The Natural Law Outlook

Jonathan Crowe, Constance Youngwon Lee

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[Extract] The term ‘natural law’ has historically led to a great deal of confusion. This is partly due to the ambiguity of the term ‘law’, which can be understood in at least two different senses, each of which plays a significant role in natural law thought. First, the use of the term ‘law’ in this context is sometimes taken to refer to the rule-like character of natural law standards. The idea that natural law represents a set of rules or commands analogous to positive law, but emanating from God rather than humans, is certainly an influential aspect of the natural law tradition. There is, however, a second and equally important sense of ‘law’ at play throughout the history of natural law thought. This is the sense of ‘law’ as a teleological notion. Natural law, on this conception, is best analogised not with positive legal enactments, but with the regularities captured in the ‘natural laws’ of physics or biology. Humans are governed by natural law in the sense that their actions are guided by certain normative ends; these ends are what are good for humans with the nature they have.
The dialectic between these two conceptions of natural law can be seen historically in the long-running dispute between voluntarism and naturalism in meta-ethics. Roughly, voluntarists hold that whatever God wills is good, whereas naturalists hold that some things are inherently good by nature, and even God may not override those values. However, defenders of one or the other of these positions frequently recognise an interplay between them, rather than preferring one to the complete exclusion of the other. A voluntarist, then, may hold that God, although in principle capable of willing anything to be good, would in practice will those things to be good that are in accordance with nature. A naturalist, meanwhile, may hold that those things that are good by nature are so because of God’s wise and beneficent design; the constraints imposed on God’s will by these natural values, then, are ultimately self-enacted. The two conceptions of ‘natural law’ outlined above – law as command and law as teleology – are therefore far from mutually exclusive. They may converge to yield a coherent picture of the natural law outlook.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch Handbook on Natural Law Theory
EditorsJonathan Crowe, Constance Youngwon Lee
Place of PublicationCheltenham
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781788110044
ISBN (Print)9781788110037
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


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  • The Nature of Law

    Crowe, J., Oct 2019, Research Handbook on Natural Law Theory. Crowe, J. & Lee, C. Y. (eds.). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 419-428 10 p.

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterResearchpeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)

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