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Natural Law

The natural law or law of nature is a system of justice that exists independently of the positive law of a given political order. Its usage has varied through its history. It presently has a meaning in both ethics and moral theory and Jurisprudence legal theory, despite the fact that the core claims of the two kinds of theory are logically independent. According to natural law ethical theory, the moral standards that govern human behavior are, in some sense, objectively derived from the nature of human beings. According to natural law legal theory, the authority of at least some legal standards necessarily derives, at least in part, from considerations having to do with the moral merit of those standards. There are a number of different kinds of natural law theories of law, differing from each other with respect to the role that morality plays in determining the authority of legal norms. This article will deal with its usages separately rather than attempt to give a single concept that ties them all together.


Greek philosophy was highly concerned with the difference between "nature" (''φúσις'') on the one hand and "law" or "custom" (''νóμος'') on the other. What the law commanded varied from place to place, but what was "by nature" should be the same everywhere. It was in accordance with the latter that philosophers strove to live. The development of this tradition into a natural law is usually attributed to the Stoics. This law was how a rational human being, seeking his own true happiness, would act. These theories became highly influential among Ancient Roman jurists, and consequently played a great role in subsequent legal theory.

Despite its pagan origins, a number (though not all) of the early Church Fathers sought to incorporate the natural law tradition into Christianity (the suspect devotion of the Stoics to pagan worship no doubt aided in this adoption). The most notable among these was Augustine of Hippo, who equated natural law with man's prelapsarian state; as such, a life according to nature was no longer possible and men needed to instead seek salvation through the divine law and grace. In the Twelfth Century, Gratian reversed this, equating the natural and divine laws. Thomas Aquinas restored natural law to its independent state, asserting that, as the perfection of human reason, it could approach but not fully comprehend the divine law.

All human laws were to be judged by their conformity to the natural law. An unjust law was in a sense no law at all. The common law accepted this in determining the content of the law in a particular case. At this point, the natural law was not only used to pass judgment on the moral worth of various laws, but also to determine what the law said in the first place.

The natural law was inherently teleological in that it aimed at human happiness. Its content was therefore determined by a conception of what things constituted happiness, be they temporal satisfaction (as with the Stoics) or salvation (as with the Christians). The state, in being bound by the natural law, was conceived as an institution directed at bringing its subjects to true happiness.

By the Seventeenth Century, such a view came under intense criticism from some quarters. Thomas Hobbes instead founded natural law on what all men could agree upon: what they sought (happiness) was subject to contention, but a broad consensus could form around what they feared (violent death at the hands of another). The natural law was how a rational human being, seeking to survive in comfort, would act. In Hobbes' hands, the natural law demanded that men submit to the commands of the sovereign. This meant that whatever the sovereign commanded was law: natural law forbade appeals from positive law to the natural law. Jeremy Bentham's modifications on this became the basis of legal positivism.

In Contemporary Philosophy

The Roman Catholic Church understands natural law to be immanent in nature; this understanding is in large part due to the influence of Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274 A.D.), often as filtered through the School of Salamanca.

Natural law theorists often portray a deep need for their teachings in modern Western societies. Natural law affirms the worth of all members of the human species. This worth is supplied by a rich and detailed anthropology that establishes an objectively observable conception of human beings. This anthropology is inseparable from the Natural Law tradition.

It understands human beings to consist of body and mind, the physical and the non-physical (or soul perhaps) and that the two are inextricably linked. It describes human persons as being inclined toward the good. There are many manifestations of the good that we can pursue, some of which like procreation are common to other animals and yet others like the pursuit of truth or knowledge, are inclinations peculiar to the capacities of human beings. An inextricable link between the body and the mind demands that our behavior be guided not just by primary instinct but by our higher faculties as well.

In Contemporary Jurisprudence

In jurisprudence, natural law is the doctrine that just laws are immanent in nature (that can be claimed as discovered but not created by such things as a bill of rights) and/or that they can emerge by natural process of resolving conflicts (as embodied by common law). These two aspects are actually very different, and can sometimes oppose or complement each other, although they share the common trait that they rely on immanence as opposed to design in finding just laws. In either case, natural law is considered to be something that exists independent and outside of the legal process itself, rather than simply being a principle whose origin is inside the legal system. Whereas legal positivism would say that a law can be unjust without it being any the less a law, a natural law jurisprudence would say that there is something deficient about an unjust law qua law.

The concept of natural law was very important in the development of Anglo-American common law. In the struggles between Parliament of the United Kingdom and the British monarchy, Parliament often made reference to the Fundamental Laws of England which embodied natural law since time immemorial and set limits on the power of the monarchy. 19th-century anarchist and legal theorist, Lysander Spooner, expressed in the English Bill of Rights and the United States Declaration of Independence -- and the concept of natural law.

Natural law jurisprudence is currently undergoing a period of reformulation (as is legal positivism). A number of American philosophers, including Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert George, and Canadian Joseph Boyle, have constructed a compelling new version of this venerable tradition. Besides utilitarianism and Kantianism, natural law theory is with virtue ethics, a live option for a first-principles ethics theory in analytic philosophy. "New Natural Law" theory as it is sometimes known, is the theory originating with Grisez; it focuses on “basic human goods”, such as human life, which are self-evidently intrinsically worthwhile and states that these goods reveal themselves as incommensurable with one another.

Source: Wikipedia. All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (see Copyrights for details).

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