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Natural Law

Updated on September 2, 2009

Natural law is a moral law that philosophers and theologians have taught is inherent in human nature, commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong. They have held that while individual ideas of right and wrong may vary in detail from one time and place to another, there are certain basic demands of natural justice that are common to all persons. Examples are treating one's neighbors fairly and honoring one's parents. The commands of natural law arise out of the nature of man and can be discovered by reason or are presented by man's conscience.

The idea of natural law is thought to have first developed among the ancient Greeks. A notable early example of the idea is found in Sophocles' tragic play Antigone, in which the view is advanced that men have the natural right to disobey unjust human laws if they conflict with the higher natural law. The Greek philosopher Aristotle agreed with this view. The later Roman Stoic philosophers went further, arguing that since all men have the same human nature and are subject to the same moral law, all men are essentially equal as human beings.

Cicero was an outspoken proponent of the idea of natural law.
Cicero was an outspoken proponent of the idea of natural law.

Under Stoic influence the Roman statesman Cicero became an eloquent spokesman for the natural law idea. Later Roman jurists incorporated the natural law concept into Roman law, such as the jus gentium, the earliest form of international law.

The Christian tradition of natural law can be traced to St. Paul. In his Epistle to the Romans (2:14-15), Paul said that just and goojl Gentiles, who have no divinely revealed law, such as the Ten Commandments, "do by nature the things of the law...; they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith." In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas produced a systematic treatment of the topic, teaching that God created human nature in the image of His own Divine nature and that the natural law in man is the image of the eternal law, or the Divine reason itself.

After the Middle Ages the concept of natural law was employed by the Dutch jurist and humanist Hugo Grotius in developing modern international law. It was also important in the development of Anglo-American law and Western political theory. For example, the English jurist Sir William Blackstone insisted that the authority of human law is based on natural law and that any law conflicting with natural law is invalid. The political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in England and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France declared natural law to be the basis of natural rights to life, liberty, and property. They further held that government-is set up to promote men's rights. The natural law and related natural rights philosophy inspired men rebelling against oppressive government. The concepts came to be embodied in the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.

The natural law concept fell into disuse during the 19th century, when scholars devoted themselves to studying and describing the laws observably in force in different societies. However, there was a great renewal of interest in natural law in the 20th century in reaction to totalitarian governments that denied human rights and insisted that justice consist of absolute obedience to the laws of the state. Following World War II, Nazis charged with war crimes argued that they had disobeyed no law but had simply obeyed the commands of their government. Many were convicted on the argument that there is a higher natural law of justice, under whose standards the accused persons should have disobeyed the Nazi regime. To aid human rights against further violation, the United Nations in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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      Bikash deep saikia 5 years ago

      Natural law is really a critical topic.

    • ru blog profile image

      ru blog 7 years ago from Anchorage, Alaska

      The thought of natural law, or boiling things down to man's most natural state is intriguing. The Hobbes and Locke argument of man's inherent nature, inherently good or inherently bad, also can be enlightening. I tend to agree with Hobbes, that man is inherently bad, or self serving, thus the need for civil contracts. The best we can hope for is judicial reciprocity. We all know this is not a guarantee either.

      The ironic element, at least to me, of bringing man back to the closest state of nature to construct civil contracts, is the inherent unfairness in nature itself: moreover, in man himself. It seems we need to get further away from natural law and closer to civilized rule. In natural law man only has those rights in which he can defend. I take that as meaning, if someone is able to take my lunch then i go hungry. This is why we have civilized rule of law. Usually there is some unnatural repercussion for taking someone's lunch.

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      nisal 8 years ago

      this is very important to learners

    • philosophos profile image

      philosophos 8 years ago

      What do we accept as 'normal' today? A thousand years from now it might not be tolerated or could be looked back on with 'wow, they were silly'.

      It's easy to judge the past. But what they found natural and normal was just that.

    • GGarza profile image

      GGarza 8 years ago

      The problem with Natural Law is that what seems natural may be fleeting. Consider the Aztec notion of sacrifice. An annual feast was held where you virgin girls would be sacrificed to the gods as a way of appeasing and honoring them. It seemed "natural" at the time, and was supported by the people. Today it would not be tolerated.

      Natural law doesn't explain the sophisticated laws that we govern ourselves by. Like finance laws, crime laws, human rights laws, etc.