19. Appendix II. Natural Law

            By natural law we mean the norms of human conduct, of right and wrong for man, that are derived not from any positive law but directly from what man is, i.e. from his nature. For men share the same human nature; and the natural law is simply the law of that nature governing the development and fulfillment of its human potential. The concept of natural law is in fact basic to any treatment of man's life, whether he is considered as an individual or in society. It is vital to see that there is such a thing as human nature, that it has its law, and that human life degenerates and human society tends to collapse when this law of man's nature - the natural law - is denied in practice[1].

Different in personality; like in nature

            Men differ from one another. No two men are the same. Each one is a distinct individual, a unique person. Personality or personhood is the root of each man's distinctive being and dignity.

            Yet these different men share a great likeness. There is clearly a bigger difference between man and mouse or man and mountain than between man and man. Men are not zebras nor are they cows. They are not trees or flowers. When we speak of men therefore - e.g. as distinguished from animals or plants - we are speaking of a group of beings that have something distinctive in common. They share something basic which is in fact what makes them human beings and not just animal beings; and that shared basic something, which enables us to call them men, is human nature.

            It is because all share in same human nature that we can speak about "humanity" or "mankind", knowing that when we do so we are speaking about all men.

            It is because all share in the same nature that all these distinct persons have the same radical equality and share the same basic rights and obligations (cf. GS 29).

            Some men are richer and others poorer, some are stronger and others weaker, some are wiser and other stupider. Yet we all share the same human nature and share it equally. We are all equally men. The richer and the poorer, the stronger and the weaker, all are equally human. No man is more - or less - human than any other man. All men are equally human because, sharing in the same nature, they share in the same basic human dignity and rights of man.

            All men are equal before the law. They share the same rights and obligations before the law. Before which law? The law of the State? No; not primarily. Primarily before the law of their nature; i.e. before the Natural Law.

The Ten Commandments

            It is true that the notion of natural law is not very popular today[2]. Popularity of course is no criterion of validity or truth, and should not worry us very much. After all, the Ten Commandments have never been popular either, and the Ten Commandments are basically an expression of the natural law.

            To steal and lie and kill are actions that are wrong today, will be wrong tomorrow and were wrong yesterday as far back as time goes. There is nothing "artificial" about their wrongness; it is natural. They are wrong not because someone one day declared them wrong[3], but because such actions are in themselves contrary to how man should behave, to what man should be. They are wrong because in stealing, lying, killing, one does violence to what one owes to oneself or to others, i.e. one does violence to human nature.

            Despite all theoretical doubts about the natural law, people of all times and places have recognized and recognize that certain actions are right and wrong in themselves, independently of any human lawgiver. But this is to recognize the existence of a natural law. That a natural law exists is all the more clearly shown by the fact that this universal awareness of basic right and wrong is not something that men have assimilated from "outside". It springs up within each one. Within each man, from his earliest days, there is a voice speaking the same basic message: "Good is to be done. Evil is to be avoided. This is good; do it. That is bad; avoid it". It is the voice of conscience (GS 16). And of course the existence of conscience is itself one of the great proofs of the existence of a natural law.

            It is good that children are reminded that e.g. stealing or lying is wrong[4]. But they don't have to be taught it. They know it already. Their conscience told them.

Human rights mean natural rights

            Perhaps some people deny or at least ignore the concept of the natural law because they think it is necessarily connected with belief in God, and they are or profess to be atheists. Yet it is possible to show that many people today who deny the existence of the natural law and perhaps also of God, in fact make constant appeal to the natural law. For instance, all those who advocate and defend human rights.

            It may be possible to believe in the natural law without believing in God. What is not possible is to believe in human rights without believing in the natural law. This point can be shown quite simply.

            Suppose I am a human rights campaigner. I say, for instance, that racial discrimination is evil; I have no doubt that it is a clear violation of human rights.... But what if someone objects: why should it be so bad if it is in fact the law of a particular country?

            Because - I would answer - that law is unjust. Exactly; which means I am judging that law by a higher law. I am judging it by a law of man, not created by positive law. That is natural law: a law for man, but not made by man, and not to be violated or changed by man.

