Natural law is a theory asserting that certain natural rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature and can be universally understood through human reason (Coyle, 2023).
Rooted deeply in various religious and philosophical traditions around the world, Natural Law is presented as a universal guideline for human behavior (for example, the concept of Dharma in Hinduism or the teachings of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics).
Different perspectives interpret natural law in diverse ways, raising debates about its origin, applications, definition, and implications (d’Entreves, 2017).
From ancient civilizations to our modern socio-political context, understanding Natural Law adds depth to the discourse on morality, ethics, and human rights.
Definition and Overview
Natural law, in its simplest form, refers to a type of moral theory that asserts the existence of objective, universal moral laws that we can decipher through plain reason and logic.
This means that these laws aren’t forged by humans but are inherently a part of human nature and the natural order of things, like the innate understanding that stealing is wrong.
This concept has deep historical roots.
Historically, the concept of natural law is tied to ancient philosophy and underpins many world religions, such as the Ten Commandments in Christianity. It posits that there is a higher moral order that transcends human-made laws (like those against infidelity which exist across various cultures and societies).
Prominent scholars, such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, were influential in developing and refining the concept of natural law (Crowe, 2016).
Aristotle was the first to introduce the concept of ‘natural justice,’ while Aquinas expanded this concept to merge Christian theology with Greek philosophical thought. Aristotle argued for ‘telos’ or purpose in all natural things, while Aquinas emphasized God as the divine lawgiver.
Furthermore, natural law was invoked by enlightenment philosophers and even America’s founders, where they embraced liberal ideals such as the right to free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.
The universality of natural law can be seen in different cultures and legal systems worldwide.
Despite its various interpretations, paradigms of natural law, emphasizing a universal moral order beyond human legislation, are apparent in diverse traditions and societies (such as the concept of ‘Maat’ in ancient Egyptian civilization, which reflects a cosmic order transcending human authority).
Natural Law Examples
1. Human Dignity
Throughout cultures and histories, there exists the idea that every human being should be treated with dignity and respect just due to their nature as humans.
This principle, inherently known and accepted, is an example of natural law (Jensen, 2015). It transcends artificial boundaries and forms the basis for many human rights policies today.
Even in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prescribed by the United Nations, the ethos of human dignity is cemented in the preamble itself: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” (Universal declaration, 1948).
This embodies the concept of natural law, as it puts forth a universal moral code applicable to all mankind.
See More: Examples of Human Dignity
2. Prohibition of Theft
Man made criminal laws universally acknowledge that stealing or theft is inherently morally wrong, which is in line with natural law.
Whether it’s modern jurisdictions like U.S. law that has categorized theft under various degrees (like petty theft and grand theft), or ancient civilizations like Hammurabi’s Code which prescribed explicit punishments for theft, the principle against stealing is inherently accepted across different cultures and timelines (Finnis, 2017; Haakonssen & Seidler, 2015).
This universal agreement on the moral invalidity of theft illustrates the existence of a higher moral order beyond human-made laws, presenting a real-world example of natural law.
3. Prohibition of Murder
The prohibition of murder is a clear embodiment of natural law. This law, unlike civil or criminal laws, is universally accepted and understood without the need for formal legislation.
It is inherently understood that taking another human life unjustly is morally wrong.
Whether expressed in the commandment “Thou shall not kill” in the Bible and Torah or in the laws of ancient societies like the Roman Empire that held ‘unlawful killing’ as a grave offence, the prohibition of murder illustrates the concept of natural law.
4. Right to Self-Defense
Another real-world application of natural law is the concept of self-defense. This universally accepted principle dictates that a person has the right to protect himself or herself from harm.
While different legal systems have various nuances in laws concerning self-defense, the core understanding remains consistent: everyone has a right to protect their own life when threatened (Finnis, 2015).
The United Nations’ “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials” recognizes self-defense as a basic human right (Principle 9, UN BPOFFLEO, 1990). This common understanding, superseding man-made laws, asserts the presence of natural law.
5. Duty to Honor Promises and Contracts
The duty to honor promises and contracts, a pillar of trust and cooperation in human societies, suffices as an evident example of natural law.
This universally recognized principle implies that when individuals make promises or sign contracts, they are ethically and morally bound to keep their word.
Experience shows that societies function smoothly when this principle is adhered to, since it forms the bedrock of personal, professional, and legal relationships (Crowe, 2016; d’Entreves, 2017).
For example, modern legal systems enforce contractual obligations through the law of contracts, and breaching such obligations can result in substantial penalties. This reflects a commitment to the natural law principle of keeping one’s word, a concept ingrained in human relationships and dealings for centuries.
6. The Moral Law of Truth
The universally accepted principle that deception or lying is intrinsically wrong serves as another enacted facet of natural law.
The moral admonishment of lying can be found in both human legislations (for example, the perjury laws across multiple jurisdictions such as the UK’s Perjury Act of 1911) and religious and philosophical teachings (like Buddhism’s adherence to speaking the truth as part of the Eightfold Path).
This universal understanding further accentuates the concept of natural laws transcending human-made laws and societal norms.
7. Principle of Restitution
The principle of restitution, or the concept of compensating for a wrong committed, is an often cited example of natural law.
This concept states that if you harm someone either physically, emotionally, or monetarily, there is an inherent, universal obligation to make amends for the damage done.
Across the world, we see this principle in action within legal systems with laws dealing with compensation for injury or loss (Haakonssen & Seidler, 2015). For example, the U.S. legal system includes tort law, which allows victims of harm to seek compensation from the perpetrators.
