Montague Brown: The Role of Natural Law in a World of Religious and Political Diversity

The Role of Natural Law in a World of Religious and Political Diversity


The Role of Natural Law
in a World of Religious and Political Diversity

Montague Brown

Religion and politics, church and state—just to mention these things is to invite disagreement and perhaps even mutual suspicion.  It is not for nothing that they say the two subjects never to be brought up in polite society are religion and politics.  There is much wisdom in this adage, for within a group of social friends, or even within an extended family, there will be differences on these subjects.  And because these subjects are so big in our lives, we are at once defensive about our own position and loathe to offend others by challenging theirs.  When we do talk about these things, the conversation often turns to explosive challenges or icy silences, ending with hurt feelings.  That we therefore tend to avoid such discussions shows more than just politeness, I think.  It also shows sensitivity to the importance of freedom in choosing how we shall live.  We insist on our own freedom to choose those ultimate loyalties by which we think we can best guide our lives, and because of this, we don’t want to force other people to act against their freedom of conscience.  On the other hand, precisely because these things are so important, covering all aspects of how we order our lives, we ought to talk about them.  If we really want what is best for ourselves and for those we love, then we should, at least at some times, talk about what we think would be best.  And certainly, such conversation is necessary on the world stage, where conflicts involving injustice and violence have been, and still are, perpetrated in the name of religious and political ideals.  I propose, as a way to negotiate such a mine field of commitments, that we turn to those things on which we do agree, those fundamentally human things—what has often been called the natural law.  In the first section of this paper, after addressing briefly the kinds of conflicts that have arisen due to strong religious beliefs or political commitments, I shall examine the general principles of natural law and how they relate to religion and politics.  In the second section, I shall turn to more specific matters concerning our obligations to others: what they are, their degree, and how far they extend.[1]




Historically, there have been many cases of injustice and persecution in the name of politics or religion.  Secular states have persecuted religious believers, from the Roman persecutions of Christians to the Nazi persecution of Jews to the Communist persecutions of all religious believers.  But persecutions have also been carried out in the name of religion.  Think of all the religious conflicts throughout history: the forced spread of Islam, the Christian Crusades against Islam, and the wars of religion among Christians of the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth centuries.  Unfortunately, such conflicts are not things of the past.  On a good note, the violence between and Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland has abated of late.  But the tension between Jews and Moslems in the Middle East is far from resolved.  There are frictions between Hindis and Moslems in India and Pakistan.  Communist governments still severely restrict and in some cases prohibit religious practices in China and North Korea.  And, of course, we face a major world-wide conflict between Islamic radicals and the West, which includes all the permutations of religious and political disagreements.     

                Since it is unlikely that we will all ever share precisely the same political views or convert to one religion, we need to find a basis on which to establish cooperation and peace.  The natural law is such a basis.  As a moral theory, natural law ethics is grounded in the great philosophical tradition stemming from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  From the Greeks, it was passed on by the Roman Stoic philosophers,  developed by the philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, and is still very much alive today in the work of such thinkers as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert George.  But natural law ethics is not unique to the west.  The basic principles of the natural law can be found in virtually all cultures and religions, east and west, north and south, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out in his book The Abolition of Man.  This is because the principles of the natural law are basic to human reason itself.  There are no people who do not have access to them and no cultures that do not, in fact, make use of them.  In order to indicate the universality of natural law, Lewis refers to it as the Tao, drawing from the great Chinese tradition of moral thought.  As Lewis says, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call the Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value.  It is the sole source of all value judgments.”[2]  This universality makes the natural law suitable for building bridges between various religious and political positions.

                The importance of natural law in ethical matters has long been recognized by the Catholic Church.  Thus, in the second century, the theologian St. Irenaeus wrote: “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law.  Then he reminded him of them by giving the Decalogue.”[3]  And Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), affirms the availability to all of the principles of the natural law.  “The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being.”[4]

                The work of Thomas Aquinas is a particularly rich presentation of natural law ethics.  Drawing on the principles he articulates, I shall suggest some ways in which human reason can mediate between different religious and political convictions.  The natural law provides us with a framework for living together without denying the legitimacy of our various religious beliefs or political commitments.

