Resisting current academic trends, a small but hardy group of American scholars is promoting an academic tradition that emphasizes making moral decisions based on precepts that are accessible to all, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof.

The American Public Philosophy Institute (APPI) promotes natural law theory, which members argue served as an underpinning to the public philosophy of America's founding fathers. Natural law theory has implications far beyond the ivory tower of the academy, according to APPI's members.

“Natural law is an effort to identify bodies of reasons why people choose one way of action and morality over another for specific moral and political problems,” said Robert George, a political science professor at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

APPI sponsors conferences in Washington on public policy issues such as the family and homosexuality, as well as smaller, more scholarly gatherings on religious liberty and secularism, where those who attend try to deepen their understanding of natural law issues.

During the past 30 years especially, “American liberal philosophy has tried to winnow out pre-liberal philosophy, such as natural law,” said Christopher Wolfe, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The mixture (of liberalism and natural law) has made American political philosophy healthy,” he said.

In gaining legal abortion rights throughout the country, for example, lawyers and politicians have used liberal and utilitarian arguments effectively. Wolfe, the chairman of Marquette's political science department, called such trends “bad news for the nation.”

“Colleges and universities are educating people in ways that are problematic to society,” said Wolfe, who said he usually avoids making generalizations about higher education. “Positivists argue that they can know facts, but they disparage values…when they (educate students in that way) colleges become part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” he said.

Founded in 1989, APPI has a “core group” of about a dozen members, but 350 people attended last year's conference on homosexuality and public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, said Wolfe, who is the Institute's president.

While APPI exercises less influence than the American Enterprise Institute or the Brookings Institute, the Institute is “heard and respected,” said Gerard Bradley, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and APPI's vice president.

Most APPI members are professors of history, law, philosophy, or political philosophy, Wolfe said.

The “overwhelming majority” of APPI members are Catholic, but the group is not partisan or sectarian, said George. He noted that evangelical Protestant academics are showing more interest in natural law theory, and APPI members want to encourage that by inviting them to conferences, reviewing their books, and sharing their work with them.

They also want to work with Jewish scholars such as Rabbi David Novak, a professor of modern Jewish studies at University of Toronto, George said. Germain Grisez of Mt. St. Mary's College in Emmittsburg, Md., whom George considers the leading contemporary natural law thinker, supervised Novak's doctoral dissertation.

Novak has developed the “idea of the rational commandment,” which looks for the reasons behind the Ten Commandments, George said.

“We're willing to sit down with anyone who has a competing point of view,” to explain natural law theory, George said.

And that is just what they're doing. At APPI conferences, natural law backer John Finnis of Oxford University has debated with Syracuse University's Stephen Macedo and his liberal theories on sexual morality; Jorge Garcia of Rutgers University in New Jersey has represented the theistic point of view in a debate against University of Pennsylvania's Michael Moore, an atheist.

On October 1-2, APPI is holding a conference in Washington on “Reining in Judicial Imperialism: Limiting the Judiciary to Its Constitutional Powers.” Speakers such as Hadley Arkes from Amherst College and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, will talk about the Supreme Court's broad claims of its contemporary role in American politics, such as in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an important abortion rights decision.

Proceedings from APPI conferences have been published by Georgetown University Press, Oxford University Press, and Roman and Littlefield, a New Jersey-based publisher. Spence Publishing Co., a Dallas-based publisher that started last year, is printing a volume on the homosexual conference early next year, and a companion book may follow, Wolfe said.

The legacy of ancient and medieval thinkers associated with natural law — most prominent among them Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas — is part of the “baggage natural law has to carry,” in that many scholars are “intolerant” of the theories and think that no prominent, contemporary scholars espouse them, Wolfe said.

In APPI's statement of purpose, the officers wrote that “this project is not a ‘restorationist’ one. Articulating a public philosophy is an on-going task. We do not pretend that the public philosophy on which the United States was founded was completely adequate.

“Both its intrinsic limitations or defects and the changes of circumstances in the last two centuries may require creative efforts to formulate that original public philosophy, to improve it, and render it adequate to the exigencies of our own time.”

Despite widespread opposition to natural law thought in the academy, “it's not dangerous to be involved in APPI,” for a young faculty member who wants to gain a tenured position, Wolfe said. “If there were any doubt about where you stood, that would remove it. You tend to be judged by your scholarly work,” he told the Register.

“We fought our way in,” said George, who is an APPI director. He argues that his success at Princeton, as well as that of Finnis at Oxford and Bradley at Notre Dame, shows that natural law is a “serious challenger to secular liberal thought.”

“Twenty years ago, that didn't happen,” said George, the author of Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press. “The views we're associated with can't be dismissed.”

To expand APPI's work and make it more effective, Wolfe would like the nonprofit to have a stronger financial base. Grants from foundations have helped APPI carry out its mission, but more money could help them broaden their work by offering post graduate fellowships, Wolfe said.

Added George: “We need to encourage more good students to take the risk of embarking on graduate school. A few hardy souls are willing to tough it out,” but many qualified young scholars end up going to law school or pursuing another vocational trade.

He nonetheless added that he and the other core members of APPI are “just entering middle age,” so they have many years left in the academy.

For more information about APPI, go to public philosophyinsti. htm

William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.