Front Page Titles (by Subject) Aquinas: Natural Right or Natural Law? - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Aquinas: Natural Right or Natural Law? - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Aquinas: Natural Right or Natural Law?
“On Thomistic Natural Law: The Bad Man’s View of Natural Right.” Political Theory 7(February 1979):101–22
Goerner criticizes the usual characterization of St. Thomas Aquinas as a natural-law thinker (that is, as a thinker who believes that whether an act is right or not depends upon whether it conforms to universally valid moral laws). For Aquinas, natural law is subordinate to natural right, that is, subordinate to the judgment that a virtuous man would make.
Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae deals, in its First Part, with God and his creative work. The Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, dealing with principle of human action, contains Aquinas’s “Treatise on the Law.” Goerner argues that we must focus on this “Treatise” not by itself, but within the context of the Summa Theologiae as a whole. In Part One Aquinas says that God governs the universe by a providence that deals with individuals; in short, God does not govern the world by law. In Part Two, Aquinas points out that insofar as man acts in accordance with virtue, he realizes himself in the latent image of God. But since man is defective— either due to ignorance or sin—he cannot always act out of virtue. Therefore, Aquinas needs a way whereby God, who must achieve His purposes, can achieve His order. This way is by law, which is a corrective for the defect in man. This is why Aquinas says in Part Two that God governs the world as a law-maker. Whereas virtue is an internal principle governed by love of the good; law, whether human or divine, is an external principle governed by fear of punishment. Given man’s weak nature, God must rely on the latter. Thus Aquinas’s notion of virtue takes primacy in the sense that the perfect is theoretically prior to the imperfect.
Someone might argue, however, that although Aquinas thinks of virtue and law as different (with regard to the motive for following them) their content is the same. Goerner claims there is a difference here as well. Law, whether human or divine, or the natural law which is man’s participation in divine law, is an indirect way of governing affairs, a way that applies to beings who have free choice and reason, and yet who will not always be virtuous. This being so, law can only converge towards the judgment of the virtuous sage. Natural law will thus consist of relatively crude rules which will explain the consequences of certain behavior so that wrong conduct can be eventually corrected. Aquinas illustrates this by referring to the German robbers who eventually came to see that robbery had to be prohibited if there was to be any sort of long-term productive society. Since natural law can even be appropriate for bad men, its content will have to be fairly general, rough and ready; it will not have the subtlety and discrimination necessary for handling difficult cases.