The Case for Natural Law


By Andy Duncan, Vice-Chairman of Mises UK

I’ve long been a natural law guy, in the sense that nature has endowed all of us (whether this is via a God, some Gods, or just plain old Darwinian evolution) with a basic set of behaviours we know to be good (e.g. do not steal other people’s property, do not murder other people, let other people be free so long as they’re not interfering with you directly, etc), often codified into early religions as ‘commandments’ of one sort or another, as human civilisation emerged from the Stone Age.

These ‘natural laws’ may purely be intra-tribal in that raw native state of a stone-age living human, and may not apply to extra-tribal people (such as those ugly Neanderthals on the other side of the mountain). However, the spread of society and civilisation is in my view the spread of these natural laws extra-tribally until all are governed by them. Whereas the destruction of society and civilisation is the opposite, particularly the actions of those people in the last 10,000 years often collectively known as ‘the state’, to steal other people’s stuff, murder other people, remove the freedoms of other people, etcetera, etcetera. I think this appeal of ‘natural law’, as codified by people such as St. Thomas Aquinas, has led to a particular appeal of Catholicism to many Austrians, via this link to Aquinas, and his own direct link back to Aristotle.

It fails to help, alas, that the current Pope is a communist. I would much prefer that Pope Benedict XVI was still the supreme Pontiff myself, but I still think that there is a natural affinity between Catholicism and Austrian Economics, and that it’s far from being a coincidence that Austrian Economics did finally arise in Austria, a Catholic country, even despite people such as Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Israel Kirzner (amongst others) being Jewish.

For Judaism seems to possess a strong basis in natural law itself, and of course via the Old Testament forms the basis of later Christianity and Catholicism.

However, I do think you can still believe in natural law without necessarily being religious. All sorts of higher-order animal societies (such as wolves, lions, and so on) are codified by certain behavioural patterns that all will generally obey, except in the most unusual circumstances. So, it is the ‘natural law’ of a pack of wolves to eat a human who strays too close, without breaking any ‘moral’ code of wolves. But if one wolf offers submission to another wolf at the end of a fight for male reproductive supremacy, then generally, the superior winning wolf will not kill the defeated and now submissive inferior wolf.

Even a pure believer in ‘The Selfish Gene’ can come to human natural law via simply the mechanism of genetic natural selection.

The problem for human society comes of course, when that group known as the state begins to impose fiat, positivist, or state laws, for their own loosely-connected group benefit, at the expense of all others under their military control. That is when aggression and hatred grows within and between different human groups. Whether we codify natural law into something such as the ‘NAP’ (non-aggression principle) or some other ‘libertarian’ philosophy, at the heart of our own march to a world of civilisation, peace, freedom, and property, should we accept that what we are trying to create is a natural law society? Or do we believe in game theory, the might of power, or some other human-societal-organising system?

(I have placed this article within Swithun Dobson’s new ‘Mises UK Forum’ and I would be interested to hear any of your thoughts on this within that forum. You can get a registered login on our new forum by visiting http://misesforum.com/.)

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4 comments

  • A couple of thoughts; I believe the basis of these laws is ultimately selfish. It is better for me that I do not try to kill you and steal your property, on the basis that you will be bound by the same rules not to do the same to me. It is better for me that I pay some of my money into a fund to support those who cannot support themselves, on the basis that I may one day find myself in that unfortunate position.
    Oh, and by the way I am fairly confident that wolves do not eat people – they have learned to be frightened of humans, as we kill them, purely because they traditionally pose a threat to our livestock.

  • Claiming the Ten Commandments were written by God simply afforded Moses more legitimacy when it came to enforcing them.

    But it didn’t need Moses’s Ten Commandments to tell us it wasn’t a good idea not to kill each other indiscriminatingly. It was simply a manifestation of human social evolution.

    People who live side by side together in harmony are more likely to survive and prosper than those who don’t, so respect for a ban on murder, becomes so widespread and ingrained, that we welcome a law against it, are more likely to co-operate in its’ enforcement, and to demand draconian punishments when it’s broken.

    Most Human Law including most of the Ten Commandments, is founded in some sort of ‘natural law’. And when it isn’t, it starts to break down and become unenforceable, or at least very difficult and costly in terms of money and lost human liberty to enforce.

    Hence the lack of respect for most law now. Many of the laws we have today, are regarded by the public as either pointless or oppressive. So they don’t respect them.

    We welcome laws on murder and on child abuse, but on the other hand we express hostility and ridicule when we discover that the State has been examining the contents of our dustbins to make sure we are obeying some rule or other, or is paying highly paid police officers to hide behind bushes, to see if we are driving at 5 miles an hour above the speed limit.

    The problem with laws, is that that the State is involved in making and enforcing them, and as ever, the interests of the State becomes paramount. So the State will inevitably make laws for its own convenience including just for the sake of employing more of its’ own kind to enforce them, and so that this army of like minded bureaucrats can bully others.

  • I have witnessed our police, once the envy of the civilised world, gradually morphing over the past few decades from public servants into government agents. Very sad.

  • Pingback: The Case for Natural Law | The Ludwig von Mises Centre – Truth Darts

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