Natural Law

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Natural Law is the concept that there is inherent in nature a set of laws, perhaps created by God, 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.[1]

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.[2] It was espoused by Thomas Aquinas,[3] 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.

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.[4]

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.

See Also


  1. Richard Hooker's Discourse on Natural Law in the Context of the Magisterial Reformation
  2. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor; International Theological Commission, The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at the Natural Law.
  3. See, for example, Summa Theologiae, I-II, qq. 90-94.
  4. (1821) Two Treatises On Government, 189-191. 

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