Legal Dictionary

natural law

Definition of natural law


natural law (uncountable)

  1. (philosophy) An ethical theory that posits the existence of a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere.

Further reading

Natural law or the law of nature (Latin: lex naturalis) has been described as a law whose content is set by nature and is thus universal. As classically used, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. The phrase natural law is opposed to the positive law (meaning "man-made law", not "good law"; cf. posit) of a given political community, society, or nation-state, and thus can function as a standard by which to criticize that law. In natural law jurisprudence, on the other hand, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to the natural law (or something like it). Used in this way, natural law can be invoked to criticize decisions about the statutes, but less so to criticize the law itself. Some use natural law synonymously with natural justice or natural right (Latin ius naturale)

Although natural law is often conflated with common law, the two are distinct in that natural law is a view that certain rights or values are inherent in or universally cognizable by virtue of human reason or human nature, while common law is the legal tradition whereby certain rights or values are legally cognizable by virtue of judicial recognition or articulation. Natural law theories have, however, exercised a profound influence on the development of English common law, and have featured greatly in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, and Emmerich de Vattel. Because of the intersection between natural law and natural rights, it has been cited as a component in United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The essence of Declarationism is that the founding of the United States is based on Natural law.

In contemporary jurisprudence

In jurisprudence, natural law can refer to the several doctrines:

  • That just laws are immanent in nature; that is, they can be "discovered" or "found" but not "created" by such things as a bill of rights;
  • That they can emerge by the natural process of resolving conflicts, as embodied by the evolutionary process of the common law; or
  • That the meaning of law is such that its content cannot be determined except by reference to moral principles. These meanings can either oppose or complement each other, although they share the common trait that they rely on inherence as opposed to design in finding just laws.

Whereas legal positivism would say that a law can be unjust without it being any less a law, a natural law jurisprudence would say that there is something legally deficient about an unjust law. Legal interpretivism, famously defended in the English speaking world by Ronald Dworkin, claims to have a position different from both natural law and positivism.

Besides utilitarianism and Kantianism, natural law jurisprudence has in common with virtue ethics that it is a live option for a first principles ethics theory in analytic philosophy.

Source: Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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