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Natural Law Theory


What is natural law?  What are its origins?  What influence did natural rights and natural law have in the formative stages of human rights?


This blog seeks to address the topic of natural law, its origins and some of its historical influence on the development of human rights law. There will be a short definition of the meaning of Natural Law, followed by a special focus on the religious and philosophical grounds of Natural Law, then a brief discussion of John Locke’s theory of social contract and its influence on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence and finally a brief discussion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Natural Law theory has existed since the ancient times of the Stoic philosophers and Roman jurists through to the present and is an attempt to substantiate and justify the existence of objective morality, and the natural rights of man.[1] It seeks to present morality, and consequently human rights, as obligations which must be observed and protected by governments and lawmakers.[2] Furthermore, according to Natural Law theorists, human beings are not to be considered as a means to an end but rather, individual persons are to be considered as an end in themselves.[3] Theorists also argue that Natural Law exist independent of institutional sources of law.[4] Although Natural Law has had many powerful critics, such as Hume and Bentham, it continues to survive today.[5] There is something intangible, internal and transient about Natural Law that motivates people to endure blood, sweat, and tears for the sake of their natural rights and the rights of others.[6]


Generally, Natural Law theorists are theists and believe that appealing to God, as the author of Natural Law, best explains objective morality and universal human rights.[7] It is said that an understanding of Natural Law can be attained by either divine revelations or by man’s God-given capacity for natural reason and ethical reflection.[8] Tertullian said, “whatever nature taught was taught by God”.[9] Natural Law theorists of the Judeo-Christian persuasion argue that man is created in the image of God and hence all mankind is endowed with inherent dignity and worth.[10] Not all Natural Law theorist are theists, and some argue that man’s capacity to intelligently reason, contemplate, deliberate, judge and chose, distinguishes man from other animals and is sufficient grounds to recognize mankind’s inherent dignity and worth.[11] However, it is difficult to rationalize or justify the existence of Natural Law, and hence human rights, without reference to a creator or ultimate lawgiver.[12]


Even though Natural Law is unwritten and may be contrary to secular law, it nonetheless has had a powerful influence upon the minds of men and women throughout history and has played an instrumental role in the French and American Revolutions, as well as the abolition of slavery throughout the world.[13] In the seventeenth century, John Locke taught the theory of social contract. John Locke argued that before men enter society they are subject to natural law and the reason they enter society is to further advance their Natural Law rights, namely, life, liberty, and property.[14] This concept can be seen in Article I & II of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. John Locke’s social contract theory also appears in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, where it is argued that the purpose of government is to uphold and protect the natural rights of man in his pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Abraham Lincoln said that the United States was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.[15]  Natural Law theory can also be seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The preamble of the declaration states that man has “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” which belong to “all members of the human family”.


In conclusion, we see that Natural Law theory is a means of recognizing the inherent dignity, worth and value of mankind along with the universal equality of all men and women. Although it is unwritten, it has nonetheless influenced mankind since ancient times and has guided the minds of men and women throughout the course of history towards an ever-increasing respect for the universal human rights of mankind.

[1] Margaret MacDonald, Natural rights. (1946). Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 47 (1946 – 1947) 47, 225.

[2] George, Robert, “Natural Law,” (2007), American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 52, 55-56

[3] George, Robert, above n 2, 57.

[4] Andrew Woodcock, (2006) “Jacques Maritain, Natural Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” Journal of the History of International Law 8, no. 2, 245.

[5] Margaret MacDonald, above n 1, 225.

[6] Margaret MacDonald, above n 1, 225.

[7] Robert P George, Natural Law, (2009), Journal of Law, Philosophy and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1, 131, 132.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carlyle R. W., History of Mediaeval Political History in the West. Edinburgh, W. Blackwood and Sons, 1903, 104.

[10] Dipti Patel, The Religious Foundations of Human Rights: A Perspective from the Judeo-Christian Tradition and Hinduism, (2005) Human Rights Law Commentary 1.

[11] Robert P George, Above n 7, 132; Robert P George, Above n 2, 59.

[12] Daniel Moeckli, Sangeeta Shah, and Sandesh Sivakumaran (eds), International Human Rights Law, Oxford Press 2nd ed, 2014, 39.

[13] Margaret MacDonald, above n 1, 255, 256.

[14] Margaret MacDonald, above n 1, 232

[15] Michael Pakaluk, (2012),”Aristotle on Human Rights“, Ave Maria Law Rev vol. 10, no. 2, 381