                First, let us examine the principles of natural law as found in the thought of Aquinas.  These are such as everyone who has the use of reason can easily understand.  Understanding them does not require a highly developed scientific or metaphysical background, for these moral principles of the natural law are self-evident.  Just to think about them is to see that they are true.  Thus, the varying degrees of education in different societies does not mean that some are less able to understand the basics about how we should live—what we should and should not do.

                The basic principle of natural law ethics is pretty simple: “do good and avoid evil.”  That is, we should support and promote what we know to be good and not do what we know to be evil.[5]  This is implied by the very meaning of the word “good.”  “Good” means desirable or worthy of pursuing.  Of course, people do not always agree about what things in particular are good, but there seems to be general agreement about some basic or fundamental human goods, which are naturally known by all human beings.  The good of life is one; the good of knowledge is another; the good of friendship is a third.[6]  How do we know that these goods are basic?  We don’t prove them to be basic by some principles even more fundamental, for there are no more fundamental goods.  Life, knowledge, and friendship are primary human goods, good in themselves and not just for the sake of other desirable things.  No one has to tell us they are good: to think about them is to see that they are.  This is what Aquinas means when he says that they are self-evidently good.  Lots of other things are good for the sake of these basic goods or as aspects of them.  So food and shelter and money are good because they support life.  Mathematics, biology, and history are good as kinds of knowledge.  Family, community, and nation are good as different forms of friendship.  Although we might disagree about the way to achieve these goods or what instantiations of them are best, we all can see that life, knowledge, and friendship are good. 

                If we combine these self-evident basic goods with the self-evident precept that we should do good and avoid evil, we have the basic outlines of a moral theory that we all can understand to be right.  Since they are intrinsically good, life, knowledge, and friendship should be promoted and not violated.  Our strongest obligations are negative: we should never intentionally violate life, knowledge, or friendship.  To do so would be wrong: we would be intentionally doing what we know we should not do.  But this is not the whole of our obligation.  We are also obliged to promote life, knowledge, and friendship.  We shall come back to this point in the second section when we ask about our obligations to others.

                At this point, it is important to show the relationship between the principles of natural law and the two areas of our concern—religion and politics.  The first thing to say is that religion and politics are good.  Not only may we practice religion and engage in political life, but we should.  Religion is not just a matter of revelation, nor politics just a mechanism for imposing order through power.  Both are naturally good for human beings and so fall under the natural law.  To support this we can point to the virtual universality of religion and political organization among human communities throughout history.  But here I am less interested in this anthropological or sociological fact, than in the reasons why we should practice religion and political life.

                Both religion and politics are related to the basic good of friendship.  Religion extends the notion of friendship from the interrelations between people to our relationship with the divine.  Political community extends from the most obvious level of commitment between two people, or within a family, to local organizations and communities, and ultimately to nations and the world. 

                Let us begin with the good of the political community since it is a more obvious extension of the friendship that we experience personally.  Some view the political community as an artificial construct formed to maximize self-interest.[7]  But the natural law tradition has consistently taught that community is natural and that human individuals are only perfected in community.  More than just supplying the needs that individuals cannot supply for themselves, the political community offers intellectual and moral enrichment and the chance for improvement.[8]  So Aristotle calls human beings political animals, made to live in a polis, that is, a community.  Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics: “There are different degrees and arrangements in community-groups, but the final and most perfect is the political fellowship which provides all that is needful for civilized life.”[9]  Our founding fathers, especially Jefferson, were influenced by this natural law tradition.  In a letter to Henry Lee, Jefferson claims that, in writing the Declaration of Independence, his intention is “not to find out new principles or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject….All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, or in the elementary books on public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sydney, etc.”[10] 

                However, it is not just that we should care about the community because it fulfills us; we should care about it because of its intrinsic worth.  That is, we ought to care about other people not just for what they can do for us but also for their own sakes.  A true friend is not loved just because he or she is useful or pleasant to have around (that is, only for what he or she can do for me).  True friendship, what Aristotle calls the friendship of virtue, cares about the other person for that person’s own sake.[11]  So we should care about the other people in our community for their own sakes.  Again what this implies in terms of our specific obligations to others, we shall discuss in the next section.

