5. Aquinas and the Natural Law

While Augustine and Jesus offered principles for economic conduct, their teachings were never terribly specific in regard to our conduct on a larger scale, at least when talking about how to trade, what’s acceptable, what isn’t, things like that. The first significant thinker that many consider to be relevant to a more specific approach to economics would be Thomas Aquinas, the theologian and philosopher. Aquinas himself was a master of adapting classical thought into religious language and context understandable by scholars of the day.

Or at least…he unintentionally did. Aquinas, in truth, was never an economist at heart. He always fixated on ideas regarding man’s morality and ethics. However, his work was laced with hints of the ethics required for reliable and Christian economic practices.

But how does it start? According to the Acton Institute, Aquinas’ ideas start out in one particular place: natural law:

Aquinas’s economic thought is inseparable from his understanding of natural law. In his view, natural law is an ethic derived from observing the fundamental norms of human nature. These norms can be understood as the will of God for creation. An unlawful act is that which perverts God’s design for a particular part of His creation. Economic transactions, according to Aquinas, should be considered within this framework, since they occur as human attempts to obtain materials provided by nature to achieve certain ends.

For Aquinas, economics is not something that exists separate from morality, but is instead interlaced with morality and starts there. The first step to understanding morality is understanding the minds of men and their particular nature. In Aquinas’ mind, man is a being of Imago Dei; or rather, a being made in the Christian God’s image, albeit a flawed and limited one:

It is manifest that in man there is some likeness to God, copied from God as from an exemplar; yet this likeness is not one of equality, for such an exemplar infinitely excels its copy. Therefore there is in man a likeness to God; not, indeed, a perfect likeness, but imperfect. (Summa 1.93.1)

This implies certain inalienable ideas, such as freedom, morality and having the ability to reason. As such, this meant that man has to be held to their society’s standards, and that these behaviors also influence the laws and ideas. But what makes a law or practice acceptable? It’s based on what he sees as reasonable, and in line with his (or rather, Aristotle’s) view of the good.

But what makes conduct acceptable or not? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it as such:

Reason is comprised of two powers: one cognitive, the other appetitive. The cognitive power is the intellect, which enables us to know and understand. The intellect also enables us to apprehend the goodness a thing has. The appetitive power of reason is called the will. Aquinas describes the will as a native desire for the understood good. That is, it is an appetite that is responsive to the intellect’s estimations of what is good or choiceworthy (ST Ia 82.1; QDV 3.22.12). On this view, all acts of will are dependent on antecedent acts of intellect; the intellect must supply the will with the object to which the latter inclines. In turn, that object moves the will as a final cause “because the good understood is the object of the will, and moves it as an end” (ST Ia 82.4).

So conduct must be reasonable and in accordance with the natural desire for the good, or rather the best possible existence.

But how does that relate to economic behaviors? If you look back at Augustine’s thought process, he built up this ideal of fair trade and just ideals driving the pricing and reasoning for why one charged certain prices for certain things.

Think of it like this: objects have three prices in a store,The cost of the material; the cost of shipping it to the location and the price for selling/storing it in the store so the store makes some profit to cover storing it. Each one must be able to cover the related costs. But if one of the three agents involved were to suddenly raise their prices beyond a certain quotient, it could easily be categorized as unreasonable and therefore counter to the “good”.

In essence, this was Aquinas’ attempt to build a way to legally explore and think about what was good or moral in light of Christian morality without quoting chapter and verse explicitly and taking a more literalist approach to the Scripture.

This also allowed him to more thoughtfully define and elaborate on certain ideas, including property rights, division of labor; wealth and income policies; consumer protection and fair trade; and the distinction between usurious and licit financial returns.

(This will be elaborated in more detail in part 2.)