            Human rights means rights that men have essentially as men, not primarily as citizens. They derive these rights not from the State, nor from other men, but from their own nature. They are natural rights.

            Man can always appeal to what is his by nature. Other men may perhaps take away what they have given you. But they may not take away what God has given you. That is why there is no security in a Godless state.

            Men may take away your power to exercise a right. They cannot really take away your right. It is yours by nature. A man unjustly imprisoned has the exercise of his freedom taken away. His right to freedom remains.

            This would not be so if human rights derived from positive law or from the State; the State which gives could take away what it has given. But the State does not give us our human rights. It can and should recognize them and defend them. It does not give them or originate them. A sound Constitution should express basic human rights, and provide a process for their defence. It does not create or confer those rights.

            If there is no natural law, if there is no such thing as a shared human nature making us equal, then we have nothing in common, no duties towards one another, no mutual rights.

            If there is no natural law, then we have really nothing to appeal to, no defence against those stronger, against tyranny.

            The understanding and defence of the natural law is vital if society is to be human and just. Without natural law human rights have no basis; they do not survive. Society becomes inhuman and man becomes a tool of the State or a mere object of exploitation by the more powerful.

Laws of Life

            The natural law is designed to put order into life. It tells us that life has its laws, and that they must be respected if life itself is to be human and liveable.

            In reflecting on this it can help if we distinguish the laws of life into physical laws and moral laws:

            - physical laws, that state what necessarily happens given what is fixed in the nature of things. Physical laws govern the world of necessity;

            - moral laws, that state what should be done if man, in his freedom, wishes to attain his end. Moral laws govern the world of freedom.

            One needs to know the physical laws of life, and there is clear danger in ignoring them. A person would be regarded as very ignorant of life if he did not know not just that one must breathe or eat in order to live, but other things that are not quite so obvious; things that experience - or, better still, teachers - must teach: e.g. that a live electric wire can kill, that exhaust fumes are poisonous, that certain diseases are specially contagious, that too much milk and butter can cause hardening of the arteries....

            Knowledge of these physical laws enables a man to ensure the well-being of the body. These laws govern man. He can ignore them or break them - but not without consequences. "I'm Superman; I'm going to stand on the railway track and stop this express train"; well....

            But there are moral laws as well to ensure the well-being of the spirit. A man also needs to know and observe these moral laws, e.g. that his relations with others should be governed by the law of justice and truth. If a man does not obey this law, he may be a successful cheat, but his spirit has suffered, he is less of a man.

            A particular point is worth noting. In the physical world the consequences of breaking a law are quickly observed; e.g. when you run into a brick wall. In the moral world, the consequences are not always noticed so quickly; but they are there. "I lied, and nothing has gone wrong". You have gone wrong. And that damage - to your spirit - eventually catches up: always. The liar, as we have just said, is less of a man. He is also less of a friend. People come to suspect that he is a liar, and eventually won't trust him. He becomes isolated. He suffers.

Two worlds

            The fact is that man moves in the two worlds that we have mentioned: the world of necessity and the world of freedom. In the world of necessity, the subject can not disobey the law: the stone falls, the plant grows.... In the world of freedom, the subject can disobey, but suffering the consequences: the consequences, for instance, of refusing to eat or of taking drugs....

            Non-rational beings live in the world of necessity. Man alone lives in both worlds. He cannot disobey the physical laws; he cannot stop that train. He can disobey the moral law - but with consequences. He can try to stop that train - and suffer the physical consequence of death, and the moral consequence of suicide; both consequences of doing something that is too much for him as a man, something that his nature cannot and is not meant to stand. He can abuse his nature; but abused nature always makes man pay the price of the abuse.

            If people think, they will admit that man must pay the consequences of untruthfulness, drugs, selfishness.... Some may comment: "But if he wants to go that way, that is his right. He is under no obligation to be truthful; these are not laws that "bind". He has the right to act against them". The right? No; he has the power, but not the right.

            Rights derive from nature, as do obligations. A right or an obligation is something due to one's nature. We have the power of speech, and the right to free speech. We do not have the right to deceitful or abusive speech. To use the power of speech for true communication is something due to one's own nature and to that of others. There is an obligation to be truthful. You have the power to use your freedom in a wrong way, but not the right. That is why you do a wrong thing. No one has the right to do wrong! One may have all the power in the world to do wrong, but never the right. Might does not make right.

