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Natural Rights and Natural Law. In the “Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson makes reference to “self-evident” truths, among which are certain “inalienable rights”

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natural rights and natural law
Natural Rights and Natural Law
  • In the “Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson makes reference to “self-evident” truths, among which are certain “inalienable rights”
  • Martin Luther King makes reference explicitly to “natural law” (as well as the U. S. Constitution) to argue that racist laws are inherently unjust
  • What is this “natural law”?
  • Natural Law encompasses a tradition of moral and legal philosophy reaching back to Aristotle and the Roman Stoics (Cicero)
  • There is a secular and a theological version (the latter connect nicely to the notion of “divine command” theory studied earlier; cf. St Paul)
  • Neither focuses upon “civil” law (what we normally mean by “law”); instead, these traditions use “Law” in the same sense as Kant – the “moral law”
sources of natural law tradition
Sources of Natural Law Tradition
  • Suppose we took the world’s current major legal systems and threw out any provisions that were unique to one or only some. Would there be anything left?
  • Political Problem of the Roman Empire:

“How do we govern a multinational, multicultural, pluralistic commonwealth encompassing many nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and legal systems? What laws shall we uniformly enforce upon ALL subjects (regardless of race, color, or religious creed)?”

transition from secular to sacred
Transition from Secular to Sacred
  • Solution: Common legal core, the Roman code
  • But of this code, Cicero writes:

“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 wrongdoing by its prohibitions. . .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 . . . 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.”

natural law the sacred tradition
Natural Law: the Sacred Tradition
  • Twin pillars of Western civilization:
  • Greco-Roman (Logos) – Cicero’s Stoic philosophy of “divine Reason”
  • Judaeo-Christian (Torah) -- St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome

“the Gentiles have the Torah written on their hearts”

  • St. Thomas quoting Hebrew Psalms: “the light of Your countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us”
natural law st thomas
Natural Law: St. Thomas
  • God’s law is “imprinted upon us . . . The light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light”
  • There are at least some moral truths, derived from God and grounded in God, that everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or cultural background, must be responsible for knowing
  • Distinguish this (as Romans did) from “civil” or “positive” law, and also from “divine” or “revealed” law (the Church has custody of this)
main points of medieval natural law tradition st thomas
Main Points of Medieval Natural Law Tradition (St. Thomas)
  • These laws or moral principles are thought to stem from God, and to reveal the handiwork of God in nature
  • “natural laws” are moral principles that are absolute, universal, unconditional, binding on everyone, and known (or available to be known) by everyone through “right reason” (“natural light of reason”)
  • They are prescriptive and can be disobeyed or ignored by corrupt use of human freedom
examples of natural law s
Examples of Natural Law(s)
  • “Golden” or “Silver” rules (Confucius, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, the “Blessed One”)
  • Principle of reciprocity
  • Prohibition of unjustifiable homicide
  • Respect for Life
  • everyone, everywhere seems to have some versions of these
  • Danger: mistaking one’s own cultural or religious habits or even prejudices for universal natural law
relation of natural law to other kinds of law
Relation of Natural Law to Other Kinds of Law
  • Descriptive “laws of nature” by contrast summarize known physical conditions or constraints that apply in fact w/o exception (cannot be “disobeyed”)
  • Civil or Positive Law: speed limits, tax laws, torts and contracts, property
  • can be added to, but cannot contravene natural law (cf. Martin Luther King)
impact influence of natural law tradition
Impact/Influence of Natural Law Tradition
  • Constitution & U. S. Declaration of Independence (Jefferson)
  • International Law (Grotius, Pufendorf)
  • JUST WAR THEORY (jus ad bellum AND jus in bello – law of war)
  • Kant and the Categorical Imperative
  • Gandhi, King, and notion of principled civil disobedience
some important features of natural law
Some Important Features of Natural Law
  • Principle of Forfeiture: “if you take another life, you forfeit your own right to life”
  • Principle of Double Effect: a wrong or evil result brought about as a consequence of some morally right action (undertaken with intention to do good) is not itself blameworthy
  • Most common in medicine & military
summary st thomas
Summary (St. Thomas)
  • “Eternal” law is a class that encompasses Divine or revealed law (special revelation), plus
  • NATURAL LAW (reason)
  • Contrast that to Civil Law (what humans legislate in specific national or local settings)
  • Natural law is knowable to everyone; we are responsible for our disobedience
  • Civil Law cannot conflict with natural law; such conflicts indicate injustice
  • Just War Theory is an important element of natural law