Before I explain how I define Natural law, I want to make something clear to the reader. A great deal of what I write on The Road to Concord is the result of my own reasoning. As I have posted elsewhere, I hold a BA in philosophy. So, naturally, I am familiar with many of the classic philosophers and the many different areas of philosophical thinking. However, much of my ‘world view’ was formed before I discovered the works of these men and women. Since I earned my degree, I have read a great many philosophers, but nowhere near all of them — not even all of the major thinkers. Therefore, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between my own reasoning and the ideas of another philosopher. Now, I have no desire to claim credit for anything that should be credited to another person. It is for this reason that I beg the reader to grant me some benefit of the doubt. If you should find anything in my writing that you believe I have unjustly taken unto myself, please point it out and tell me who it was that first spoke of the point in question. I may very well be ignorant of that person’s work, or that aspect of their work, and I would be very appreciative to anyone who helps me broaden my awareness of the work others have done before me.
So, what is ‘Natural Law?’ Well, others have already provided better summaries of this issue than I can, but, if the reader is interested, this is an excellent overview:
Natural Law – What is Law?
Natural Law is a broad and often misapplied term tossed around various schools of philosophy, science, history, theology, and law. Indeed, Immanuel Kant reminded us, ‘What is law?’ may be said to be about as embarrassing to the jurist as the well-know question ‘What is Truth?’ is to the logician.
- Law, in its generic sense, is a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force. That which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequences is a law (Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, p. 884).
- Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law and how the law developed.
Natural Law – A Moral Theory of Jurisprudence
Natural Law is a moral theory of jurisprudence, which maintains that law should be based on morality and ethics. Natural Law holds that the law is based on what’s “correct.” Natural Law is “discovered” by humans through the use of reason and choosing between good and evil. Therefore, Natural Law finds its power in discovering certain universal standards in morality and ethics.
Natural Law – The History
The Greeks — Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle emphasized the distinction between “nature” (physis, φъσις) and “law,” “custom,” or “convention” (nomos, νуμος). What the law commanded varied from place to place, but what was “by nature” should be the same everywhere. Aristotle (BC 384—322) is considered by many to be the father of “natural law.” In Rhetoric, he argues that aside from “particular” laws that each people has set up for itself, there is a “common law” or “higher law” that is according to nature (Rhetoric 1373b2–8).
The Stoics — The development of natural law theory continued in the Hellenistic school of philosophy, particularly with the Stoics. The Stoics pointed to the existence of a rational and purposeful order to the universe. The means by which a rational being lived in accordance with this cosmic order was considered natural law. Unlike Aristotle’s “higher law,” Stoic natural law was indifferent to the divine or natural source of that law. Stoic philosophy was very influential with Roman jurists such as Cicero, thus playing a significant role in the development of Roman legal theory.
The Christians — Augustine (AD 354—430) equates natural law with man’s Pre-Fall state. Therefore, life according to nature is no longer possible and mankind must instead seek salvation through the divine law and Christ’s grace. Gratian (12th century) reconnected the concept of natural law and divine law. “The Human Race is ruled by two things: namely, natural law and usages (mos, moris, mores). Natural law is what is contained in the law and the Gospel. By it, each person is commanded to do to others what he wants done to himself and is prohibited from inflicting on others what he does not want done to himself.” (Decretum, D.1 d.a.c.1; ca. 1140 AD)
Natural Law – The Conclusion
In the end, where does law come from? The Theory of Natural Law maintains that certain moral laws transcend time, culture, and government. There are universal standards that apply to all mankind throughout all time. These universal moral standards are inherent in and discoverable by all of us, and form the basis of a just society.
In general terms, I agree with the definition and explanation I just posted for you. This is why I did not bother to write my own definition. There is little use in re-inventing the wheel. However, I do have an important caveat that should be addressed directly:
It may not seem like it is all that important at first, but it is absolutely necessary that we understand what we mean when we discuss ‘Nature.’ One must not think of ‘Nature’ as a being, or the source of ‘Natural Law,’ but rather, as a descriptive term used to help us understand and discuss the Natural World as best we can know and understand it. In other words, ‘Nature’ should not be used in place of God or The Creator, as in ‘Gaia.’ Instead, ‘Nature’ should be thought of in terms of the natural world: everything that makes up this universe. It is a term used to describe the sum total of all matter, all energy and all the laws — physical and otherwise — that govern the workings of this universe. It is an impersonal term that carries no implication of animation or life. ‘Nature’ cannot cause anything to happen. It just follows a natural order that has already been set in motion, and order that is a part of ‘Nature’ and, thus, can be ‘discovered’ by us through observation, experimentation and reason. This is the idea of ‘Nature’ that I mean when I speak of ‘Natural Law,’ and not the notion that ‘Nature’ is or has an animating nature of its own, or that it can cause any original action of its own will.
That said, the most important understanding I hope the reader will take away from this post is that ‘Natural Law’ is:
A set of universal moral Laws which apply equally, not just to all men, but to all ‘moral agents.’
These moral laws are an inherent part of the ‘Natural’ world.
Therefore, these Laws are an inherent part of each of us. They are a part of all moral agents.
These moral Laws do not change: they apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times.
These ‘Natural Laws’ can be known or ‘discovered’ through reason (as well as observation of the natural world).
Finally, the just society is based on and is constructed in accordance with this set of universal Natural Laws.