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Doctrine of Natural Law

Nature of the doctrine
The adherent of natural law believes that beyond, and superior to, the laws
made by man are certain higher principles, the principles of natural law.
These principles are immutable and eternal.
Man-made laws may vary from one community to another with respect to
matters of everyday importance, but with regard to the highest matters, man-
made law should be in accord with the principles of natural law.
When man-made law conflicts with natural law, it lacks validity: it is not a
valid, binding law at all.
Natural law is 'the theory that there are certain principles of human
conduct, awaiting discovery by human reason, with which man-made law
must conform if it is to be valid.
For e.g. the government, in order to reduce population growth, introduces
legislation that legalizes the abortion of an unborn child at any time up until
the time when it would be born.
China is an excellent e.g. 1 child policy.
By many this would be regarded as the taking of life, and contrary to the will
of God.
Such would be the opinion of the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam - in
whose view abortion at any stage of pregnancy constitutes (subject to
certain exceptions) the taking of life and is therefore contrary to the will of
Opposition to the hunting or testing of wild animals for pleasure or
commercial gains , or who oppose the use of live animals for the purpose of
research into the safety of consumer products such as cosmetics, these
people base their case on an appeal to conscience, to a code that stands
above man-made law, to a higher morality, to standards that have universal
validity and applicability. E.g. killing of whales for its oil to make perfume
If you side with these people you have been unknowingly subscribing to this
doctrine of natural all the while.
The doctrine of natural law has a long history. Notions that foreshadow the
doctrine are found amongst the ideas of the philosophers of the golden age
of Greece, in the fifth century before Christ. The doctrine reached a form
that we can recognize in the writings of the Stoic school of philosophers in
the early centuries of the Roman Empire.
The doctrine was adopted by the Church and took on a religious appeal. It
remained a key element of the Catholic Church throughout post-reformation
history, and remains such at our own day.
The doctrine inspired much of the thinking of secular philosophers in the
sixteenth century, contributing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
to a parallel doctrine of natural rights.
Natural Law
Why natural law? What is natural about it?
The word 'natural' in natural law refers to an idea that provides the
foundation of natural law - namely the reason why natural law ought to be
Man is part of nature. Within nature, man has a nature.
His nature inclines him towards certain ends - to procreate children, to
protect his family, to ensure his survival. To seek such ends is natural to
him. Those things which assist the achieving of such ends assist the purposes
of nature.
Thus, laws that further the achievement by man of his natural ends assist
the achievement of the purposes of nature.
Such laws, laws that are in accord with the ultimate purposes of man,
constitute natural law.
What about the rights demanded by the LGBT movement? Does it fit into
the concept of natural law? What are the motivation behind such
movement? To procreate children, to protect family institution, to ensure
human survival?
What does natural law consist of? What are its precepts?
Natural law ordains that society should be ordered in such a way as to assist
man in fulfilling his purpose of existence.
Since violence will impede this fulfillment, violence is contrary to natural
Since peace assists this fulfillment, man should honour promises, since to
dishonour a promise can lead to disharmony or even violence.
Since man's natural ends are the same and constant for all mankind, it is
natural that the principles of natural law are constant.
Thus, natural law comprises a body of permanent, eternal truths, truths
embodying precepts of universal applicability, part of the immutable order
of things, unaffected by changing human beliefs or attitudes.
Discoverable by reason
It is a characteristic of natural law that the truths that it embodies
are not made known.
The truths of natural law are ascertainable by man through the
exercise of the reason with which he is by nature endowed.
The truths of natural law are determined by observation followed
by reflection: What are man's natural ends? What ordering of
society best enables these ends to be achieved?
Despite its transcendence, man discovers the content of natural
law for himself.
God does not tell him - having given man the intelligence and
reason, He does not need to.
Distinction between Natural Law and Man-Made Law
This brings us to the final characteristic of natural law thinking: the
distinction between natural law and man-made law.
The natural lawyer recognises the existence of (and the need for) man-
made law but regards this as inferior to natural law.
Further, if man-made law conflicts with natural law, man-made law is
deemed to lack validity.
Development of Natural Law Thinking
Ancient Greece
Plato and Aristotle.