                As for religion, it, too, is not merely a natural impulse in us, but also a requirement of reason.  When Aquinas discusses the virtue of religion, he says that it is not a theological virtue, but a natural virtue falling under the virtue of justice.[12]  So, also, when Socrates discusses piety in Plato’s dialogue the Euthyphro, he puts it under the general category of justice.[13]  How is it a matter of justice?  Justice is giving each person his due.  A proper response to good done for us is gratefulness and the desire to pay it back.  Thus, if you let me pull out in front of you in a traffic jam, I ought to signal my thanks.  If I receive a birthday gift from my friend, I should thank him.  However, there are some gifts which we cannot pay back.  Our parents gave us life: we cannot do the same for them.  What are we to do here?  Are we off the hook because it is impossible to repay the gift?  That would mean being indifferent to good.  No, we should do what we can, giving to them respect, honor, and grateful obedience (and help in their old age).  The inequality between ourselves and the divine is even more pronounced.  Not only our lives but all things, even our parents, have been given to us by a higher power.  In this dialogue by Plato, there is no philosophical argument for the existence of a first principle of all reality as in the Republic,[14] but Socrates does say in the Euthyphro that we owe everything to the gods.[15]  Although the gods do not need anything from us, in justice, we owe them everything.  We cannot simply ignore this; so we should be pious, offering our gratefulness and praise to the gods.  Aristotle says the same thing in his Nicomachean Ethics.  To the gods we must do what we can, since we can never adequately pay them back.[16]  The Roman philosopher Cicero also speaks of this kind of obligation.  “Social duties can be divided into grades so that the priority of any given duty is apparent.  The order would be as follows: first our duty to the immortal gods, secondly our duty to our country, thirdly to our parents, and lastly to the rest of society in due order.”[17]  And when Aquinas discusses the Ten Commandments, he includes the first three commandments—those that deal with our obligations to God—under the natural law.[18]  We have a natural obligation to the divine; not to attempt to fulfill it would be unjust.

Thus, not only is it reasonable for us to engage in politics and religion; it is an obligation.  However, this natural obligation is not to any particular type of government or to any specific religion.  From a natural law perspective, as long as the political and religious practices are good, they are worthy of loyalty.  But if two different political ideals come into conflict, what are we to do?  If two religions, neither of which is evil, disagree on some important issue, what is to be done?   Conflicts have often erupted between different political and religious communities.  How do we avoid these?  Are we just to tolerate each other with no dialogue?  Or are we to look for a solution rather than embrace mutual indifference?

Clearly we must have dialogue.  And in this dialogue, we must say what we mean and mean what we say.  This means that we must be free to speak our minds and should listen to what others have to say.  We must hope for and intend a good outcome.  In this joint project, we must not be motivated by either fear or hatred.  Fear responds to coercion (either real or imagined) from without.  Hatred is a kind of internal coercion, for if we hate, we blind ourselves to the morally obvious, namely, that we should pursue good and avoid evil in our relations with others. 




This brings us to the second section of my talk.  Having presented the general principles of natural law and shown how both political and religious communities are not only permitted but required, let us consider the proper relations between diverse communities.  The natural law insists that we should avoid doing what is evil, but also that we should actively promote what is good.  In general, negative moral obligations (telling us what we should not do) are more strict and universal than positive moral obligations (telling us what we should do).  Therefore, we shall treat this issue in two parts.  In the first part, we shall consider the moral limits to what one political or religious community may do to another, or what such communities may do to individuals who disagree with them.  In the second part, we shall ask about the positive obligations that individuals and communities have for others. 

