At the core of the concept of natural law lies the belief in universal moral principles that govern human behavior. Unlike man-made laws that can differ among societies, natural law is perceived as a constant, universally applicable force. Its origins trace back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, who pondered the existence of a transcendent "higher law" of rightness and virtue.
In the Medieval Christian tradition, luminaries like Thomas Aquinas intertwined natural law with divine law, contending that it was woven into the fabric of Creation by a higher power. Aquinas proposed that natural law could be unveiled through reason and contemplation, independent of divine revelation or scripture. This introduced a more secular, rational foundation for natural law rooted in human nature.
Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke later embraced natural law principles during the 17th and 18th centuries. Locke asserted the existence of fundamental natural rights predating the establishment of governments, asserting that political societies were established to safeguard these inherent freedoms. These ideas profoundly influenced the American Founding Fathers, who frequently invoked natural rights and natural law to legitimize the American Revolution and shape the framework of the US Constitution.
In this context, I advocate for the rediscovery of natural law as the foundation of American jurisprudence. I delve into the etymology of the term "jurisprudence," tracing it to its Latin roots, combining justice (juris) with wisdom or foresight (prudentia). For the Founders, jurisprudence meant discerning the natural laws of justice and aligning human laws with them as closely as possible.
It is my contention that modern legal theorists deliberately altered the meaning of jurisprudence to a detached "science of law" devoid of moral principles. The ascent of atheistic humanism and moral relativism in the 20th century dismissed the idea of absolute truths or ethical standards beyond governmental decrees. Yet denying the existence of natural law doesn't erase it. Actions bear consequences, irrespective of our recognition of the eternal laws governing them.
The consequence of neglecting natural law has been an upsurge in legislation attempting to engineer human behavior without consideration for self-evident moral truths. Legal systems founded solely on political convenience or social theories provide no space for faith in concepts like justice, liberty, and human dignity. I advocate for a revival of jurisprudence's original intent: the pursuit of natural law through the utilization of wisdom, justice, and ethical reasoning.
Some key tenets of natural law philosophy relevant to American jurisprudence include:
- Fundamental rights are derived from human nature and cannot be created or destroyed by government. These include rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights as well as unenumerated rights retained by the people.
- Objective and universal ethical values exist and are discernible through reason. Moral truths such as prohibitions against murder, theft, and fraud are not mere social conventions but objectively binding norms.
- Human laws must comport with moral principles to be considered fully just. A law may have met all procedural requirements yet still be unjust if it violates basic ethical standards.
- Judging requires more than just technical legal reasoning. Judges should also exercise practical wisdom in applying the principles of justice, morality, and equity to each case.
- Citizens have a duty to disobey unjust laws that violate natural rights or moral norms, provided they do so in a principled manner.
Founders Acknowledge Imperfections in Human Laws
The founders recognized the inherent imperfections in human laws and institutions. Yet, a system founded on the principles of natural law and unalienable rights presents the most effective means of securing justice and upholding human dignity. I emphasize that neglecting the wisdom of past generations, especially in matters of natural law, carries inherent risks. A firm grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of American constitutionalism remains pivotal in maintaining a just political order and the rule of law.
Humanist Perspective: Embracing Rational Ethics
I appreciate the comprehensive overview of the natural law standpoint. While the concept of universal morality is appealing, I hold reservations about grounding contemporary law and ethics in this principle.
First, the challenge lies in determining a definitive definition of natural law. Different belief systems offer varying interpretations of divine and moral truths. Whose version of natural law should prevail in shaping human laws? Even believers disagree on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, requiring reasoned discourse rather than deference to disputed metaphysical claims.
Second, within a diverse society, concerns arise about enforcing any specific theological viewpoint through law on those who do not share it. Not all citizens share the same convictions about a Creator or objective moral framework. A secular government derives legitimacy from the consent of its citizens, not adherence to any religious moral code.
Third, while natural law served as a compelling justification for rights during the founding era, I argue that contemporary human rights find a stronger foundation in human reasoning and experience. Rights emanate from human dignity and interests, not solely from divine origin or metaphysical absolutes. We can present reasoned cases for rights and balanced policies without invoking higher law.
In essence, the controversy surrounding natural law and its undefined nature persists. I believe jurisprudence is most effective when focused on articulating justice through human logic and shared humanistic values, rather than yielding to abstract moral truths or contested spiritual assertions. The quest for justice demands openness to fresh perspectives and evidence, not just reliance on immutable natural laws. This debate spans centuries and will remain unresolved.
Unraveling the Essence of Natural Law
At its essence, natural law implies that through contemplation of fundamental human objectives and tendencies, individuals can discern universally applicable principles for ethical behavior. For example:
- The drive for survival leads to principles of self-preservation and life protection.
- Social tendencies necessitate cooperation, justice, and equality.
- The pursuit of knowledge establishes virtues like truthfulness and honesty.
- Physical needs and the experience of pain and pleasure establish norms for meeting basic necessities and avoiding harm.
These examples reveal how shared human inclinations unveil standards of ethical behavior, independent of written laws and positive legal frameworks. Under the theory of natural law, political communities exist to uphold and safeguard these principles.
While natural law enjoys significant influence in ethics and legal philosophy, it faces criticism as well. Some contend that its vagueness and the lack of consensus on universal moral laws weaken its premise. They suggest that principles deemed "self-evident" might merely mirror the beliefs of those in positions of power.
The concept's discernment also sparks debate. If rooted in human nature, does natural law evolve with scientific progress and shifting values? If it exists independently, how can flawed human perception access absolute moral truths?
Nevertheless, natural law persists as a reasoned theory of inherent and unalienable human rights against which the justice of man-made laws can be assessed. Although not universally embraced, the belief in fundamental principles underpinning law and conscience remains widespread.
Natural law counters legal positivism, which contends that laws derive authority solely from political processes, irrespective of their moral content. It underscores the idea that human laws can exceed bounds by infringing on inherent human dignity and liberty.
At a minimum, natural law assumes that certain acts such as murder, assault, and rape would remain unethical even if legally permissible. The concept suggests that shared notions of right and wrong govern us beyond arbitrary rules imposed by those in power.
These convictions have spurred significant social justice reforms, including the abolition of slavery and extensions of universal suffrage. Leaders of moral movements rely on natural law's concept of self-evident truths about human dignity and equality to challenge unjust power structures. While its premises may remain unproven, natural law offers a vision of moral progress and consensus that positive law alone cannot generate.
In conclusion, while the specifics may be contested, natural law persists as an aspirational philosophy. It embodies humanity's hope that despite differences, individuals of goodwill can find common ground in basic values to construct a just society. Natural law fosters optimism that conscience, preceding law, guides human interactions toward the highest good.