The ancient rules that lie behind divinity, democracy, and Daraprim
On August 10, 2015, Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli acquired a drug called Daraprim. From that instant onwards, all the rights for manufacturing and selling the drug belonged to him.
Daraprim is an important medicine for treating Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia in people suffering from AIDS. Shkreli saw that as a lucrative market. The drug was promptly removed from wholesalers and pharmacies, and in a couple of months, its price was raised from 13.50 US dollars apiece to a whopping $750. This move made a lot of money for Turing Pharmaceuticals and even more money for Martin Shkreli himself.
And, it caused a huge public outcry.
Now, Shkreli did not break any laws. The purchase of the drug was fair and legal. It went through all the standard channels. Shkreli had all the rights to change Daraprim’s distribution channels and price.
And yet, we’d have no trouble agreeing it was wrong.
Why is that? How can something which took so much effort and finesse, and broke no laws, still be considered wrong? Well, the last bit of the statement is not quite true.
While Martin Shkreli broke no written laws, he still violated what is considered an acceptable behaviour in society — and not just in his society, but probably in any society. These unspoken rules, such as “one should not acquire wealth at the expense of others’ suffering” are what are known as “Natural Law”: a law that is not invented by man, but exists naturally outside of him and encloses him in its grasp.
Natural Law is one of those things that is easy to describe, but hard to fully comprehend and even harder to apply in the real world.
In simple terms, it’s the set of laws based on human morality and ethics. These laws are independent of the “positive laws” invented by humans and governments. Instead, they’re ‘discovered’ through reason and human understanding of what is good and evil. If we can assume that people are made and born the same, no matter what and where, and that they have the same inner voice that guides their moral compass — if we can assume all that, then we can also assume that natural law is universal and can be applied in any place, at any time.
Of course that is a bold assumption. Different people are shaped differently by circumstances; they change based on experiences and outside pressure. .What is considered ‘good’ by one, may well be considered as ‘evil’ by another.
While Shkreli’s case was a bit extreme, businesses do often raise or lower prices, responding to the demand of the market — perfectly sensible, they think, as do rich people for whom fluctuations don’t make a difference. But some consumers, especially ones with less money, don’t agree.
(Shkreli eventually reduced the drug’s price, but not after he’d been labelled America’s “Most Hated Man”).
We can debate what is good and bad for a very long time. But let’s try another way.
Taking things like political ideology, religion and social pressures away, we will notice that humans are quite similar. They all strive to live a good, happy life, and to protect themselves from anything that can stop them from achieving this simple goal. And “good life” for most men and women is quite similar, no matter where they live and what god they pray to. Safety, stability, comradery, property and a full belly — that’s all they ask.
Thus, the laws that help support this can be considered part of natural law — after all, they’re guided by human nature, and human nature is identical for every one of us.
Or is it?
One of the earliest theories on natural law, as well as many other laws and theories, came from Ancient Greece — or, more specifically, the father of everything philosophical: Plato.
Although Plato didn’t mention natural law as we define it today, he did believe in a greater good: a universal order that guides and pushes us all to be better beings. He believed that an ideal city state (most of his thinking was mainly applied to city states) is the one that is built in accordance with nature.
Next, Aristotle mentioned natural law in his book Rhetoric where he argued that each person is governed by a “particular law”, but also by a “common law” or “higher law” that is formed according to nature:
“Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.”
If Plato and Aristotle planted the seed, it was the Stoics who nurtured the theory of natural law and gave it the growth it needed.
The Stoics’ views were simpler than their predecessor philosophers. They didn’t try to attribute natural law to some kind of higher power. They simply believed there was rational and purposeful order to the universe, and living in accordance with this order meant living by natural law. There is a little spark in each one of us; the inner voice that guides us and helps us to live in harmony with the universe.
Of course, this view arguably applies to modern economics too. Shrleki no doubt believed in the rational and purposeful order of the market, and relied on his inner business instinct to guide his next move.
But that didn’t gel with another philosophy of the Stoics, who were the first to weigh on equality for all men — be they emperor, slave, or CEO of a pharma giant. The importance of these people, their worth, cannot be determined by society, but only by nature itself.
We are all born equal, and we all have something to contribute to this world.
Cicero was the man who brought natural law from Greece to Italy. A Roman statesman, he wrapped it up into his own re-interpretation that fit well into the everyday life of the Roman Empire.
Cicero believed, as any respectful Roman would, that natural law guides us to work for the better good of a larger society, rather than for just one person. Any positive law that goes against that, or does not stock up against natural law, is not “just” and should not be considered a law at all.
“There is indeed,” he said, “a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong. It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones. No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether.”
“Neither the people,” he continued, “nor the senate can absolve from it. It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.”
In the last days of the Roman Empire, it became a fallen state — plagued by corruption, greed, adultery and gluttony. Christians saw this as a failure of people to follow natural law: a failure that allowed evils to win over goodness.
Even though they accepted the existence of natural law, and even saw it as a foundation of Christianity (after all, the ten commandments and seven cardinal sins are a very sound example of natural law in practice) they believed that humans were no longer capable of following it. They believed they now needed to seek salvation through Divine Law and Christ’s grace.
