Natural Law Theory

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Natural Law Theory

Natural law is the understanding of a moral law that is either given with nature and known through reason or given with moral reason independently of nature. Natural law is universal and common to all humanity. It transcends differences in culture, religion, and various formulations of moral law. It is often understood as the fundamental source of normativity from which positively formulated moral norms must be derived if morally justifiable. As the counterpoint to positive laws, natural law is the criterion of justification for political and biblical law.

Historical overview

The notion of natural law can be traced to the stoic understanding of the common law (Greek: nomos koinos ), which permeates being and constitutes a cosmopolis in which the human being as a rational being participates. On the basis of a monistic metaphysics, the Stoics argued that there was a similarity between the law of the universe and the law of reason. The right action is that which is in accordance with nature, the cosmic law of reason. The influence from the Stoics was quite clear in the works of early Christian leader Augustine of Hippo and especially the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued in Summa Theologica that "the participation of the eternal law by rational creatures is called the law of nature" (I, II, 91, 2). Natural law (lex naturalis) was understood as a reflection in reason of the eternal law (lex aeterna), which was the constitutive law of being. As an eternal law it was a metaphysical explanation of divine reason. Divine reason was the source of the perfect order of being. Due to the Aristotelian influence, Aquinas also argued that the natural world would strive for its perfection, which ultimately was defined according to the eternal law. In natural law this good was reflected as a natural good, the basic reason why natural beings would strive for perfection.

This close link between physical nature and natural law as a law of reason became increasingly problematic, even if one still finds many advocates of this view. For Protestant reformers natural law is often endorsed as a law of reason because the depravity of nature makes it impossible to let nature serve as the basis of moral normativity. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English political theorist and philosopher, further lessened the link between nature and reason. Hobbes developed an understanding of natural law on the basis of a contractarian scheme of thought, where natural law was to be conceived of as articles of peace decided upon by the parties of the contract. The contractarian basis of natural law thought furthered the dissolution of the close link between nature and reason as the basis of natural law. By the time of the Enlightenment, natural law had become a law of reason. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is the leading proponent of this understanding of natural law. In his major work, The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant made extensive use of natural law thought, but natural law in a normative sense was now understood as a law of reason.

Contemporary reformulations

In a contemporary setting various attempts are made to reformulate the notion of natural law. If one could point to a common feature for most of these attempts, it would be a tendency to move beyond a metaphysical basis of natural law. Most can also be seen in the light of the impious hypothesis of seventeenth-century Dutch statesman Hugo Grotius: the endorsement that the normativity of natural law is valid, even if God does not exist. However, this does not necessitate a rejection of the existence of God. It merely stresses the independent normative basis of natural law.

The best known attempts at reformulation have their roots within a Thomistic tradition. The works of John Finnis and Germain Grisez during the 1980s have been the most influential from this train of thought. The common feature for Grisez and Finnis is an attempt to develop a normative moral theory based on a notion of basic human goods. Certain goods, such as life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, and religion, are derived from human nature. Moral life is to further these goods. Jean Porter argues in Natural and Divine Law (1999) that the normativity of nature can be endorsed in a contemporary setting on the basis of an evolutionistic explanation of the genesis of morality. Furthermore, metaethical naturalism also supports such a reformulation. The normative concept of nature is, therefore, quite plausible in a contemporary setting. Apart from the Thomistic reformulations of natural law one also finds a few attempts of reformulation within a Protestant tradition by, for example Ian Ramsey and David Little.

In addition to these theories with a religious basis, one may also point to various theories of moral philosophy, which may be seen as contributing to the reformulation of natural law. If one is only concerned with explicit natural law thought, the philosophical attempts at reformulation are relatively few. However, if one takes more indirect uses of natural law thought into consideration, one can find various attempts to reformulate the idea of natural law in either a more rational or naturalistic sense. In the more rational sense, one can point to the political theory of John Rawls. Rawls's theory of political justice, which is based upon the contractual agreement of parties may be seen as a theory where the notion of reason holds a normative implication in the constructive sense. The Kantian influence in this theory is evident in the focus on reason as the source of normativity. More naturalistic reformulations include, for example, Holmes Rolston's theories of environmental ethics. Rolston argues that values are given in nature, moral values are independent of the moral valuer, and nature is the source of moral values. This applies to human as well as nonhuman nature. Every natural organism has a natural good that serves as the source of the moral good. The moral good is defined as being in accordance with nature. The theories of Rawls and Rolston are both examples of theories where the primary attempt is not to reformulate natural law theory. Both of these theories, however, demonstrate important similarities to this classical concept.

See also Kant, Immanuel; Natural Theology; Thomas Aquinas; Value, Religious


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ulrik b. nissen

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Natural Law Theory

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