Let us begin with a consideration of situations in which there are fundamental disagreements between a political community and religion.  Thomas Aquinas was obviously a very devout Christian who was not shy about engaging other faiths in dialogue.[19]  Nevertheless, he understood that people of different faiths often find themselves in the same political community and have to find a way to thrive together.  For the political community is a natural state, with its own good.  In fact, following Aristotle, Aquinas considers political science the ultimate practical science.[20]  The good of the individual is important, but the good of individuals within the community—that is, the common good—is even more important.  Aquinas addresses both the issue of how a majority community should treat a minority, and how a minority community should live under a ruling majority. 

If there were a state religion, Aquinas would say that unbelievers within that state should not be forced to convert.  Conversion is a matter of free will and of conscience; and the will cannot be forced, nor should conscience be violated.  Thus, those who do not believe should not be forced to believe.  “These are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will.”[21]  Since genuine faith is an act of free assent and a will that is forced is not free, no one can be forced to believe.  Forced belief is a contradiction in terms.  Nor is deception permissible, for it too is a kind of coercion.  Free choice is excluded by deception since what is offered to be chosen is not what it appears.  One can only freely choose to convert to a particular religion if one knows what the religion really teaches.

As for conscience, it is inviolable.  It is always wrong to go against one’s conscience, for one should never choose to do what one thinks is evil.  In one place, Aquinas goes so far as to say that, if one really thinks Christ is evil, one should not be a Christian.[22]  Of course, Aquinas thinks that being a Christian is good, and he also thinks that we have an obligation to inform our consciences.  Just because one thinks that Christ is evil does not mean that it is true.  Only if we have accurate information can we make a reasonable judgment in good conscience, and as we will mention in a few minutes, we can only have accurate information if people are willing to share it.

As for a Christian living under a secular government, or a government of another religious persuasion, Aquinas states that the Christian should obey the ruler, so long as the ruler does not command something evil. 

Dominion and authority are institutions of human law, while the distinction between faithful and unbelievers arises from the divine law.  Now the divine law, which is the law of grace, does not do away with human law, which is the law of natural reason.  Wherefore the distinction between faithful and unbelievers, considered in itself, does not do away with the dominion and authority of unbelievers over the faithful.[23] 

Thus, a person whose religion is in the minority should not on that account disobey the laws of the majority.  Nor should a secular government persecute any of its citizens merely because of religious belief.

        In sum, the strict negative precepts of the natural law, as they apply to differences in political persuasion or religious belief, forbid us to persecute or be prejudicial to those of other persuasions, and they also forbid us to disobey legitimate authorities merely because they do not share our beliefs.  However, tolerance of diverse political and religious commitments does not necessarily imply that all political or religious positions are equally good.  And if one is better than another, it makes sense to embrace it oneself and to argue for its adoption by others.  Not to do so is to violate that most basic requirement to pursue the good. 

 As to judging political differences, Aquinas, in general, follows Aristotle.  Justice and freedom are the key ingredients in a good political rule.  They, of course, belong together in the sense that justice is a requirement on us because we are intelligent and free to choose.  And we think that people should be rewarded or punished for their actions because they freely choose to do them.  If people were determined, then they would merit neither praise nor blame.  Although Aquinas, like Aristotle, thinks that the perfect government would be the single rule by the perfect person,[24] he realizes that the chances of finding such a person are extremely unlikely, and the risks far too great.  For single rule by a bad person, that is, a tyranny, is the worst of all the possible forms of government. 

Because human beings have free will and are not just animals to be trained, a government that allows people to exercise their free will is better, to that extent, than one that does not.  Aristotle distinguishes two types of rule: that of master over slave, and that of free men over free men.  The latter he calls political rule.  On this point, Aquinas writes: “All should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring.”[25]  The form of government that best allows for good order and participation by all is what Aristotle and Aquinas call “polity” and what we might call a republic.  This combines the best of the three good kinds of government: kingship, aristocracy, and democracy.  It emphasizes the importance of virtue and leadership, while at the same time preserving the people’s right to self-government. 

The best form of government is in a state or kingdom, wherein one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers; and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rulers are chosen by all.[26]

Thus, the best government would be one in which the citizens were the most just and free.  A form of government which does not allow the people some say in how they are governed violates the natural law.  It is wrong and should, if possible, be replaced.[27]  Here, then, is a strong negative precept: since governments are for the common good, they should not violate the rights of the people.