Binding, universal unchanging

            Natural law marks out the order human life should have if it is to be and remain human. Natural Law is rooted in what we might call "essential" man; hence derive the distinctive characteristics of its precepts, which are binding, universal and unchangeable.

            a) These precepts are binding. Man cannot be man without observing them; and man is meant to be man. Man does not really know the exact way of his own fulfillment. God does; and has spelled out his directives for man in the natural law. If we look for the ultimate reason why the precepts of the natural law bind man, why he is under an obligation to respect them, it is because man does not possess a full and free title to his own life. He has no right to dispose of his life just as he wishes. He has received his life, with its conditions, from God. In other words, the authority of the precepts of the natural law derives from man's rational nature as given by God. Their authority therefore ultimately comes from God.

            b) The precepts of the natural law are universal: for all times and for all people. For the tenth century, the twentieth and the thirtieth. For you, for me.

            c) The precepts of the natural law are unchangeable. The natural law does not change because it derives not from some perfectible human reasoning but from God's perfect wisdom. The natural law was not given by human authority and is therefore independent of all human authority. It is not the end result of human experience, or the changeable trial-and-error finding of human experimentation. It is God's plan for man[5]. God has not had to experiment with man, probing or groping around to see if He can find laws that suit man's condition best. From the start, in creating man, He gave him the laws that enable man to be human, i.e. to fulfil and not to frustrate his potential. It is we men who tend to experiment, trying to substitute other "laws" for the natural law. The result of our experiments is to make individual life and social life less and less natural and less and less human.

An evolving nature?

            Objections are raised nowadays to this idea of a natural law with universal and unchangeable precepts. Some writers reject the whole concept of a human nature that is objective and "given", and propose instead a human nature that is fluid and evolving. Man's life, they say, evolves; surely the laws of his life should evolve too? Their position can be shown to be untenable; it is largely due to a failure to make proper distinctions. One has to distinguish above all between man and his circumstances. The circumstances of man's life change, but not his nature or its laws.

            If man's nature were changing, then we could not really speak of man at all; not as a continuum throughout history. "Man" of X centuries ago would be a different species of being to "man" of today or of X centuries from now.

            If man is changing in his nature, then we cannot speak about what is "human" as something of universal application. What is "human" becomes no more than a relative concept; a concept therefore that is valueless as a guide or as a standard of judgment for the life of individuals or societies. If what was inhuman and wrong yesterday can be human and right today, then humanity is a meaningless term. We cannot speak about the history of mankind because there is no mankind[6]. All there is, is an evolving species - that is not even a species because there is no essential link of nature between its apparent members. If what was inhuman and wrong yesterday can be human and right today, then why should what is inhuman and wrong in Africa not be human and right in Europe? Why should what is human to me be human to you? ... I don't have to respect your humanity or human standards, and you don't have to respect mine. Each man is a law and a world to himself.

            Man's nature does not change. His circumstances at times do change drastically. The twentieth century man's mode of housing or dress or transport, for instance, are very different to those of the man of ten centuries ago. Does this mean that his nature and its laws have changed? No. He is necessarily bound by the same basic laws governing the essential human quality of his conduct. Despite changed circumstances, the same basic standards of right and wrong apply to his conduct.

            Twentieth century man uses a different mode of speech - probably a totally different language - to tenth century man. Yet the law of truthfulness in speech binds the former as much as it did the latter. It was as wrong for tenth century man to tell a lie or to use his power of communication to deceive others as it is for his modern counterpart, as it will be for thirtieth or fortieth century man.

            Tenth century man traded largely by barter. He knew nothing about cheques, had no banknotes, and probably seldom saw a coin. Yet he was as bound - no more, no less - by the law of honesty and justice in business dealings as is twentieth century man.

            The law of truthfulness in speech and honesty in business are laws that will bind as long as man remains man. If man were ever to "evolve" into some other - non-human - being, then these laws might cease. A different sort of being would have a different nature, with its own proper laws. Such "evolutions" exist in the imaginations of some scientists and in fantasy story-books; not outside.

