Natural Law

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

What is Natural Law?

Natural law is a philosophical theory that states that humans have certain rights, moral values, and responsibilities that are inherent in human nature. Natural law theory is based on the idea that natural laws are universal concepts and are not based on any culture or customs. Still, it is a way society acts naturally and inherently as human beings.


Natural Law - Image of the words natural law on jigsaw puzzle pieces



  • 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.
  • Natural law contrasts with positive law.


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. To be explained further, natural law incorporates the idea that humans understand the difference between “right” and “wrong” inherently. Essentially, it concludes that human beings are not taught natural law; they initiate it by making good and right decisions. Therefore, it is said to be discoverable through the exercise of reason.

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 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 in complicated scenarios. Throughout centuries, natural law theory has been expanded on, critiqued, and applied to philosophy theory and even existing legal and political structures.

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 ethical standards and ways of being inherent.

On the other hand, positive law involves human-made law that incorporates rules that can be applied to specific actions at certain times or places. Furthermore, positive law is 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.


History of Natural Law

Natural law was initially defined by ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. 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. It then led to the introduction of natural justice, which can be attributed to the Stoics.

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. It led to the creation of more modern natural law theories that combined natural law with other philosophical theories, such as the social contract theory.

It was also used to justify the establishment of positive law, and therefore, government and legal rights. Overall, as philosophy theory grows, the coincidence of positive and natural law will continue to be referenced, disputed, and analyzed.


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.


Practical Examples

The first example of natural law includes the idea that it is universally accepted and understood 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.

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.


Related Readings

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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