Natural Law

A philosophical theory that states that humans have certain rights, moral values, and responsibilities that are inherent in human nature

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What is Natural Law?

Natural Lae

Natural Law is a philosophical theory that states that human beings have certain universally accepted rights, moral values, and responsibilities that are inherent in human nature.

Natural Law Theory is based on the idea that these laws are a universal moral code and are not based on any culture or customs. It is a fundamental principle that defines the way society acts naturally and governs behavior and reasoning.

Key Highlights

  • Natural Law is a philosophical theory. It involves the idea that rights, values, and responsibilities are inherent in human nature.
  • It doesn’t require political order or legislature and serves as a basis for morality and justice throughout human history.
  • Natural Law contrasts with both Positive Law and Human Rights.

Understanding Natural Law

The Natural Law Theory is stated to have existed without even the requirement of human understanding or any kind of political order or legislature. Natural Law is based upon the idea that human beings inherently understand the difference between “right” and “wrong.”

No one is taught Natural Law — we are innately born with it; we initiate it by making good and right decisions. Therefore, it is said to be discoverable through the exercise of reason. Under Natural Law theory, all individuals and organizations have the right to freedom from government and political systems, regardless of culture or religion.

The theory of Natural Law was known to the ancient Greeks but then elaborated by many philosophers. Some important philosophers who played a role in the development of Natural Law include Aristotle, Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Natural Law - St. Thomas Aquinas

Many difficulties and concerns have surrounded Natural Law Theory. For example, some believe that Natural Law Theory is too simple as a concept and that it breaks down into complicated scenarios.

Some theories believe Natural Laws are passed by God, teaching us to make choices that always serve our common interests rather than evil. Throughout the centuries, Natural Law Theory has been expanded on, critiqued, and applied to philosophy theory and even existing legal and political structures.

Difference Between Natural Law and Positive Law

It is important to underline that Natural Law is not to be confused with positive law as it does not involve any kind of judicial decisions or legislative enactments. Natural Law highlights human behavior involving inherent ethical standards and is not forced upon society.

On the other hand, positive law involves human-made laws that incorporate rules that can be applied to specific actions at certain times or places. Furthermore, positive laws are enacted and adopted for the appropriate government of society, to protect the rights of individuals, resolve disputes, and maintain order and safety of society overall.

In many countries natural rights provide fundamental foundations of legal systems. Natural Laws are evident in the laws of the nation and its policies and are also evident in their interactions with its people. In the U.S., the American Declaration of Independence affirms that everyone is entitled to freedom and happiness, and that assertion is what shaped the U.S. legal system.

In fact, many early laws are exclusionary and provide limited rights to certain groups of people. In some cases, it took centuries (and revolutions) before some citizens were considered human and much longer before the same unalienable rights were granted.

History of Natural Law and Natural Justice

Natural Law was initially defined by ancient Greek philosophers, although some believe that it is deeply rooted in various religious traditions from around the world. Plato did not have a theory on Natural Law; however, some of his theories involved concepts of Natural Law.

On the other hand, Aristotle focused on the distinction between law and nature. This then led to the introduction of natural justice, which can be attributed to the Stoics.

Natural Law - Plato

Many consider Aristotle to be the father of Natural Law Theory. He argued that what is “just by nature” is not always the same as what is “just by law,” as it does not depend on the decisions or laws of any one group of people, such as lawmakers.

Following this, Cicero explained Natural Law as something that can contribute to the general good of society, whereas positive law would contribute to the safety of society. Many contributions continued to be made to Natural Law Theory, such as during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, which led to the creation of more modern Natural Law theories that combined Natural Law with other philosophical theories, such as the Social Contract Theory.

In more modern times, Natural Law was also supported by great thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

For example, Gandhi warned about the danger of being destroyed by seven “sins,” often called the seven social sins: wealth without work, politics without principle, pleasure without conscience, commerce (or business) without morality (or ethics), knowledge without character, science without humanity, and religion without sacrifice. For each of these “sins,” the solution (work, principle, conscience, morality, character, humanity, and sacrifice) is derived from Natural Law.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a proponent of Natural Law, arguing that human beings should obey Natural Laws over unjust or conflicting positive laws, writing from Birmingham jail that “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Importance of Natural Law

Natural Law is important because it is applied to moral, political, and ethical systems today. It has played a large role in the history of political and philosophical theory and has been used to understand and discuss human nature.

It was also used to justify the establishment of positive law, and, therefore, government and legal rights, such as private property. Overall, as philosophy theory grows, both positive and Natural Laws will continue to be referenced, disputed, and analyzed.

Difference Between Natural Law and Human Rights

It is important, however, to differentiate between human rights and Natural Law. Natural Laws are not the same as human rights, which vary by jurisdiction and can change depending on societal views. For example, human rights vary in China versus the United States. Human rights can also change over time, but Natural Laws do not.

Practical Examples

One key example of Natural Law is the universally accepted understanding that killing a human being is wrong. However, it is also universally accepted that punishing someone for killing that person is right. The idea demonstrates that without the requirement of legislation, such beliefs are something that human beings understand inherently as wrong, without the requirement of law or legal system.

The second example includes the idea that two people create a child, and they then become the parents and natural caregivers for that child. It is something that Natural Law Theory would explain as Natural Law because it is inherent within human beings, and any human-made law would not be required for humans to feel as though they need to act as the caregiver of their child.

Here are some further types of Natural Law:

  • Human Dignity
  • Prohibition of Theft
  • Right to Self-Defense (including the use of lethal force)
  • Duty to Honor Promises and Contracts
  • The Moral Law of Truth
  • Principle of Restitution (seeking compensation for injury or loss)
  • Respect for Confidentiality and Privacy
  • Principle of Justice and Fairness
  • Compassion and Kindness
  • Right to Acquire Property
  • Right to Liberty
  • Pursuit of Happiness

Thank you for reading CFI’s guide to Natural Law. To keep learning and developing your knowledge base, please explore the additional relevant resources below:

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