            Circumstances change; but they do not change man's nature, nor the law of man's nature. Can changed circumstances modify the application of the natural law? Yes; this can happen. But that very modified application simply underlines the justice of the natural law in judging varying human circumstances.

            Usury, as understood and practiced in the twelfth century, was wrong and naturally immoral for men. Usury, as we understand it today - interest paid on a monetary loan -, is not necessarily wrong for modern man. Has man's nature or its law changed? No; the nature of usury or money-interest has changed. The norm of justice, which is constant, is applied in a different way to different situations.

Static? Dynamic?

            Some people would say that the idea we have given of the natural law is too "static", and that the times demand a more dynamic concept. Otherwise, they say, natural law conceived as something fixed becomes a dead weight holding men down, an obstacle blocking their progress.

            This is a false appreciation. It is the opposite of the truth. The natural law such as we have described it, is indeed dynamic. Its "dynamic quality" does not mean that it is changing, for then it would be valueless as a norm for human conduct. (If the moral laws were changing, then "Do not commit adultery" could gradually come to mean, "Do not commit much adultery", or "too much" adultery...!) The dynamic quality of the natural law simply means that it has the dynamism, that is, the power to change individuals and societies into what they are meant to be, so that men live as men and societies are truly human.

            It is also true that the natural law is in a dynamic situation in that it is in constant tension with fallen human nature. It is calling man from within to keep his balance and to rise, whereas man so often tends to decline and fall.

            The natural law is bound to be in tension with cultures too, insofar as their customs, laws and institutions embody a way of life that is contrary to human rights and dignity. The natural law is constantly calling them to reform, to remodel their society along patterns of true humanity.

            There is a growing realization that today's society is in danger of being dehumanized; not only human rights but all the truly human aspects of life seem endangered. Without a return to a proper understanding of the natural law there is no hope of rehumanizing our contemporary world.

* * *

            A last point to be made is the relation of the natural law to the teaching of the Church.

            It is true that the natural law is knowable by human reason and is written in the hearts of man (cf. Rom 2:15). It is also true that knowledge of the principles of the natural law does not as such require revelation. It does however require clear thinking; and clear thinking depends in turn on uprightness of heart.

            If it is easy for man to come to false conclusions in his mind, it is so often because his heart - his will - inclines his mind to accept ideas that accord with what suits his convenience more than with sound reasoning.

            That is why a full and adequate knowledge of the natural law is hard to acquire without some form of divine guidance. So it was that God gave us the Ten Commandments (basically just natural law precepts). And so it is that part of the mission and competence of his Church is the protection and explanation of the natural law.


[1] It is also vital to see that Catholic morality in major areas, especially that of sexual conduct, is simply an expression of the natural law. If one does not see this, there is a danger of thinking that the moral teaching of the Church, in areas such as marriage and sexuality, is out of touch with human reality and is contrary to man's true interests and development; whereas precisely the opposite is true.

[2] It is significant that the Encyclopedia Britannica has no entry on natural law in the sense in which we are discussing it, although the Encyclopedia Americana has.

[3] They did not begin to be wrong about the thirteenth century B.C. when God gave the Commandments to Moses. They were wrong "before" that. They were wrong from the start: always. Four hundred years before Moses, Joseph knew that it was wrong to commit adultery (Gen 39:9). It was no positive law, but his own sense of the natural law, that told him.

[4] Such reminders and explanations of the content of the natural law precepts are part of moral education, i.e. of the process of forming the conscience. But it is not moral education that gives rise to conscience. Conscience is already there. Moral education forms the conscience if the principles taught are sound and true, and deforms it if the principles are unsound or false.

[5] Here we are of course prescinding from the economy of grace.

[6] If man's nature is changing, then the human nature Christ took solidarises him only with those who share that same nature, i.e. those of twenty centuries ago; not those of today or those of 4000 A.D. If man of 4000 A.D. will have a changed nature, then he will not be man, not as Christ was; and Christ, then, would not have died for him - whoever or whatever he will be. The thesis of an evolving human nature utterly destroys the universality of the Redemption worked by Christ.