Does natural law exist? What is it?

Does natural law exist?  What is it?

Natural law isn’t something talked about very much these days, except in Catholic theology, which has kept the teaching alive.  In this post I write about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the founder of modern natural law theory.  By the way, Aquinas is often just called Thomas, so when I refer to Thomas I’m not being overly familiar.

Not only is natural law not talked about these days, but it runs against the cultural current of the age: that you can’t judge other people’s values.  You can’t judge because, for many people, no culture is intrinsically better than another.  The same goes for values.  I taught natural law to undergraduates for several years, and I’m sure this affects my view of the cultural current.  The post that reflects on my teaching experience is on this site. 

Natural law doesn’t accept this relativity.  Some things are good for all people, and other things are bad for all people.  Not just good or bad just for others, but for yourself. 

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas (1225-1274) is the exemplary natural law theorist.  Not the first, but the one who most fully developed its implications.  Thomas believes that natural law is given to us by God, but Hugo Grotius coming along four centuries later is closer to the mark when he says

What we have been saying [about natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him. (Grotius 1964, Prolegomena, II) 

I can make the same point another way by saying that Thomas would reject Dostoyevsky’s saying, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.”  Just by being human we know some things are right and some things are wrong.  Of course, lots of people do wrong knowingly, and some do wrong and think it’s right.  Thomas allows room for what he calls

a perverted reason due to passion or due to evil habit or due to an evil disposition of nature. (ST I-II, 76, 1)

What does the natural law say?  

Do good, avoid evil, but since that is a little vague (a lot vague), Thomas gets down to specifics.  Doing good means:

  • Preserve human life and avoid its destruction.
  • Foster marriage and the sound upbringing of children.
  • Educate and care for the children.
  • Preserve community and avoid giving unnecessary offense to others. 
  • Respect private property except in exceptional circumstances, such as when the community is starving, and rich people are hoarding food.  Then the community is justified in treating the property of individuals as though it belonged to the entire community (ST I-II, 94, 2).  You could take this way of thinking quite a ways if you like, but I’ll let you work out how far to extend this aspect of the natural law.

It’s easy to see how Thomas would be led to the conclusion that humans seek to preserve their own lives, because our own lives are good.  But how does Aquinas so quickly reach the conclusion that it is equally good to preserve the lives of others?  Because for Aquinas, the good isn’t just my life.  The good is life, because life is not merely a private possession, but a shared good (ST I-II, 94, 2).

We are not just isolated individuals.  We belong to a community of others to whom we owe our lives, from parents to farmers to soldiers, and by extension to teachers and so forth—all those who  make our lives possible and worth living.  At least that’s the ideal.  Thomas lived in a simpler society, but you get the idea: from birth to death we owe each other almost everything, even if we don’t often think of it that way.  There are no self-made men or women.  Jeff Bezos got rich off of the work of thousands, from warehouse workers to mailmen. 

One can reduce Aquinas’ teachings to three lessons, even if that is not the whole story:

  • Preserve life
  • Parental responsibility for rearing and educating children
  • Pursue knowledge and sociability.

About these lessons, Howard Kainz (p 22) says that “this might be interpreted minimally as social consciousness, maximally as love.”  Love not only of others, but of the knowledge of what others are going through.  In one version of the legend of the Holy Grail,* the vessel belongs to the seeker who first asks its guardian, a king paralyzed by a painful wound, “What are you going through?”  That knowledge requires paying attention to others.  Attention turns us from ourselves, opening us to the experiences of other people.  One might almost call that love.  Certainly, it is a form of knowledge too little practiced. 

The most important virtue

If we know what the good is, then what’s the most important thing to have?  Something that will get you closer to the good.  For Thomas, that is pity (misericordia in Latin). 

Pity, says Aquinas, is grief or sorrow over someone else’s distress, precisely insofar as one understands the other’s distress as similar to one’s own.  “Among the virtues that relate us to our neighbor pity is the greatest.” (ST II-II, 30, 4)  Today pity is generally looked down on.  Sometimes it’s an insult, such as “I pity you,” said with a tone of contempt. 

Thomas understood that only in communities of mutual need can the care we extend toward others stem from a genuine distress at their suffering, what is called pity or compassion.  It might even be called love of neighbor.  This works, of course, only when people recognize their dependency on others.  Almost everything in American society and culture works against this recognition. 

One other thing about pity is worth noticing.  To live in a community of recognized mutual need is generally the most satisfying life for those who give as well as receive.  We learn this in that first community, the family, but the principle is universal.

The limits of pity 

Trouble is, many of us don’t live in communities, and some of those most in need of pity live half a world away.  This is what makes imagination so important: imagination and a little bit of effort to inform oneself.  Today, pursuing knowledge and sociability, as Thomas puts it, includes informing oneself about the lives of others, so pity might have something to work with.  There is enough suffering around the world that it doesn’t take much work to find worthy objects of our compassion, which is probably a better translation of misericordia.


* The Holy Grail is traditionally the cup from which Jesus drank the wine at the last supper.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica [A Treatise on Theology].  References to the Summa are given as ST I, ST I-II, or ST II-II.

Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace.  Wiley, 1964.  [original 1625]

Howard Kainz, Natural Law: An Introduction and Re-examination.  Open Court Publishing, 2004.  

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