From Plato we can traced that element of natural law thinking that regards
values as having an eternal existence and an eternal truth.
Qualities such as justice and truth exist in their own right. All men can do is
to attempt to reproduce them.
To reproduce these qualities men must seek knowledge of the eternal
truths, a quest that is man's finest endeavour.
In Plato's Dialogues, he believed it was possible for man to attain
knowledge of the external truths, for example, 'goodness', justice',
For Plato the forms of 'goodness', 'virtue', 'honesty were eternal and
They constituted moral principles of universal and timeless validity existing
above and unaffected by changing human attitudes or beliefs, moral
principles by reference to which all human actions and views must be
Are human race now facing a crisis of morality? Self-destruction and
extinction of human race? Think of unfolding human drama?
Aristotle' did not subscribe to Plato's theory of forms. Nonetheless, the
element in his thinking had contributed a further aspect to what was to
become part of natural law doctrine.
Aristotle was concerned with the world as he saw it existing around him. He
was a zoologist, in particular a marine zoologist, with an acute observation of
the minutest details of organisms observable by the human eye.
From his studies of the natural world he became conscious of the fact that
natural phenomena were in a state of perpetual change - the child growing
into an adult; the seed growing into a plant. There was always progress.
Throughout the living world, Aristotle saw that, in the birth and growth of
animals and plants, the earlier stages always lead up to a final development.
The process is constant. There is always potential for further change: in
everything there is a potentiality striving to reach a further stage of
However, modern scientific and technological innovations have redefined
many aspects of Plato and Aristotle natural law principles.
They are challenging almost all aspects of traditional, cultural and religious
practices and recognized social norms. Can you think some that are under
threat or have vanished?
Thus, for Aristotle the universe is dynamic, always engaged in the process
of transformation.
The philosophy that everything that exists has a predetermined end is
termed teleology (from the Greek teleos, end, and logos, rule or
Aristotle's teleology extended beyond the individual phenomena of the
natural world to the activities of creatures within it, including human
For Aristotle, the highest form of human society lay in the Greek city
state (a polis) . It was the polis that provided the society in which man
could achieve his culminating fulfillment.
Thus from the start of organised human society, from its most primitive
forms, through the various stages of agricultural existence to the building
of cities, and the creating of political societies such as that at Athens,
mankind was progressing towards that which had been its end from the
Aristotles observation can be seen in the growth of villages and towns
to become cities and megalopolis across the world with modern
amenities etc.
In the Nichomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle discusses the nature of
justice, he says: 'There are two sorts of political justice, one natural and the
other legal.
Among the gods, indeed, justice presumably never changes at all; but in our
world, although there is such a thing as natural law, everything is subject to
change; but still some things are so by nature and some are not, and it is
easy to see what sort of thing, among those that admit of being otherwise, is
so by nature and what is not, but is legal and conventional ...
Rules of justice established by convention or agreement and on the ground
of expediency may be compared to standard measures.
Similarly laws that are not natural but man-made are not the same
everywhere, because forms of government are not the same either; but
everywhere there is only one natural form of government, namely that
which is best.
The element of Aristotles natural law thinking can readily be seen .
In this passage where he says: 'If the written law tells against our case
already we must appeal to the universal law, and insist on a greater equity
and justice.'
Here also we have a hint of natural law thinking.
Aristotle accepted that there is a natural and universal right and wrong,
apart from any human ordinance or convention.
Perhaps for the Greeks of his time the notion that higher laws existed than
those of man needed no special mention.
In Plato's idealism and in Aristotle's teleology, we can see the Greek notion
of a law higher than that of men with other elements, to form the full
doctrine of natural law.
The Stoics
The next development in the history of the natural law doctrine can be
found in the writings of the authors who form the Stoic school of
Stoicism held influence from the lifetime of its founder Zeno (during the
third century before Christ) down to about the-fourth century AD. It was
the prevailing philosophy during the greater part of the Roman Republic
and Empire.
