Natural Law

Natural law is the philosophy that certain rights, moral values, and responsibilities are inherent in human nature, and that those rights can be understood through simple reasoning. In other words, they just make sense when you consider the nature of humanity. Throughout history, the phrase “natural law” has had to do with determining how humans should behave morally. The law of nature is universal, meaning that it applies to everyone in the same way. To explore this concept, consider the following natural law definition.

Definition of Natural Law


  1. The belief that certain laws of morality are inherent by human nature, reason, or religious belief, and that they are ethically binding on humanity.


1350-1400    Middle English

What is Natural Law

Natural law is a philosophy that is based on the idea that “right” and “wrong” are universal concepts, as mankind finds certain things to be useful and good, and other things to be bad, destructive, or evil. This means that, what constitutes “right” and “wrong,” is the same for everyone, and this concept is expressed as “morality.” As an example of natural law, it is universally accepted that to kill someone is wrong, and that to punish someone for killing that person is right, and even necessary.

To solve an ethical dilemma using natural law, the basic belief that everyone is naturally entitled to live their own lives must be considered and respected. From there, natural law theorists determine what an innocent life is, and what elements comprise the life of an “unjust aggressor.”

The natural law theory pays particular attention to the concept of self-defense, a justification often relied upon in an attempt to explain an act of violence. As has been the case with self-defense claims throughout history, it is often difficult to apply what seems to be a simple concept (right vs. wrong) to issues that are actually complex in nature.

For example, acts of violence, like murder, work against people’s natural inclination to live a good and innocent life. Therefore, in a situation where “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and an act of violence is committed against the smaller group of people in order to save the larger one, the act still goes against human nature.

Killing another person is forbidden by natural law, no matter the circumstance, as it goes against the human purpose of life. Even if someone is, say, armed and breaking into another person’s home, under natural law the homeowner still does not have the right to kill that person in self-defense. It is in this way that natural law differs from actual law.

Natural Law in the American Legal System

Natural law in the American legal system is defined as a legal theory that considers law and morality to be so connected to one another that they are practically the same. Since natural law in the American legal system is focused on morality, as actions can be defined as both “good” and “bad,” natural law theorists believe that the laws that humans create are motivated by morality, as opposed to being defined by an authority figure like a monarch, a dictator, or a governmental organization.

This means that people are guided by their own human nature to determine what laws should be created, in accordance with what they know to be “right” and “wrong,” then proceed to live their lives in obedience of those laws once they have become legislation.

Natural law in the American legal system is centered on the belief that everything in life has a purpose, and that humans’ main purpose is to strive to live a life that is both “good” and happy. Any behaviors or actions that deliberately obstruct that one simple goal are considered to be “unnatural” or “immoral.”

Just as everything is deemed to have a purpose in natural law, so too do the legislated laws that are created. The simple purpose of legislation is to provide a way to maintain peace, and achieve justice. Natural law theorists believe that a law that fails to meet this goal is not really a law at all. Therefore, if there are any flaws determined to be present with an existing law, natural law dictates it is not a law that is to be followed. This stands in sharp contrast to legal positivism, which is the legal theory that, even if a law is deeply flawed, it is still a valid law that must be followed.

Natural Rights vs. Human Rights

It may be simple semantics, but the adjective before the word “rights,” whether that adjective is “human” or “natural,” can make a difference in how the term is defined. When asking the question of natural rights vs. human rights, consider that natural rights are those endowed by birth and are to be protected by the government. These rights include life, liberty, and property, among others.

Human rights, on the other hand, are rights deemed so by society. These include such things as the right to live in a safe, suitable dwelling, the right to healthy food, and the right to receive healthcare. In many modern societies, citizens feel that the government should provide these things to people who have difficulty obtaining them on their own.

How the Constitution Addresses Natural and Human Rights

At the time that the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the “rights” that people spoke of were thought to be natural, or God-given. However, beginning in the 20th century, the term “rights” evolved to be referred to as “human rights.” While natural rights and human rights are essentially universal, there still exist some significant differences between them.

Natural rights are not granted to people by their government. Governments simply establish the political conditions under which people are permitted to exercise their natural rights, and then the government expects its people to live according to those conditions. Conversely, human rights are those granted to people by the governmental authorities. The term “human rights” has become a catch-all term for anything that society as a whole believes to be important.

Natural rights, by their very nature, do not change with time. Everyone everywhere has always been endowed with the same right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” By contrast, human rights are subject to change and often do, with new human rights being recognized, defined, and promoted by governmental organizations.

Natural Law Example in Religious Beliefs

An example of natural law being tested in the courts can be found in the case of Gilardi v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Here, two brothers – Francis and Philip Gilardi – own Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, both of which are fresh-food processing companies located in Sidney, Ohio. The brothers are Roman Catholic, and found that the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that companies provide employee health insurance that covers birth control options conflicted with their religious beliefs. The men stood their ground to operate their companies in accordance with their religious beliefs – refusing to compensate employees for birth control options in their health insurance plans.

When the Gilardis were issued $14 million in penalties for not complying with the law, they sued the government on behalf of their companies, saying that the current mandate is trying to force them to choose between their faith and their livelihood. The Gilardi case claimed that the Affordable Care Act violated their constitutional rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Affordable Care Act, colloquially referred to as “Obamacare,” derives its authority to mandate options for contraception and sterilization through natural law, seeking to provide healthcare options that are for the good of the people in general. No individuals covered by these insurance plans are required to utilize any of the services. When the case was heard by the appellate court, Judge Janice Rogers Brown ruled that the Freshway companies are not “people” as defined by the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (i.e. individual human beings), so they are not able to exercise a religious belief and cannot claim that the mandate offends “them.”

Natural Law and the Declaration of Independence

Judge Brown is known for her arguments in favor of judges seeking out a “higher authority than precedent or man-made laws” when making her opinions. She referred to “moral” law, which makes this a good example of natural law infiltrating the justice system, in making her decision, stating that forcing the Gilardis to comply with the mandated provision of contraception methods would be a “compelled affirmation of a repugnant belief.” Brown also concluded that because the Freshway companies are run as closely held corporations, with each having only two owners, then the brothers could sue in that capacity to express their personal objections to the mandate as it conflicts with their religion.

Judge Brown isn’t the only one who feels that man’s laws must yield to a “higher authority,” and natural law beliefs. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has reportedly been known to express his belief that natural law should be referred to when justices are attempting to interpret the Constitution. Thomas was even quoted during his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991 as saying:

“We look at natural law beliefs of the Founders as a background to our Constitution.”

Those who believe that natural law should be referred to in this way, and that justices should turn to a higher power, often refer to the Declaration of Independence for support. Specifically, they refer to its opening lines, wherein Thomas Jefferson referred to God’s law, as he wrote:

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Also applicable is the section that is arguably more well-known:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Declaration of Independence – The formal statement that declared the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from the rule of Great Britain.
  • Legislation – A law, or body of laws, enacted by a government.
  • Mandate – An official order to carry out a policy, or to take some action.

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