicating of these figures.

Yet Lloyd sometimes seems to shift registers in moving between his interpretive work and his constructive claims about black natural law. When discussing Du Bois, for example, Lloyd asserts that “to show that Du Bois is part of a natural law tradition, it is necessary to show that the normative judgments flow from the reflections on human nature. It is not necessary to show that Du Bois himself argues in this way; it is simply necessary to show that his account of human nature is capable of offering reasons for the normative judgments he advances” (59). In this moment and in several other places, the reader is left wondering whether “natural law”—a form of moral argument more specific than leaving implicit in normative judgments a possible connection to human nature—is the best description for this tradition of thought, or just how much these four figures can be thought to constitute a single normative tradition on these terms at all. Indeed, the constructive categories applied by Lloyd to these figures sometimes unearth new possibilities for reading them together; at other times, however, it appears that they fit into his categories uncomfortably.

It is possible that these moments of apparent mismatching result from Lloyd’s attempt to formulate the black natural law tradition according to criteria completely autonomous from its siblings in European and Catholic natural law theory. But the available options for understanding their relationship are not exhausted by autonomy or simple dependence: why not the interdependence of a true conversation, on which we would take King’s mentions of Thomas and Tillich, not as only rhetorical moves to appeal to a white audience, but as invocations of a tradition—not the only tradition!—that King receives, revises, and transmits? In this respect, Lloyd could be seen as expanding, rather than replacing, the natural law canon, relying on the epistemic privilege granted by black situatedness—discussed particularly in the chapter on Du Bois—to incorporate ideology critique into what is a set of norms otherwise predominantly used, whatever their potential, to reinforce the status quo.

Lloyd’s introduction and conclusion evoke Alasdair MacIntyre: what was once a tradition with intellectual integrity and critical power has become fractured. Lloyd attempts to reassemble the parts, refusing to be satisfied either with the accommodations to white natural law made by figures such as Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson nor with the apparent pragmatism of Barack Obama, especially since neither side possesses the resources adequately to address phenomena such as mass incarceration. In this, Lloyd’s book makes available a political theory drawing on the soul of Black religious life and thought that may offer new modes and methods for resistance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rick Elgendy is assistant professor of Christian ethics and public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vincent W. Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University and the author of "The Problem with Grace."



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