Though natural law has in common with scientific law the idea that it somehow reflects the structure of nature, it differs from the latter in being prescriptive as well as descriptive; that is, it both states what is the case in the world and stipulates what ought to be.
Natural law is an idea found in metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, and legal theory and consequently takes different forms as determined by these different contexts.
As a metaphysical principle, natural law theory presupposes a well-ordered universe (cosmos) governed by physical laws. It comprehends the most general principles of order and rationality underlying and regulating both human nature and nature itself. It belongs to what the ancients called Logos. It affirms that the moral values and precepts guiding human behavior are somehow entailed by human nature insofar as they are dictates of reason.
As a normative principle, natural law affirms, against moral relativism and subjectivism, that there is an objective, universal, and absolute system of moral laws. They are objective insofar as they are built into the very structure of nature, human and external; universal in that they are binding on all people; and absolute inasmuch as they are invariable and independent of any particular sociopolitical order. As laws they are traditionally conceived of as having a supernatural lawgiver (God). These laws, discoverable through human reason alone, exist to promote and preserve such goods as life, society, justice, and knowledge.
As a legal principle, natural law theory maintains a distinction between natural laws, those derived from reason, and positive (human laws), which they supersede. Natural law provides the standard for evaluating the justice of any legal code. Natural law theorists hold that there is a logical relation between the orders of natural law and positive law; they overlap insofar as positive law presupposes some moral norms, for example, the positive law proscribing murder.
As a political principle, natural law provides a moral basis for sociopolitical reform such as the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. As a mainstay of classical “just war” theory it has inspired the present-day system of international law regulating treaties and war.
The idea of natural law was given its first systematic and complete formulation as a theory by Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), the locus classicus for all subsequent theorizing about natural law. Aquinas locates natural law within his more general conception of law including eternal law and divine law. Eternal law, a manifestation of divine reason, structures the universe and renders it intelligible to rational beings. It comprises all the physical laws of nature. Divine law specifies those criteria human beings must meet in order to merit salvation. Natural law is divine law as imprinted on the human mind and expressed by the dictates of conscience. Natural law ordains that one ought to act in accordance with reason—what is rational is good, what is irrational is evil. The precepts of natural law guide humanity toward what is good—self-preservation, procreation, education, and the like—the knowledge of which is manifest in human beings natural tendency toward it. Positive law, or human law, is ideally an application and adaptation of natural law to the exigencies of a particular sociopolitical order. Positive law is authoritative and valid only insofar as it is in substantive conformity with natural law; if not, it is invalid. An unjust law, one contrary to natural law, is null and void.
In contrast to Aquinas’s rationalistic theory of natural law, which understood it as issuing from divine reason, William of Ockham (1287–1347) formulated a voluntaristic theory that understood natural law as issuing from the divine will. According to Ockham, the authority and validity of natural law derives not from a rational order of things distinct from God but solely from God’s command. Natural law is neither intrinsically rational nor good; its force and merit depends wholly on its being willed by God. To suppose otherwise implies an infringement of divine sovereignty.
In the early modern period, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), credited with being the father of modern natural law theory, moved to detach natural law from its traditional metaphysical and theological moorings by grounding it more thoroughly in human nature. He believed that human beings are naturally gregarious and innately desire to live in a peaceable and prosperous society. Moreover, they are rational enough to choose the means to that end necessitating obedience to those natural laws making such a society possible. Natural law for Grotius emerges from the exigencies of human nature rather than from divine reason, though the latter validates it. Grotius’s secularization and humanization of natural law was continued by his successors Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–94), and John Locke (1632–1704).
In its contemporary incarnations natural law has lost its metaphysical underpinnings and is no longer thought of as making up the fabric of existence and only awaiting translation into positive law. It is now regarded as more of a methodological principle or procedure. Thus, John Finnis interprets natural law as those general prudential principles necessary for ordering human life in the community so as to secure certain basic human goods. Lon Fuller formulates a functionalist interpretation of natural law. For him law exists to guide citizens in their pursuit of common goods and thus, facilitate the production of a just social order. Fuller conceives of natural law as constraining the way human laws are legislated. Ronald Dworkin retains the idea of natural law by stipulating that adjudication in courts ought at the deepest level appeal to the moral and political ideals on which a society is based.
Natural law theory has specific applications to criminal justice. One is in the area of discretionary justice. When judges have to decide cases to which no positive law applies, or for which there is no legal precedent, then they have no choice but to use their discretionary judgment. However, discretionary judgment must be guided by some norms in the interest of fairness and the avoidance of arbitrariness. Those norms are provided by natural law. Even in cases where laws do apply, judicial discretion is sometimes necessary to guard against “unjust” rigidity in applying the law.
Natural law theory also applies to war-crime trials coming before international courts of justice. In the case of the Nuremberg Trials (1945–46), the defendants, some of whom had been judges in the German legal system, claimed immunity from prosecution for their complicity in crimes against humanity because they were legally compelled to follow the laws of their nation. The moral and legal rationale for putting them on trial was that in obeying the law of their own land they had transgressed a law higher (natural law) than any national law.
Several objections have been made to natural law theory. First, natural law is a conceptually unstable idea because it conflates and confuses the “prescriptiveness” of positive law with the “descriptiveness” of scientific law. Further, scientific laws are currently understood not as actual principles operating in nature but rather as statistical generalizations from observed and recurrent patterns of natural events. Thus, the idea that there are objective and universal moral laws somehow woven into the fabric of the universe itself is highly dubious. Second, classical natural law theory presupposes the existence of a cosmic lawgiver or God. However, the existence of God may be doubted or denied, which means the theory collapses like a house of cards (though this objection does not apply to some recent nontheistic natural law theories). Third, from certain facts about human nature one cannot logically deduce moral obligations; reason of itself cannot create them. Finally, nature, including human nature, cannot be pronounced unambiguously good. The natural world is full of cruelty, death, and destruction. Moreover, the rational part of human nature is not the way it is because it was divinely preordained but because of the apparently blind forces of evolution. Natural law theory treats reason as an absolute when it, too, is contingent upon and conditioned by history, and may itself be flawed.
However, natural law survives in Roman Catholic moral theology where it is appealed to so as to justify proscriptions on abortion and artificial birth control, and in the area of international law where it continues to be a mainstay of just war theory.
- Aquinas, Thomas. On Law, Morality and Politics, Richard J. Regan, ed. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.
- Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
- Friedrich, Carl Joachim. The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
- Fuller, Lon L. The Morality of Law. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969.
- George, Robert. P., ed. Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Hart, H. L. A. The Concept of Law. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012.
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