Volume 2, Issue 2, 2002
Two Views of Natural Law and the Shaping of Economic Science
In this paper I argue that differences between the ‘new moral science’ of the seventeenth century and scholastic natural law theory originated primarily from the skeptical challenge the former had to face. Pufendorf’s project of a scientia practica universalis is the paramount expression of an anti-skeptical moral science, a ‘science’ that is both explanatory and normative, but also anti-dogmatic insofar as it tries to base its laws on those basic phenomena of human life which, supposedly, are immune to skeptical doubt.
The main scholastic legacy to the new moral science is the dichotomy between an ‘intellectualist’ and a ‘voluntarist’ view of natural law (or between lex immanens and lex imposita). Voluntarism lies at the basis of both theological views, such as Calvinism, and political views, such as those of Hobbes and Locke. The need to counterbalance the undesirable implications of extreme voluntarism may account for much of the developments in ethics and politics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Scottish natural jurisprudence, which tried to find a middle way between skepticism and extreme voluntarism, is less secular and more empirical than received wisdom admits. There emerged, as one of its ‘accidental’ outcomes, a systematic, self-contained and empirical economic theory from the search for an empirically based normative theory of social life. The basic assumption of such a theory, namely, the notion of societal laws as embedded in trans-individual mechanisms, derives from the voluntarist view of natural law as ‘imposed’ law.
Later discussions of social issues in terms of ‘economic’ and ‘ethical’ reasons originated partly from a misreading ofthe Scottish natural jurisprudential framework of economic theory. Starting with this reconstruction, I try to shed some light on recent discussions about the role of ethics in economics.