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Edmund Burke and the importance of natural law

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As conservatives consider how to approach issues such as free trade, populism and the role of the market, it’s helpful to look back to foundational thinkers who paved the way for conservatism. “One such ongoing discussion among conservatives concerns natural law’s place in conservative thought,” says Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, in a new article published by Law and Liberty

Natural law was central to the ideas of the eighteenth-century political thinker Edmund Burke, driving him to stand against arbitrary power, and providing us with many principles to draw from today. 

Burke’s attachment to natural law reminds us that modern conservatism’s pedigree goes back further than the late-eighteenth century. Anglosphere conservatism certainly started taking on distinct form in reaction to the French Revolution. But to the extent that it’s influenced by Burke’s attention to natural law, some of Anglosphere conservatism’s roots may be traced to pre-modern ancient sources like Cicero and beyond.

To be sure, Burke stressed how these ideas were imbedded in the developing corpus of Britain’s legal traditions and the writings of legal scholars like Sir John Fortescue and Sir William Blackstone. But while Burke was wary of wrenching principles out of their context, he recognized the saliency of natural law for political, legal or economic arrangements that promoted regimes characterized neither by license nor tyranny but rather by ordered liberty.

Read Gregg’s full piece, “Edmund Burke: Natural Lawyer.” 

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Caroline Roberts has a B.A. in English from Grove City College and produces the Acton Institute’s podcast, Acton Line.

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