Natural law is a common understanding of human nature and ethics. Humans are part of nature, so we are capable of perceiving and living by natural rules, and applying those rules in a universal way. Universally self-explanatory principles of equality, sovereignty, and dignity should guide our interactions with others.
Natural law based philosophy provides the foundation for natural rights or human rights, which undergird the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and English and American systems of jurisprudence. Natural Law theories can be found in Greek, Roman, and ancient Buddhist texts. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Bacon, Grotius, Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, and many others argued for various forms of natural law.
Natural Law philosophy should not be confused with the scientific laws of physics or biology. Human nature in the natural law sense, means that each of us has an innate tendency to behave in ways that are good for ourselves and good for others. We share common values and an understanding of ethics which derives from our nature. This is one of the things that makes us human.
We also have the free will to choose how to behave. Corruption represents a turning away from our true nature as humans. Things can go haywire if our understanding and feelings are corrupted by our upbringing, culture, and negative socialization.
The highest ideal is to unite your conduct with the good in nature; the interconnectedness and preciousness of life, and respect for yourself and others.
What Are Natural Rights and Where Do They Come From?
The founders by in large, based their view of natural law on arguments made by Cicero, John Locke, and various Enlightenment thinkers. Locke argued that we all have certain rights which derive from nature, such as life, liberty, and property.
These natural rights differ from so-called “positive” rights, which require that someone else provide you with something that you do not have simply by virtue of being human, such as a living wage, an education, health care, etc. Natural rights exist on their own.
"All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," means that we are equal in terms of our rights as humans. It does not mean that every external condition which effects us can or should be made equal. For example, some people are born with a higher IQ than others, more loving parents, born into a wealthy family, etc. Their external conditions in life may not be equal, but they all share the same natural rights by virtue of being human.
To quote Liccone again, "The argument put forth in the Declaration of Independence is that “rights” are rights because they exist with or without individuals or the government acknowledging them. We do not make them, we simply discern them by reflecting on the reality around us and the natural law written into that reality."
If Human Nature is Naturally Good, Then What's Wrong With the World?
We should try to remember that is easier to use free will to go along with natural law, than to fight against it. People generally expect to be treated well and left alone. If you treat people kindly and with respect, they are likely to do the same for you. But if you are unreasonably selfish, rude, if you steal, threaten, coerce, etc. your life will probably become more difficult on account of the undesirable consequences of your actions.
Some people need to learn the hard way. Many of the world's problems are is in fact the result of misguided free will choices. You can't force anyone to abide by natural law; it is a choice that we need to make on our own. Ethics comes down to individual choices. You are free to choose, but you are not free from the consequences of your choices.
To illustrate this point further, let me invoke an ancient Hindu parable. A certain King objected to putting his bare feet on the hard ground. He decreed that his entire kingdom be blanketed with animal skins to make walking easier on the feet. One of his wise men suggested that, rather than putting skins onto the ground, the skins could be cut to fit the feet, creating the first shoes.
The moral of the story is that it is easier to modify yourself to fit nature, than to try to modify nature to fit your desires. The King had the free will to either blanket the ground with skins, choose to make shoes, or do nothing. He chose to to live in accord with the nature (make shoes) rather than to try to bend nature to his personal desire (blanket the earth with skins).
Is God Necessary For Natural Law?
It is true that throughout history, the vast majority of natural law philosophers were theists, but Hugo Grotius made the argument that natural law is not dependent on theology. In the 1600s, he wrote, "even the will of an omnipotent being cannot change or abrogate natural law, which would maintain its objective validity even if we should assume the impossible, that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs."
The Roman statesman Cicero argued that the natural law is authored by God:
True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to to sic alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.
How To Apply Natural Law in Your Life
"Human nature is not just a common genome, but an innate tendency to strive for certain “goods”: things that fully developed, non-defective humans typically desire. A virtuous or “good” person values human goods and attains at least some of them." - Michael Liccone
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