              As for sorting out and judging among different religions, this is a very complicated business, and we cannot do it justice here.  But perhaps we can mention a couple of things.  For the revealed religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—grace is a key feature, and it is beyond the competence of philosophy and the natural law to judge of grace.  But we can say, even of a religion in which God is the instigator, that like the best political system, the best religion would be the one which best fulfills human nature.  God creates the world so that it might be, and he creates us so that we might be human.  Religions typically have to do with how we should treat God and each other.  The two criteria we used to judge political systems—justice and freedom—come into play here.  Neither faith in God nor love of neighbor can be forced.  Faith is a choice, and community (as the word itself indicates) is a cooperative or chosen unity.  A religion that promotes such freedom would seem better than one which prevents or destroys it.   Equally, a religion that promotes justice among the people would seem superior to one that does not.  When it comes to the issue of mediating between diverse religious practices, a religion which calls us to love those who are different from us, even our enemies, would seem preferable to a religion that requires us either to force others to believe (an impossibility) or to hate our enemies.  This idea of loving one’s enemies is also a principle of natural law, at least to the degree that one should not harm one’s enemies.  As Plato says in his dialogue the Crito, we should never intentionally do wrong.  He does not say that we may do wrong if we have been wronged.  Rather, he emphatically denies this.  We are simply to choose what is good and never choose what is evil.

               Given that it is reasonable to judge some forms of religion or political structures to be better than others, what positive obligations do we have to promote those that we judge to be better?  And how do we go about such promotion?  Although these positive obligations to promote good are not as absolute as the negative precepts, they are real obligations.  Not only are we supposed to avoid evil, but we are also supposed to do good.  In some ways this doing good is more the essence of the moral life, for if we actively pursue and promote good, there is little danger that we will do evil.  If, on the other hand, all we do is try to avoid doing evil, we might do nothing, except perhaps sit around and blame others for the sorry state of the world.  But to say that we should promote good is to leave a great deal of latitude about what is to be done.  This is because there are many basic goods, not just one.  So to do good might mean providing for the material needs of others, but it also might mean raising a family, creating a beautiful painting, studying up on the latest theories of physics, teaching, or praying.  So our obligations to do what is good are by nature more general and less absolute than our obligations to refrain from doing evil.  Since we cannot do everything, we have to prioritize according to the situation, our talents and desires, and other people’s needs.

             Still our obligations to other people, especially if they are in great need, do make claims upon us that we cannot just ignore.  In fact, if the need is great enough, and I am the only one who can meet it, my obligation to help another person comes close to the strict obligation I have not to hurt that person.  Let me give an example.  Suppose I’m walking along a deserted beach one day, and I come across a small child lying face-down in a tidal pool, struggling unsuccessfully to get out.  There is no one else around to help the child.  Can I walk on by and do nothing?  After all, I didn’t push the child into the tide pool.  It was not my plan that the child should be drowning.  Nevertheless, if I do nothing and the child drowns, when I could easily have reached down and saved the child, my responsibility for the death of that child comes very close to what it would be if I had intentionally pushed the child into the pool.  The fact that I won’t make the least effort to save the child, when there is no one else who could, and when I could do so easily, indicates that I don’t care at all about the life of the child.  My refusal to help this child, in this situation that has by chance come my way, indicates my utter disdain for the good of life.  I am implicitly saying that the child’s life is not good; but this statement contradicts the self-evident proposition that every human life is good for its own sake. 

                   Most of the time, of course, the situation is not as dire as this; and so one’s obligation to come to the aid of the needy person is not as strict.  But the example shows that intentionally omitting to do good can be morally as bad as intentionally doing evil.  This makes it clear that our obligation to help others is a real obligation. 

