Natural law is a principle derived from the observations of human ethics in relation to their actions. In the case of legal frameworks, the theory of natural law predicts that one’s virtues and ethical values are most likely to align with the laws in a society or state. In essence, the theory of natural law states that laws should be created based on what is inherently ethical, thus following the guidelines of morality in their creation. The following will present a summary of the theory of natural law from its Ancient Greek origins to its modern use in the American Constitution.
The Application of Natural Law
The intentions of natural law is to follow a basic moral guide in which laws are created with the purpose of defending human rights. In contrast to natural law, the theory of positive law believes that laws should solely be based on the opinions of whomever is in power. Legal positivism denies the use of ethics or morality in laws and believes that calculated opinions should be the basis of all created laws. The juxtaposition of these two legal theories is important because the two can be used simultaneously in a state or society (such as in the American Constitution).
Plato (427–347 B.C.) is known for being one of the founders of natural law as a theoretical concept. Plato rarely mentioned natural law in his work as a definitive theory, aside from the pieces, Gorgias 484 and Timaeus 83e. Regarding natural law, Plato believed that we live in a universe of order in which concepts like goodness and morality are metaphysical. He also believed that human beings are created with predominant instincts which allow us to control our ‘animalic’ urges, allowing us to follow a line of basic human ethics. In essence, Plato believed that limiting unnecessary laws could benefit the order of a society through the lens of morality and its relation to law.
Aristotle (384–322 BCE) can be noted as one of the most prominent philosophers to use fragments of the theory of natural law in their work. Aristotle notably initiated the philosophy of virtue ethics, which follows the guidelines of natural law. Similarly to Plato, Aristotelian virtue ethics can be simplified to the belief of virtuous dominance over all other human traits. Aristotle believed that when one is presented with a choice surrounding the core ethics of a human being, they would be most likely to follow their virtues, thus making good choices over bad ones. For example, it is morally wrong to hurt another human being without any reason, and implementing a law that punishes one for doing so would be ethically acceptable.
Natural Law in the American Constitution
A prominent example of natural law in action is in the American Constitution. As declared by the Founding Fathers of America, American society is based on the principles of freedom and individual responsibility, which complies with the moral basis of natural law. When examining the American Constitution, the 14th amendment uses a basis of ethics and morality.
The 14th amendment was put into place following the Civil War and states that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This statement ensures the personal freedom of the American people, most prominently protecting their life and liberty, which follows the moral human belief of freedom.
The theory of natural law has been used and developed across centuries in the philosophy of law and has aided in the creation of both ancient and modern laws. It continues to be important in the preservation of human rights to this day and will likely be used as a basis for future laws created in the Western world.