We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.Thomas Jefferson
Declaration of Independence
Natural Law is the principle that there exists a set of laws for the governing of our behavior and the structuring of our society that is independent of and that supersedes any laws that we may write for ourselves or that may be imposed upon us by a human authority. It comes from the concept that the basis of what is “right” and good for humanity can be derived directly from the nature of our beings regardless of any set of laws or customs that might be arbitrarily established by the whim of some authority’s thoughts and desires. This is an ancient principle in human thought. It is discussed in some of the earliest philosophy of Western Civilization. For instance, in promoting the proper source of justice among mankind, the idea was advocated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BC that what is “just by nature” is not always the same as what is “just by law.”
The principle of Natural Law is the foundation of American idealism. It is expressed by Thomas Jefferson as the basis of the fundamental “unalienable Rights” in his famous statement quoted above from the Declaration of Independence. These rights are “self evident” and therefore are not subject to change or retraction by any human authority.
This idea is strongly implied in the founding legal document of our country, the Constitution of the United States of America, most specifically in the tenth amendment, in the act of reserving “to the people” all powers not specifically granted by the people to the government, meaning that it is not up to the government to dictate or even to grant rights to the people, but it is up to the people to use their own minds to figure out and decide what is right and good for society and to then determine what powers they will delegate to the government.
There have been some wrong ideas about Natural Law over the centuries.
One idea is that Natural Law is merely the “survival of the fittest,” the “law of the jungle,” because that is the way things operate in “nature.”
This is incorrect with regard to humanity.
Yes, humanity does have a primal and sometimes brutal nature within us. But this is not the extent of our nature. A proper derivation of Natural Law with regard to humanity needs to recognize that our nature contains higher faculties capable of great amounts of knowledge and understanding and compassion and empathy on top of our more primitive survival instincts.
Mankind is fundamentally a social creature. A proper set of principles for our survival and the thriving of the individuals who constitute our societies requires the establishment and maintenance of a reasonably harmonious social order, and even a recognition of our impact on the environment in the world around us.
The Golden Rule is a natural result of our self-discovery of our nature as thinking, feeling individuals who live in social contact with each other.
Another popular idea is that, in our society, law is a consensus among the members of society, and that this fact contradicts the principle of Natural Law. Furthermore, it is claimed that, in practice, laws are created by the most powerful and influential people, whether it is the ruler in a dictatorship or the majority in a democracy or republic, and that this fact makes the principle of Natural Law irrelevant. And both of these arguments assert that human laws are necessarily subjective and cannot be objective because they are made up in the minds of people and are always, in effect, just the result of the whims of those who are in charge.
A favorite saying among many people who deny that morals, ethics, and human laws can be objectively based is that “you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’”
This is a wrongheaded approach for several reasons.
First of all, “objective” does not mean “written in stone somewhere.” It also does not even mean “obvious at first glance.” When we say that a principle is “objective” or “self evident,” what that means is that it is possible to derive an optimal set of operational rules from objective observations of the real world regarding the thing in question, in this case, the nature of humanity and our relationships with each other and our environment. And the assertion that “you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’” is vapid on the face of it. From where else besides the reality of the real world could you derive a set of functions for the optimal operation of the real world?
There are plenty of sciences that come to objective conclusions about the principles of operation of the universe that are based on objective observations of the real world that need to be tweaked and adjusted, or, in some cases, totally revised, over time. They are not completely lacking in objectivity because some observation or measurement turned out to be inaccurate.
Humans are a real part of the real world. And we have various traits and abilities that can be observed objectively. So there is nothing that excludes the existence of a Natural Law for human activities from being objectively based upon the nature of humanity. Discovery, even self-discovery of our own nature, can be a slow process and both the results of observation and conclusions derived from them can be subject to change, even if they are based in objectivity.
Now, the assertion that human laws being made up by humanity somehow negates either the principle or the relevance of Natural Law is a fallacy in two ways:
First of all, by its nature, Natural Law exists as a set of principles independent of human laws that are written down on paper. This is an inherent part of its nature.
And second, the relevance of Natural Law is increased, not decreased or eliminated, when human laws and regulations are made to contradict it.
To promote the concept of Natural Law is to promote the idea that there is, in fact, a “right” way to do things. Our understanding of Natural Law, then, becomes a baseline to compare our written laws against. The idea that something is “right” or “wrong,” even though its rightness or wrongness contradicts current proscribed laws on our law books becomes an arguing point to get those law books changed.
For instance, a principle of Natural Law that we could derive from the fact that each one of humanity is an independent thinking, feeling human being is that slavery is wrong. And we can proclaim that principle regardless of whether any laws currently on the books acknowledge the fact. And we can use that proclamation of principle in persuasive arguments to get unjust laws changed. And furthermore, if someone claims that their view of Natural Law contradicts what we are saying, we can use objective observations of the reality of that oppressed people are, in fact, thinking, feeling human beings to argue our point.
The assertion of the validity of Natural Law provides an important attitude in support of our assertion of our rights and freedoms and our arguments for how our society should be structured, and that we should not be, and in fact, are not merely subject to every whim of some external human authority.
The idea of Natural Law is just about as old as formalized human philosophy.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher, Plato, in about 400 BC, conceptualized the universe as based upon an overriding natural order which he described as the “Form of the Good,” which he saw as the ultimate cause behind all things that exist in the physical world. The Greek stoic philosophers taught that there is a “divine spark” within each of humanity which, ideally, we use as a guide in living our lives according to the laws of nature.
This is consistent with the Christian teaching, written down in the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, regarding “the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
And the apostle, Paul spoke of the “self evident” nature of Natural Law in his letter to the Romans:
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2: 14-15
So, both for the Greek philosophers and within Christian teachings, Natural Law does not come from specific divine commandments handed down in a text from God, but is derived from humanity’s inherent relationship with Divinity and, according to the apostle Paul, is “written in their hearts” (or, what I would term the “higher” aspects of the rational and loving potential of our mind and feelings) regardless of whether or not people even have knowledge of sacred scripture.
This idea is particularly apt for a country that was founded during the age of the enlightenment as it challenges the “divine right of kings” and asserts that the proper foundation for the laws of the nation rests with the minds and hearts of the people and what they can rationally determine as the best way to run society.
As is said in an admonition with an anonymous attribution that I found a number of years ago:
People too often look for the words of an authority to tell them what is “true” or what is “good.” They say, “Because Moses or the prophets said so-and-so, it is true,” or “because Jesus said this or that, it is good.” Instead, they should look with open eyes and a clear mind at the world around them for what is true. For what is good, they should search their own hearts and judge how what they find there may help or harm their brothers and sisters and then they should do only that which will help and will not harm. In doing this, they fulfill the teachings of Jesus and Moses and the prophets.