    Both politics and religion recognize and support this obligation.  Politics is expressly concerned with the common good.  Thus, if members of our community are in trouble or suffering, we have an obligation to care for them.  Most obviously we have the obligation to care for our own family members, but also for our extended family, local community, nation, and the world.  Both the perfection of the community as a whole and our own perfection depend on this.[28]  Religion also obliges us to help others, in many cases expressly, and always implicitly.  As Aquinas says, “Just as love of God includes love of our neighbor, so too the service to God includes rendering to each one his due.”[29]  This is the obligation of justice under which religion falls.  We owe a debt of justice to God for all he has given us.  The debt is, in fact, infinite, one which we can never pay back.  But God does not need anything from us.  Thus, we should turn our real debt to where it is really needed and useful—to helping our neighbor.[30]  Like political virtue, the virtue of religion requires us to help our neighbor. 

        It is, however, impossible for any person or nation to aid every needy person.  So we need to think about where our priorities should be.  This involves several variables, from the extremity of the need, to the proximity of the problem, to the ability or inability of the needy to help themselves.  Thus, there is need for prudence here.  There is no such thing as a political utopia.  No practical choices that involve helping others will be made perfectly.  We need good will and intelligence.

        So far, we have been speaking about our obligations to promote the good of life.  But there are similar obligations to promote the goods of knowledge and friendship.  Thus, by analogy, the greater the need for knowledge and friendship, the less likely they are to be forthcoming from other sources, and the greater one’s resources in them, the greater one’s obligation to help.  If we have a sense that the world is in worse and worse shape, despair and withdrawal are not justified.  On the contrary, as the need grows, so does our obligation to increase our efforts to share the knowledge and good will that we have.  And perhaps the obligation here is even greater since the resources are less finite.  There is a kind of infinity to intelligible goods—to knowledge, friendship, and beauty.  Material goods, at least at any particular moment, are finite: like sharing a pie, the more I have, the less you can have.[31]  But sharing intelligible goods is not a zero-sum game.  On the contrary, for these goods, the more I have, the more you can have and vice versa—if, that is, we make the effort to acquire them and to share them.  But it is hard to find out what’s really true and good, and harder still to find out how best to communicate the truth and goodness that we know and love.  Here we need courage to make the effort, and prudence to make the effort effective.  People tend to resist what they see as another’s truth, and another’s ideal of community.  None of us likes to feel ignorant or that he or she is being backed into some logical corner.  To try to overcome this hurdle is to honor and promote the good of friendship.  Thus, we all face a great double challenge: first, to open ourselves to the truth wherever it is found and second, to offer freely the truth we know in a way that allows others freely to accept it.  To do this is not easy, and we have many other things to do.  But to ignore it as an obligation is to ignore either the importance of truth or the importance of other people, or both.

    But people do not need just material goods, knowledge, and friendship: they also need faith, hope, and love.  Admittedly, these are gifts of grace, but to the extent that we recognize them as true and good, we have an obligation to share them as well.  This is even more delicate then sharing knowledge and friendship, especially as to faith and hope.  We have all listened painfully while someone tried to convince us to share his or her vision of faith or hope, be that vision religious, political, or ideological.  Again, that they should be shared is clear; how to share them is the problem.  The third of the trio of theological virtues—love—seems to point the way.  That is, we should share our faith and hope with love.  This means sharing them for the sake of the other person, not for my success and comfort in getting everyone on my side.  Love means giving to others what one thinks is best while respecting the other’s freedom, intelligence, and conscience.

    There is no forcing good on other people, whether we are speaking philosophically or theologically.  The way of reason is to propose, not impose.  We present our position to the other’s intelligent freedom: “It is so, don’t you agree?”  Free assent to truth cannot be forced.  The same is true of faith.  Pope John Paul II put this memorably in his 1990 letter on the mission of the Church.  “Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it.  The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.  She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctity of conscience.”[32]  This must be our rule in striving to promote the good in a world of religious and political diversity.