The contribution of the Stoic school of philosophy may be represented by
the writings of Cicero, Seneca and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
In Cicero's work On Duties the following passages occur. 'Besides, the
Stoics' ideal- is to live consistently with nature throughout our lives we
ought invariably to aim at morally right courses of action,
'Indeed this idea - that one must not injure anybody else for one's own
profit - is not only natural law, an international valid principle: The whole
point and intention of these statutes is that one citizen shall live safely
with another."'
'... the finest and noblest characters prefer a life of dedication to a life of
self-indulgence; and one may conclude that such men conform with nature
and are therefore incapable of doing harm to their fellow men.
'... neglect of the common interest is unnatural, because it is unjust ...
nature's law promotes and coincides with the common interest.'
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote:
'If the power of thought is universal among mankind, so likewise is the
possession of reason, making us rational creatures. It follows, therefore, that
this reason speaks no less universally to us all with its "thou shalt" or "thou
shalt not". So then there is a world-law; which in turn means that we are all
fellow-citizens and share a common citizenship, and that the world is a single
Injustice is a sin. Nature has constituted rational beings for their own mutual
benefit, each to help his fellows according to their worth, and in no wise to do
them hurt; and to contravene her will is plainly to sin against this eldest of all
the deities. Untruthfulness, too, is a sin, and against the same goddess. For
Nature is the nature of Existence itself, and existence connotes the kinship of
all created beings. Truth is but another name for this Nature, the original
creator of all true things.
From these passages it can be seen that the Stoic school added flesh to the
bones of natural law.
Tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, fortitude, uprightness, sincerity,
honesty - these were the qualities that the Stoics believed that natural
law, required of men.
These were the qualities to which reason dictated that man should aspire in
order that he might live in accordance with what nature had ordained,.
The Stoic ideals and thinking contributed to the evolution of the
universality of the doctrine of natural law.
Stoics saw mankind as one brotherhood. They looked outside the city state,
outside the Empire and saw the whole of the human race as being bound
and united by the brotherly love that the precepts of natural law enjoined.
The parallels between the tenets of Stoicism and the teaching of Christ
come readily to mind.
Stoicism taught that men should love one another, since this was in accord
with nature and thus was man's duty.
Christianity taught -'Love one another', and it added 'and if you do, there
is a bonus - life everlasting.'
For the Christian the reward was Heaven, coupled with satisfaction of
knowing that the sinner (among whom no doubt were numbered one's
enemies) would suffer the eternal torments of Hell.
The teaching of Christ provided a code of conduct, but not a
comprehensive theology.
The creation of the latter was the accomplishment of the Fathers of the
early church, principally St Augustine, St Ambrose and St Gregory.
Having been born into the Roman world it was natural that these men
should reflect in their writings aspects of the philosophies of Greece and
Rome that could be enlisted to give intellectual support to the teachings of
the new church.
The incorporation of natural law into Christian theology was accomplished
at a later period, but when St Augustine wrote 'If a law be unjust, it is no law
at all'.
This was further demonstrated in Gratian's Decretum, a collection of texts
dealing with canon law, with a commentary designed to reconcile
inconsistencies and contradictions that had accumulated during the previous
In the Decretum, natural law is treated as part of the immutable law of God.
It was natural law anterior in time, and superior, to man-made law to the
extent that man-made law ran counter to natural law, it was null and void.
St Thomas Aquinas
It was in the work of St Thomas Aquinas, principally in the Summa
Theologica, that the final and most complete synthesis of the classic
doctrine of natural law and the doctrine of the Christian church was
The writings of Aristotle had been lost to the western world from the fall of
the Empire in the west and only became available to western Scholars in the
twelfth century.
It was the achievement of St Thomas to reconcile the philosophy in newly-
discovered writings with the doctrines of Christianity and to do so in such
away as to strengthen mightily the intellectual basis on which Christianity
St Thomas's chain of thinking is this. God is the creator. The world, the
universe, the cosmos is his creation. Everything, physical and intellectual,
stems from Him.
When God created man He enabled him to know truth. Truths are of three
kinds. Divine truths are those made known to man by revelation. For
example, it is revealed to man by the Holy Scriptures that Jesus Christ is the
Son of God, who was sent into the world; that, by his death on the cross, a
means of salvation should be offered to all those who confess their sins and
acknowledge Christ as their Saviour; further that it is God's will that on six
days should man labour, and on the seventh, rest; that Mary, the mother of
Jesus, was a virgin, and that at her death she was taken up into Heaven.
