A new book by Dr Tony Burns, from our School of Politics and International Relations, offers an important new examination of Aristotle’s political thought and its relationship to the natural law tradition.
The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, challenges recent alternative interpretations of Aristotle, and argues that his ethics is most usefully seen as a particular type of natural law theory.
It is commonly thought that the natural law tradition is important because the concept of natural law – understood as a ‘higher law’ – is associated with that of natural rights, often referred to as human rights. It is sometimes thought that the concept of natural can be used to ground a belief in the existence of rights of that kind. Consequently, it can also be used a vehicle for criticising states that abuse such rights.
The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, argues that although there is a tradition of natural law theorising that can be used in this way, this is not in fact how Aristotle thought about natural law, and its relationship to positive or civil law.
Dr Burns shows that the type of natural law theory to which Aristotle subscribes is an unusual one, because it does not allow for the possibility that individuals might appeal to natural law in order to critically evaluate existing laws and institutions. Rather, its function is to provide legitimacy for existing laws and conventions by providing them with a philosophical justification from the standpoint of Aristotle’s metaphysics.
Burns claims that this way of thinking about natural law can be traced in the writings of a number of thinkers in the history of philosophy, from Aquinas through to Hegel, but argues that because this tradition begins with Aristotle it is appropriate to describe it as ‘the Aristotelian natural law tradition.’
See the profile of Dr Anthony Burns