The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Natural Law

  • N. E. Simmonds
Reference work entry


It is not uncommon to find the term ‘natural law’ being applied to any philosophical theory that espouses a belief in the ‘objectivity’ of moral standards, or the possibility of moral knowledge. If we avoid this inflated usage, however, and seek to identify a natural law tradition that is to some extent distinct from other cognitivist moral theories, it is probably best to identify such a tradition in terms of three basic features. First, natural law theories regard morality as, in some sense, a body of precepts. Even if the theory has a broadly teleological character, it will not have a nakedly maximizing structure: rather, the teleology will serve to justify a body of rules or standards. Secondly, natural law theories take juridical equality as a fundamental assumption: men are assumed to be of equal standing before the law of nature. Even when the theory serves to justify unequal rights in the real circumstances of society, those unequal rights are justified by reference to principles that treat everyone equally. The tension between natural rights and positively established rights which is therefore implicit in the idea of juridical equality finds expression in the third basic feature of natural law theories: the way in which they approach the relationship between natural law and the positive law enacted by men. Natural law represents the ultimate objective foundation by reference to which positive laws must be evaluated. But positive law is nevertheless necessary, and is far more than just an imperfect reflection of natural law. Positive laws are required in part to induce compliance with standards that would not otherwise receive the obedience of weak or evil men; but they are required also to give concrete detail to the general requirements of natural law. Natural law may require, for example, that conduct in certain areas of social life should be co-ordinated, but it will not necessarily specify the precise form that that co-ordination should take: natural law therefore requires the existence of positive law as a body of publicly ascertainable rules making co-ordination possible.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • N. E. Simmonds
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  1. 1.