This way, natural law was intertwined with the Christian beliefs. We are all made in God’s image, and if we live as he commanded, how Christ showed us, we would live in natural law bounds and live a happy and a good life. And our actions would be judged by God, and only he can decide if we acted in good faith by examining our intents, circumstances and nature of our acts.
Gratian, an Italian scholar, gave a good example of natural law with the following words: “Natural law is what is contained in the law and the Gospel. By it, each person is commanded to do to others what he wants done to himself and is prohibited from inflicting on others what he does not want done to himself.”
After the fall of the Roman State and the rise of Christianity, political theory — together with works of Plato, Aristotle and the like — all but left the Western world. It might have been lost altogether, if not for the magnificent schools and libraries of the Islamic world, who collected, commented and expended on works of the famous philosophers from all around the known world.
Interestingly, much of modern economics seems to be taken from the Islamic world too, or so economist David Graeber suggests. It seems Adam Smith, the so-called “father of Economics” may have been heavily inspired by Persian scholars like Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Al-Ghazali — except that they said it worked because of human cooperation, while Adam Smith said it worked because of human selfishness.
Getting back to natural law, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi from the Maturidi school believed in its existence and stated that humans could differentiate between “good” and “evil” without the help of revelation. Everyone can realise that stealing or killing are evil deeds, without outside help.
Countering him was Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, whose views paralleled the Christin ones. Al-Biruni thought of natural law as a survival of the fittest, and said that to protect humanity from “evils” that come out of it, we need to follow Divine law that was set by prophets.
But while these prophets were going around the Islamic world, how did their learnings get back to the Christian world?
That happened through Islamic scholar Averroes, who wrote a famous commentary on Plato’s Republic. Through Islamic and Christian contacts in Spain, and thanks to inquisitive monks and priests of the Jesuits order, Greek books that were once translated to Arabic now started being translated back into Spanish, Italian, Latin and other languages spoken throughout the Old World.
This sparked a growth of new thinkers and new branches of political science — in time leading us to democracy, separation of power, equality, social contract and a bunch of other great things we are so proud of these days.
The 17th century was a time of change all through the Western world. There were struggles between absolutism and freedoms; between monarchs and churches; between one set of great thinkers and another.
Thomas Hobbs was an exceptional philosopher, at least for his time. He took the theory of natural law and flipped it upside down. He rejected the notion that all humans have positive morals. He discarded the idea that they want to do good and shy away from evil. No, Hobbs presumed that humans, to achieve security and prosperity, are ready to hurt each other, to go to war with each other, and they believe that they have the right to everything around them, even to one another property and body.
Hobbs rejected Cicero’s notion that people join societies because they are social creatures by nature. Instead, he said they join only because they see it as an escape from constant war and another way to secure what is theirs. Hobbs believed that the only way for humans to live peacefully was to submit to the command of sovereign and live under positive law: the kind of law our governments make, which do not have to be subject to any morals or ethics. Only then, so Hobbs said, could people be safe from their own savage human nature.
While Hobbs advocated using positive law to ensure natural laws are followed, sometimes it happens the other way round. People apply what they think is right, by bending existing laws to make it work.
In India in the mid-1970s, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was widely seen as becoming too dictatorial. The country was also facing problems due to high economic inflation, war, and drought. So the opposition at the time got together to bring her down. But since none of the aforementioned problems were illegal, the lawsuit they filed against her was quite different: using a loudspeaker during a certain election campaign when she wasn’t supposed to.
Those who were affected by Shkreli’s price-raising would be happy to know that Natural Law has got him too. In 2018, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Not for raising the price of Daraprim, but for misleading some investors in his hedge-fund. Despite the differing reasons, lots of people are still very happy.
The 17th century didn’t just have Hobbs. It also had his opponents.
One of those was John Locke, who was more fond of the classical interpretation of natural law. Locke claimed that a ruler who does not follow natural law and does not grant people their freedoms — who does not protect their lives and property, in other words — is a tyrant. And when the ruler is a tyrant, then it is in people’s rights to dispose of him and find a new ruler or create a new, more just society.
Locke also reiterated the concept of human equality and equality of the sexes. He believed that we are all made equal, and people who govern us are of the same mold; therefore, they need our consent to wield any power over us.
If you take a peek at the American Declaration of Independence, you will see an echo of Locke’s wisdom in there. Natural law grants us our natural rights: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But if you want to see an example of natural law in today’s world, you do not have to look further than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. It is based on human rights, which is in itself a version of natural law (or natural rights). It states that every individual has a set of basic rights that guarantee them dignity, liberty, and equality. Overall, there are thirty articles that covers topics such as the “right to life”, the “rights of the individual towards the community”, “social and cultural rights”, and many others.
Natural law is still being debated to this day. What is ethical? What is moral?
What is right?
What rights does every human have? And what role should a government and a society play in their lives, in the lives of every individual?
And natural law is very much in use. Positive law is still being tested against it. New constitutions are being written around it. And maybe in the coming times natural law will help us to get rid of wars, human rights abuse and conflict altogether.
Maybe natural law will lead us to a utopian future, but for now that’s just a philosophical aspiration.
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