8. Principle of Confidentiality and Privacy
Over the span of time and across numerous societies, a universal agreement prevails regarding the respect for an individual’s privacy.
This principle of confidentiality and privacy essentially means that there are certain aspects of one’s life that are private and should be respected by others.
Recognition of this principle is evident in both ancient cultural norms and modern legal precedents. Even under the umbrella of international law, Article 12 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes the fundamental right to privacy (stating “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy”).
These examples illuminate the role of natural law in shaping our societal, ethical, and legal outlook.
9. Principle of Justice and Fairness
The principle of justice and fairness, which argues that all individuals should be treated equally and without prejudice, mirrors the concept of natural law (d’Entreves, 2017; Finnis, 2015).
This principle means that every person, irrespective of their race, religion, gender, or socio-economic status, deserves to be treated justly and fairly (for example, the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, prevalent in numerous jurisdictions, stands as a testament to this inherent understanding of justice).
10. Principle of Compassion and Kindness
The universal value of compassion and kindness towards fellow living beings, often described as empathy, underscores the understanding of natural law.
Whether it’s cultural, religious, or philosophical traditions advocating for compassion (like the Golden Rule present in many religions – ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated’), or scientific studies highlighting empathy as a inherent human trait, this deep-seated understanding reflects a universal natural law.
The fact that such principles are so broadly shared and understood, despite cultural, generational, and geographical differences, speaks to their roots in the intrinsic nature of being human, making them quintessential examples of natural law.
11. Right to Acquire Property
The universally recognized right to acquire, use, enjoy, and dispose of property is another manifestation of natural law and represents the liberal idea of economic freedom.
This principle is deeply ingrained in human nature and has been a critical factor in human progress and development. From ancient systems like feudalism where land was recognised as a valuable asset, to contemporary property laws which include intellectual property rights, the inherent understanding of one’s right to acquire and control property is consistently upheld.
Today, this natural law principle is recognized by international covenants such as Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.”
12. Right to Liberty
The right to liberty, understood as the freedom to live one’s life without unwarranted restraint, represents a key aspect of natural law.
This principle affirms that each individual has an inherent right to make decisions about their own life, to express themselves freely, and to engage in the pursuit of happiness, so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.
Historically, the quest for liberty is reflected in numerous revolutions and movements, like the American and French Revolutions in the 18th century which were central around themes of liberty. Today, it is enshrined in numerous constitutions and international documents, such as Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”.
These examples highlight how natural law principles continue to impact contemporary discourse, shaping societal norms, values, and legal frameworks worldwide.
13. Right to Defend Oneself
The inherent right to defend oneself from harm is a universally acknowledged natural law.
This principle supports an individual’s right to prevent harm to their physical integrity or personal property. Recognized universally, the right manifests in a spectrum of ways, from the most basic physical self-defense against personal attacks to more evolved forms like legal recourse against defamation.
This right’s universal application is endorsed in various legal systems (Jensen, 2015). An example is the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in some U.S. states, which protects individuals who use force, including lethal force, to defend themselves without any duty to evade or retreat from a dangerous situation.
14. Parental Duties
Parental duties, or the responsibility of parents to care and provide for their offspring, is an excellent example of natural law.
This principle originates from an innate understanding that parents, owing to their role in their children’s creation and upbringing, have a responsibility to ensure their protection, survival, and growth (d’Entreves, 2017; Jensen, 2015).
For instance, parental duties are not limited to humans but are pervasive in the entire animal kingdom, where creatures exhibit protective behaviors towards their offspring (like a mother bear protecting her cubs from predators).
Moreover, nearly all nation-states recognize parental responsibility in legal terms, mandating provisions for child care, education, and safeguarding against neglect and abuse. These legislations often resonate with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, bolstering the common understanding of parental duties as a natural law.
15. Pursuit of Happiness
The pursuit of happiness, ingrained as an inherent human desire to seek joy and fulfillment, falls under the broad umbrella of natural law.
This principle is universally recognized as each individual’s innate right to strive toward their well-being, happiness, and personal fulfillment (Coyle, 2023).
The importance of this principle is epitomized in foundational documents such as the United States Declaration of Independence, where it is affirmed as an unalienable right alongside life and liberty. It is a commitment to individual autonomy, personal growth, and human dignity, irrespective of societal or cultural contexts – making it a core element of natural law.
Natural law encompasses universal principles and values, intrinsic to human nature, that shape our moral compass, irrespective of cultural, political or temporal differences.
From duties like making restitution or honoring contracts, to rights such as defending oneself or acquiring property, its applications are woven into the fabric of our societies, codes of law, and collective conscience.
These principles and values, often framed in scholarly discourse and applied in real-world scenarios, underline our understanding of ethics, justice, and human rights.
Dedicated exploration of natural law, thus, allows us to navigate the complexities of moral, legal, and socio-political landscapes, making it an indispensable tool in our quest to understand and enhance the human condition.
Coyle, S. (2023). Natural law and modern society. Oxford University Press.
Crowe, J. (2016). Natural law theories. Philosophy Compass, 11(2), 91-101.
d’Entreves, A. P. (2017). Natural law: An introduction to legal philosophy. Routledge.
Finnis, J. (2015). Grounding human rights in natural law. The American Journal of Jurisprudence, 60(2), 199-225.
Finnis, J. (2017). Natural law and legal reasoning. In Law and Morality (pp. 3-15). Routledge.
Haakonssen, K., & Seidler, M. J. (2015). Natural Law. In A Companion to Intellectual History.
Jensen, S. (2015). Knowing the natural law. CUA Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]