In attempting to garner an understanding of the nature of law, early legal philosophers and academics formulated what has come to be known as the natural law theory, and has become a literal cornerstone of the development of modern legal thinking. Although somewhat limited in modern jurisprudential thinking, natural law has had a tremendous impact on our understanding of what law means in society as a baseline from which to build more complex theories. In this article, we will look at some of the major propositions underpinning the concept of natural law, and the corresponding strengths and weaknesses of this fundamental interpretation of the legal function.
Natural law starts with the basic premise that the law is driven by morality, and consequently is affected by it. With a history extending back to Aristotle and other early philosophers, the natural law theory has traditionally linked the law with religion and an innate sense of justice, rather than the more pragmatic approaches of some other theories. Although this might sound rather basic, the principals have been developed and refined through academic debate for centuries ultimately leading to a far more sophisticated theory of the nature of law. The idea that all law is subject to an unwritten code of morality is fundamental to natural law. This also throws up some potential problems in terms of civil regulation. Certain natural law theorists suggest that for a law to be binding on the citizen, it must conform to this sense of natural justice. However, there is clearly no definitive objective concept of morality, which casts doubt over this principle. Additionally, the prospect that a law may be disregarded in favour of some higher sense of morality doesn’t conform in reality, considering the potential implications of consistently disregarding law on the grounds of the subjective concept of justice.
Furthermore on this primitive understanding of natural law, the citizen in contravention to the laws of his state, could attempt to excuse his actions through a justification of ‘immoral’ laws. This would also create a state of disorder, given the natural variation of personal opinions, which would ultimately render society unworkable. For this reason, the natural law scheme has failed to garner modern academic acceptance, of course with a few exceptions.
Natural law has been proposed as a consideration in trying war criminals, on the basis of the retrospectivity principle, i.e. no man can be tried for a crime that was not a crime when he committed it. Many war criminals are merely cogs in the machine of a legal regime, which ultimately permits their actions, however unjustifiable morally. Natural law theories give a basis for challenge on these grounds, whilst avoiding the awkward question of direct legal contravention, which ultimately works to serve justice. In this sense, it is perhaps useful as a canon of interpretation and in determining just and equitable outcomes in ‘difficult’ cases. However, as a wider legal concept, natural law and the proposed intersection between law and morality seems too awkward to reconcile with considered academic legal understandings. Having said that, natural law has provided an excellent starting position for further advanced argumentation, and has provided a platform for critique that has been essential to the development of the more sophisticated ideas held in regard in this modern day.