Next came those truths that man can disover by exercise of speculation, by
what St Thomas calls 'speculative reason and truths which man discovers by
the exercise of 'practical reason'.
Matters that man can discover by the exercise of practical reason Aquinas
terms the eternal law. For Aquinas, natural law consists of participation
by man in the law.
To discover how man's affairs should be regulated it is necessary, Aquinas
said, to proceed, by the exercise of human reason, from the first principles
of natural law.
The first principles of natural law are immutable, eternal, and binding on
all mankind.
For example, if we deduce from the principle that man should live at
peace with his fellows, the principle that debts should be repaid, we find
that: This conclusion holds in the majority of cases.
In a passage of crucial importance St Thomas explains the relationship
between man-made law and natural law.
He says, 'St Augustine says:
"There is no law unless it be just. So, the validity of law depends upon its
justice. But in human affairs a thing is said to be just when it accords a right
with the rule of reason: and, as we have already seen, the first rule of reason
is the natural law. Thus all humanly enacted laws are in accord with reason
to the extent that they derive from the natural law. And if a human law is at
variance in any particular with the natural law, it is no longer legal, but
rather a corruption of law.'
This raises the question, if a human law conflicts with natural law, and thus
'is no longer legal' (or as we might express the matter today, it lacks validity)
does this mean that a citizen may in good conscience disobey it? Can he say,
'For me, this is not law'?
In answering this question, St Thomas explains that law may be unjust, by
which he means in conflict with natural law, in one of two ways. First, 'by
being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things
mentioned above - either in respect of the end, as when an authority
imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common
good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory; or in respect of the author,
as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him.
The like are acts of violence rather than laws, because, as Augustine says, "A
law that is not just, seems to be no law at all." Wherefore such laws do not
bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance,
for which cause a man should even yield his right.
'Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the divine good:
such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry or to anything else contrary
to the divine law; and laws of this kind must nowise be observed because,
as stated in Acts v 29, "we ought to obey God rather than men".'
So if a ruler makes a law that conflicts with natural law, for example a law
that people's legal rights and economic entitlements should vary according to
the colour of their skin, then notwithstanding the law's injustice, the law
should not be disobeyed, since of greater import than the validity or
invalidity of the law is the need to avoid disturbance. For the sake of avoiding
disturbance, the citizen should 'yield his right'.
In modern jargon, law and order take precedence over matters of justice.
On the other hand, if the state makes a law that 'is opposed to the divine
law' - the content of which it is the Church's function to decree - then man
is freed from the obligation to obey. (Whether or not a man-made law
conflicts with divine law is a question for the Church to determine.)
Thus if the state makes a law that the citizen regards as unjust he should
obey it. If the state makes a law that the Church ordains to be unjust, he
should not.
St Thomas's contribution was to provide a synthesis between the Judeo-
Christian understanding of law and justice, with its view of law as derived
from revelation of God's intention for the world, and the Greco-Roman
view of law as being interdependent with reason.
St Thomas's integration of Aristotle's philosophy into the structures of
Christian theology gained official acceptance in 1270.
His view of natural law has continued to provide the foundation of the
thinking of the Catholic Church until today.
Has the Catholic Church renounces their view of natural law of late over
issues of priest performing child prostitution and Pope recognition of same
sex marriage?
The 17th Century
Although it has been within the theology of the Catholic Church that the
doctrine of natural law has found its fullest expression, the seeds of the
doctrine were sown before the Christian era.
Natural law could provide the foundation of a system of ethics, a reason
why men should behave in a certain way, that was independent of the
fact that God's will, revealed in the Scriptures, directed men to act in the
same manner.
It remains to be said that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
there grew up a doctrine that had affinities with, and shared certain of the
foundations with, the doctrine of natural law: the doctrine of natural
If this chapter was intended as a history of the doctrine more would have
been said at various stages of our account, and consideration would have
had to be given to the importance of the doctrine as an influence on
philosophy, on the development of law, and on the conduct of affairs of