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Natural Law: The Foundation Of An Orderly Economic System

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Natural Law: The Foundation Of An Orderly Economic System by Alberto M. Piedra, is sixth in the Acton Institute’s Studies in Ethics and Economics series, edited by Samuel Gregg. The preface to the series states that:

Economics as a discipline cannot be detached from a historical background that was, it is increasingly recognized, religious in nature. Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith drew on the works of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish theologians, who strove to understand the process of exchange and trade in order to better address the moral dilemmas they saw arising from the spread of commerce in the New World. After a long period in which economics became detached from theology and ethics, many economists and theologians now see the benefit of studying economic realities in their full cultural, often religious, content. The new series, Studies in Ethics and Economics, provides an international forum for exploring the difficult theological and economic questions that arise in pursuit of this objective.

Alberto Piedra presents a wonderful case in Natural Law for placing what he calls “natural law” or “divine law” as the focus for ordering society. He sees that human reason has replaced natural law as the focus for ordering society, and that this is detrimental to the human dignity and freedom of many members of society.

Here’s how Piedra describes the purpose of the book:

The purpose of this book is to review some of these basic issues that are related to man as the principal agent of economic activity and to his role in society: issues which are crucial for the preservation of freedom and human dignity. [p. 5]

First of all, one has to ask: What is natural&#8212or divine&#8212law? Piedra makes the point that divine law was the law by which the Creator wished the world to be governed&#8212or more simply the understanding given us by God of what is right and what is wrong&#8212or even what to do and what to avoid.

Piedra traces the thought that God&#8212or the gods&#8212have ordered certain things that are right to do and other things that are to be avoided for the ordering of society, from the Old Testament Judeo-Christian tradition through the Greek philosophers and the early Christian writers&#8212highlighted by the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that natural law was the eternal law in human nature. Natural law, then, is the idea that there were certain God-given rules by which to order society, and following these made for an orderly society that protected the dignity and freedom of all members of the society.

This idea of a natural, God-given law by which to order society remained the way many agreed society should be ordered until the French enlightenment, headed by Descartes, began to replace natural law with human reason as the rule for ordering society. Piedra does an excellent, scholarly job tracing the rise of human reason and how different philosophers added their own thoughts to the idea of the preeminence of human reason.

Piedra feels that the problem with human reason, instead of a natural, God-given law, being the rule by which to order society is that human reason is inherently selfish (do we dare say sinful?), and that the rights and human dignity of some are trampled by others asserting their own will&#8212which to them seems reasonable. Many of the philosophers during The Enlightenment period felt that, freed from a God-given law to order society, mankind could create a good and orderly society based upon their own reason. Piedra shows that this has not happened, and, in his view, will not. The only answer for an orderly society is a return to natural, of God-given, laws by which to order society by, and thus protect the rights and freedoms of all. As he looks into the future and increasing globalization, Piedra feels that this is the only way to care for all people and all nations.

I found Natural Law to be an excellent, scholarly attempt to show the importance of ordering societies by natural, God-given rules that help protect the rights and dignity of all people. By researching the philosophies of natural law and human reason Piedra shows the outcomes of each, and, I believe, shows that a natural, God-given law will assist in ordering society so that the rights of all will be protected. As we struggle with economic issues such as poverty, homelessness, and a rising cost of living on the one hand, and many living in luxury on the other, a return to a natural, God-given law from which to order society that will protect the rights and humanity of all people might be the answer many are looking for.

It certainly can’t hurt!

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About Rev Bill

  • Natural law theory has come completely unstuck and even discredited in the modern world. For the divisions that exist are contrary to any conception of a common, universal moral good within human nature. In fact just the contrary is all too apparent. That the best moral intentions can result in evil and thus human nature must itself be limited, not in its moral aspiration, but the means to reflect that potential in understanding and the integrity of conduct. That is to say that human nature is itself not moral.

  • I could not agree more. I do feel, however, that when the “natural, God given law” (Piedra’s term, not mine) is followed that there is a better chance for the rights of all to be protected. Unfortunately, many who claim to want a more Godly order of society only end up pushing their views — which do not protect anyone but themselves.
    There is not perfect answer — but seeking God’s true will of love for God and love for others might help!

  • I don’t think repeating the phrase “natural, God-given law” so often in your review will have the effect you desire. The “ordering of society” by Reason – the paradigm that defined the Enlightenment – has certainly brought us no more selfish, arrogant, or bloody societies than did the societies organized by reference to God’s will.

    The problem is that, sooner or later, in any society, God’s will or the Reason of Man must be interpreted by humans. Then, in my opinion, is when the “rights and human dignity of some are trampled by others.”

    Justification by “God’s will” or by “reasonable right” is easy enough to make, if you are the one interpreting the basic organizing instructions. It isn’t the source, it’s the application.