Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law

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Written on the Heart:

The Case for Natural Law

by J. Budziszewski

InterVarsity Press 1997 252 pages $15.99

The canard that free-market economists are so narrowly focused on economic concerns that they miss the big picture seems as indestructible as it is indefensible. It was Ludwig von Mises, after all, who said that one cannot be a good economist if he is only an economist. Indeed, there are things higher than economics that do have a bearing on how an economic system should be properly ordered. Written on the Heart spells out what those higher things are and why they justify economic freedom.

This book, however, was not written primarily to shed light on the best way to fashion an economy. It is, rather, a primer on natural law philosophy. It discusses the main tenets of three seminal thinkers in this tradition: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. After comparing the views of the three, the author then examines the utilitarian position of John Stuart Mill, which helped move moral philosophy away from natural law thinking.

Just what does natural law philosophy have to say about the proper role of government? Aristotle's teaching that government exists to make men virtuous looks like an invitation to an overbearing state. However, the author, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, shows that Aquinas qualified this somewhat, contending that the state should not seek to extirpate all vices but "only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others." This formulation still leaves much to be desired. To most people, for instance, the drinking of alcoholic beverages would scarcely qualify as a "grievous vice," but unfortunately the author, showing more courage than wisdom, denies that Prohibition was an instance in which banning a vice did more harm than good. This will hardly help to promote natural law thinking.

Just how far short of the standards set by natural law thinking current legislative practice falls is clearly demonstrated by Aquinas's definition of law as "an ordinance of practical reason, for the common good, made by those who have care of the community, and promulgated or made known." With so many legislative enactments serving special interests rather than the common good, and so few such measures fully understood even by the legislators who vote on them, the amount of twentieth-century American legislation that meets all these criteria would probably fit in a volume not much larger than one issue of The Freeman. …