To mitigate the conflicts and suffering in our world, we need tools with which to work.  Clearly, we need a lot of goodwill, much hope, and steadfast courage.  But we also need what reason can provide in the way of moral guidance.  The principles of the natural law, which belong to all peoples just insofar as they are human, can help us set up the general structures for mutual respect and cooperation.  We should educate ourselves and each other about our political and religious differences.  But even more importantly, we should remind ourselves and each other of the things we share in common—those fundamental dimensions of human flourishing: life, family, knowledge, and friendship.  It is easy to let other aspects of our lives—our personal needs, our pleasures, a concern for our security, or partisan loyalty to religion or political party—take priority over these fundamental goods.  All these other aspects of our lives are good in some way, but they are subordinate to the basic human goods and to the importance of honoring these goods in community.  In a world of religions and political diversity, the affirmation that other people deserve to participate in these goods just as much as we do is an essential foundation for mutual understanding and good will.



Saint Anselm College

Manchester, New Hampshire

About the Author



[1] This paper was presented as the Richard L. Bready Lecture in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College on November 14, 2006. A portion of this paper was also presented under the title "Religion, Politics, and the Natural Law: Thomas Aquinas on Our Obligations to Others" at the International Society for Universal Dialogue Fifth World Congress, May 28-23, 2004, Olympia, Greece, and published in Skepsis, Vol. XV/11-111, 2004, pp. 316-30.


[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1978), p. 56.

[3] Quoted by Richard Neuhaus in First Things, Dec. 2005, Number 158, pp. 27-28.

[4] Deus Caritus Est, Part II, 28, a.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (hereafter ST) 1-2.94.2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See, for example, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan 1.13-15; but also see Plato’s Republic 1.358e-359b, where the same basic position is presented as a challenge to Socrates.

[8] In ST, Aquinas says that the individual is perfected in community.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary, I Politics , lect. 1, tr. Thomas Gilby in St. Thomas Aquinas, Philosophical Texts (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1982), p. 369.

[10] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Lee, May 8, 1825, in Jefferson: Selected Writings, ed. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1979), pp. 11-12.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.4.

[12] Aquinas, ST 1-2.100.1.

[13] Plato, Euthyphro 11e

[14] Plato, Republic, 6.506e-511d.

[15] Plato, Euthyphro 15a.

[16] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.16.

[17] Cicero, On Moral Duties 1.45, tr. Higginbotham (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 96.

[18] Aquinas, ST 1-2.100.1.

[19] So his second best known work, Summa contra gentiles, was an attempt to enter into a kind of dialogue with the positions of non-Christians, whether believers or non-believers.

[20] “The political community is the sovereign construction of reason; all other groupings are subservient.  The mechanical arts are busied with utilities subordinate to human lives.  The higher and nobler the subject-matter, the more overriding its interest.  So political science must needs be the chief and governing practical interest, since it is occupied with the most final and complete value within the present world” (Aquinas, Commentary, I Politics, lect. 1, Gilby, p. 370).

[21] Aquinas, ST 2-2.10.8, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen Texas: Christian Classics, 1981), vol. III, p. 1213.

[22] Aquinas, ST 1-2.19.5.

[23] Aquinas, ST 2-2.10.10, vol. III, p. 1215.

[24] Aquinas, On Kingship 6; Plato makes this point in Republic 5.473b-e, where he speaks about the possibility of a philosopher-king.

[25] Aquinas, ST 1-2.105.1, vol. II, p. 1091.

[26] Ibid, p. 1092.

[27] In some cases it might be better to put up with a worse form of government rather than fighting to overthrow it because a revolution might cause more problems than it solved.

[28] “Justice stands foremost among all the moral virtues, forasmuch as the common good transcends the individual good of one person” (Aquinas, ST 2-2.58.12, vol. III, p. 1436).

[29] Aquinas, ST 2-2.58.1ad6, vol. III, 1429.

[30] “Since justice is a cardinal virtue, other secondary virtues, such as mercy, liberality, and the like, are connected with it.  Wherefore, to succor the needy, which belongs to mercy or pity, and to be liberally beneficent, which pertains to liberality, are by a kind of reduction ascribed to justice as to their principle virtue” (Aquinas, ST 2-2.58.11ad1, ad 1, vol. III, p. 1436).

[31] There is a way that capitalism can grow the pot, so that there is more for everyone; but even so, these kinds of material goods are less able to be shared that the intelligible goods like truth, friendship, and beauty.

[32] John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 39.