Natural Law and Modern Economic Theory

Article excerpt

The concept of natural law is pervasive in academic discussions of ethics, politics, and jurisprudence. However, it is much more difficult to unearth the influence of and relationship between natural law and modern economic theory within current scholarly dialogue. This unfortunate lacuna in scholarship is inter alia due to the facts that natural law suffers from an inherent ambiguity as to whether its foundations are religious and it lacks any rigorous scientific validation. This article defends and advances the importance of natural law for modern economic theory. In doing so, it presents the classical view of natural law as found in the work of Thomas Aquinas and addresses both its religious foundations as well as scientific evidence for its existence. Beyond offering a portrait and defense of natural law, this article discusses the specific contributions that natural law offers to modern economic theory in an attempt to imbue the latter with a more complete notion of humanity and existence.


The popularity of the concept of natural law cannot be doubted. It is used by both scholars and nonacademics of all genres in a wide variety of contexts and discussions. Beyond its contemporary use (or misuse!), natural law--the claim that universal and nonconventional dictates of right and wrong exist within nature (1)--has enjoyed a long and distinguished history. In the Western intellectual tradition, (2) the centrality of natural law as a ground for morals and politics captivated the ancient Greek and Roman intellectuals and continued to influence politico-juridical discussions throughout the medieval, modern, and contemporary eras. While the pervasive influence of natural law to discussions of ethics, politics, and jurisprudence is well documented, (3) it is much more difficult to unearth the influence of and relationship between natural law and modern economic theory within current scholarship. (4)

The paucity of scholarship regarding the relationship between natural law and economic theory in current scholarship may be due to several factors. Within intellectual history, natural law has been primarily advanced within theories of ethics, political obligation, and jurisprudence. (5) Few have therefore developed or investigated a connection between natural-law premises and economic theory. (6) Further, there is an inherent ambiguity within natural law as to whether its foundations are religious. (7) As such, advocates of modern economic theory, insofar as this theory is nonreligious, would suggest that there is little of use in a natural-law framework that, in their view, is primarily faith based and therefore nonscientific. Lastly, natural law suffers from a lack of attempts at empirical validation, leaving it as the substance of academic debate and historical investigation but of little social, political, and economic value. (8)

This current state of affairs is unfortunate and unnecessary. Neither the lack of investigation into the link between natural law and economic theory nor the prevalence or lack thereof of its religious foundations necessarily deny any fruitful connection between natural law and modern economic theory. As Morse (1998) has argued, modern economic theory and natural law share several areas of common ground that would allow "natural-law thinking" to make a "significant point of entry into dialogue with modern economics." (9) Even more pointed is Piedra's argument for the subordination of economics to the moral norms of natural law:

   It is true that the formal object of economics is concerned with
   the dynamics of change and the production of goods and services.
   But economics, being a social science, is also concerned with the
   knowledge of means and results in relation to a desired goal. If
   the economic process rests on free actions of men which are not
   "naturally" determined, then ... economic science cannot renounce
   the prerogative of being a practical science oriented by a
   scientifically established and founded norm, and to this extent of
   being normative. …