Natural Law

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Natural laws …
…have no exceptions.

…do not change over time.
…exist independently of their discovery and formulation by humans.
…can always be successfully applied to as yet unknown cases.
…provide an answer to the question of whether or not a conceived process is possible at all.

Natural Law is the concept that there is inherent in nature a set of laws, one of the gifts of God to man at his creation,[2], to which humans must adhere. These laws are considered to be self-evident, in that they are able to be observed by everyone. It is debated whether or not natural law actually exists; in particular, it conflicts with sola scriptura.[3]

These are distinguished from physical law in that they can be broken or disobeyed, and from civil law and common law by the fact that they have no enforcement agencies. However, it can be argued that it forms the foundation for many legal systems in the world.

Natural Law Theory is the official ethic of the Roman Catholic Church.[4] It was espoused by Thomas Aquinas,[5] and argues that, as God created the universe and revealed His mind to man through the order inherent in things discernible by the natural light of reason, man can use his reason to discern God's Will by studying the natural world. For instance, a study of the male and female reproductive system naturally leads any sane person to see that their natural function is to come together for the purpose of procreation- so any acts excluding this purpose, such as homosexuality, onanism, contraception, and acts during menstruation, are wrong. Before the encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930, some Catholics believed that acts during pregnancy or after menopause were also wrong as against natural law.


One of the earliest to recognize the source of Natural Rights(God) together with the immutability of the law, was the Roman senator Cicero.

"There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, - its promulgator, - its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life." - Cicero, De Re Publica[6]

State of Nature

To understand Natural Law, some have sought to understand humanity through the most basic state of nature. As John Locke explains:

To properly understand political power and trace its origins, we must consider the state that all people are in naturally. That is a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature. People in this state do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others to arrange matters on their behalf. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings - as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties - are equal amongst themselves. They have no relationship of subordination or subjection unless God (the lord and master of them all) had clearly set one person above another and conferred on him an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.[7]

The formula is simple. If humans have rights, and these rights exist prior to the existence of government, then government cannot be the source of rights. Rights must come from some place else.

However, this basic state of nature never existed historically and is unnecessary to explain the origin of government, even if the thought experiment indicates a lack of natural fixity to political hierarchy.

Commentaries on the Laws of England

Blackstone's Commentaries is another important source of Natural Law, which was highly influential in the American Colonies. It sold more copies in the colonies than it did in England.[8]

The Author of Nature

Nature and God are intricately connected, as early philosophers made clear:

Natural right is the dictate of right reason, shewing the moral turpitude, or moral necessity, of any act from its agreement or disagreement with a rational nature, and consequently that such an act is either forbidden or commanded by God, the author of nature.[9] - Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace

Where the name, nature, is allowed without dispute, no more is meant than an established method and order of events, settled and limited by divine wisdom.

If any should object to this, that if the want of original righteousness be thus according to an established course of nature, then why are not principles of holiness, when restored by divine grace, also communicated to posterity; I answer, The divine law and establishments of the author of nature, are precisely settled by him as he pleaseth, and limited by his wisdom.[10] - Jonathan Edwards, The Doctrine of Original Sin; or the Native State and Character of Man unfolded.

The law of nature alone regulates the treaties of nations: the difference of religion is a thing absolutely foreign to them. Different people treat with each other in quality of men, and not under the character of Christians, or of Musselmans.[11] Their common safety requires that they should treat with each other, and treat with security. Every religion that should in this case clash with the law of nature, would bear upon it the marks of reprobation; and it could not come from the author of nature, who is always constant, always faithful.[12] - Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations

For that all Law properly considered, supposes a capable Subject, and a Superiour Power, And the Law of God which is Binding, is published by the Dictates of Right Reason as other ways; Therefore says Plutarch, To follow God and obey Reason is the same thing. But moreover that God has Established the Law of Nature, as the General Rule of Government, is further Illustrable from the many Sanctions in Providence, and from the Peace and Guilt of Conscience in them that either obey, or violate the Law of Nature.[13] - John Wise, A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches

See Also


  1. 95 Theses against Evolution: 76-83 Information theory. Retrieved on 8 November 2015.
  2. Sir William Blackstone differentiates between “absolute rights” of individuals (natural rights which exist prior to the state) and social rights (contractural rights which evolve later) (1753) (May 5th, 2009). “The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature; being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free will.”
  3. Richard Hooker's Discourse on Natural Law in the Context of the Magisterial Reformation
  4. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor; International Theological Commission, The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at the Natural Law.
  5. See, for example, Summa Theologiae, I-II, qq. 90-94.
  6. Marcus Tullius Cicero (1841). The political works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, tr. by Francis Barham. 
  7. (1821) Two Treatises On Government, 189-191. 
  8. (1912) The Americana: a universal reference library, comprising the arts and sciences, literature, history, biography, geography, commerce, etc., of the world, Volume 21. Scientific American compiling department. 
  9. Hugo Grotius (1625). De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). 
  10. Jonathan Edwards (1839). The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 
  11. Musselman, A 'musselman' is an archaic term for a muslim.
  12. Emer de Vattel (1625). The Law of Nations; Or Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns. 
  13. John Wise (1717). A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches. 

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