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Natural Law

Natural law is a theory in ethics and philosophy that says that human beings possess intrinsic values that govern our reasoning and behavior. Natural law maintains that these rules of right and wrong are inherent in people and are not created by society or court judges.

  • The theory of natural law says that humans possess an intrinsic sense of right and wrong that governs our reasoning and behavior.

  • The concepts of natural law are ancient, stemming from the times of Plato and Aristotle.

  • Natural law is constant throughout time and across the globe because it is based on human nature, not on culture or customs.

Natural law holds that there are universal moral standards that are inherent in humankind throughout all time, and these standards should form the basis of a just society. Human beings are not taught natural law per se, but rather we “discover” it by consistently making choices for good instead of evil. Some schools of thought believe that natural law is passed to humans via a divine presence. Although natural law mainly applies to the realm of ethics and philosophy, it is also used extensively in theoretical economics.

Natural Law vs. Positive Law

The theory of natural law believes that our civil laws should be based on morality, ethics, and what is inherently correct. This is in contrast to what is called "positive law" or "man-made law," which is defined by statute and common law and may or may not reflect the natural law.

Examples of positive law include rules such as the speed that individuals are allowed to drive on the highway and the age that individuals can legally purchase alcohol. Ideally, when drafting positive laws, governing bodies would base them on their sense of natural law.

Examples of Natural Law in Philosophy and Religion

  • Aristotle (384–322 BCE)—considered by many to be the father of natural law—argued that what is “just by nature” is not always the same as what is “just by law.” Aristotle believed that there is a natural justice that is valid everywhere with the same force; that this natural justice is positive, and does not exist by "people thinking this or that."

  • For St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/25–1274 CE), natural law and religion were inextricably connected. He believed that natural law "participates" in the divine "eternal" law. Aquinas thought eternal law to be that rational plan by which all creation is ordered, and natural law is the way that human beings participate in the eternal law. He further posited that the fundamental principle of natural law is that we should do good and avoid evil.

  • The author C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) explained it this way: “According to the religious view, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than anything else we know… it is conscious, and has purposes and prefers one thing to another. There is a 'something' which is directing the universe, and which appears to me as a law urging me to do right.” (Mere Christianity, pg. 16–33)

Philosophers of natural law often do not explicitly concern themselves with economic matters; likewise, economists systematically refrain from making explicit moral value judgments. Yet the fact that economics and natural law are intertwined has been borne out consistently in thehistory of economics. Because natural law as an ethical theory can be understood to be an extension of scientific and rational inquiry into how the world works, the laws of economics can be understood as natural laws of how economies “should” operate. Moreover, to the extent that economic analysis is used to prescribe (or proscribe) public policy or how businesses ought to conduct themselves, the practice of applied economics must rely at least implicitly on some sort of ethical assumptions.

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