Natural law

system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and is thus universal

Natural law is a rule or body of rules of conduct inherent in human nature, discoverable by reason, and essential to or binding upon human society.

The natural law is, in essence, a profoundly "radical" ethic, for it holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason.  …  At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus.
Murray N. Rothbard
But if justice be a natural principle, then it is necessarily an immutable one; and can no more be changed…than can the law of gravitation, the laws of light, the principles of mathematics, or any other natural law or principle whatever; and all attempts or assumptions, on the part of any man or body of men—whether calling themselves governments, or by any other name—to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of justice, as a rule of conduct for any human being, are as much an absurdity, an usurpation, and a tyranny, as would be their attempts to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion in the place of any and all the physical, mental, and moral laws of the universe.
Lysander Spooner


  • It is true that when medieval writers spoke of natural law as being discoverable by reason, they meant that the best human reasoning could discover it, and not, of course, that the results to which any and every individual's reasoning led him was natural law.
    • J. L. Brierly, The Law of Nations, pp. 20-21 (5th ed. 1955).
  • Whether something falls within the domain of ‘‘law’’ is, for a natural lawyer, at least partially or nominally determined by reference to an extra-legal standard or norm.
  • It is not an accident that men like Machiavelli, and Hobbes, whose aim is to remove all restraints from the actions of rulers except those of expediency, should be agreed in denying all meaning to the idea of natural law. On the other hand for Grotius with his theory of inter-state morality, for Du Plessis Mornay with his claim that the governor must have regard to the good of the governed, the notion of natural law which makes promises binding anterior to positive rules, is essential and obligatory.
  • It offends reason to believe that a well-established natural law can admit of exceptions.  A natural law must hold everywhere and always, or be invalid.  I cannot believe, for example, that the universal law of gravitation, which governs the physical world, is ever suspended in any instance or at any point of the universe.  Now I consider economic laws comparable to natural laws, and I have just as much faith in the principle of the division of labor as I have in the universal law of gravitation.  I believe that while these principles can be disturbed, they admit of no exceptions.
  • Children learn the fundamental principles of natural law at a very early age.  Thus they very early understand that one child must not, without just cause, strike or otherwise hurt, another; that one child must not assume any arbitrary control or domination over another; that one child must not, either by force, deceit, or stealth, obtain possession of anything that belongs to another; that if one child commits any of these wrongs against another, it is not only the right of the injured child to resist, and, if need be, punish the wrongdoer, and compel him to make reparation, but that it is also the right, and the moral duty, of all other children, and all other persons, to assist the injured party in defending his rights, and redressing his wrongs.  These are fundamental principles of natural law, which govern the most important transactions of man with man.  Yet children learn them earlier than they learn that three and three are six, or five and five ten.  Their childish plays, even, could not be carried on without a constant regard to them; and it is equally impossible for persons of any age to live together in peace on any other conditions.

    It would be no extravagance to say that, in most cases, if not in all, mankind at large, young and old, learn this natural law long before they have learned the meanings of the words by which we describe it.  In truth, it would be impossible to make them understand the real meanings of the words, if they did not understand the nature of the thing itself.  To make them understand the meanings of the words justice and injustice before knowing the nature of the things themselves, would be as impossible as it would be to make them understand the meanings of the words heat and cold, wet and dry, light and darkness, white and black, one and two, before knowing the nature of the things themselves.  Men necessarily must know sentiments and ideas, no less than material things, before they can know the meanings of the words by which we describe them.

  • If there be such a principle as justice, or natural law, it is the principle, or law, that tells us what rights were given to every human being at his birth; what rights are, therefore, inherent in him as a human being, necessarily remain with him during life; and, however capable of being trampled upon, are incapable of being blotted out, extinguished, annihilated, or separated or eliminated from his nature as a human being, or deprived of their inherent authority or obligation.

    On the other hand, if there be no such principle as justice, or natural law, then every human being came into the world utterly destitute of rights; and coming into the world destitute of rights, he must necessarily forever remain so.  For if no one brings any rights with him into the world, clearly no one can ever have any rights of his own, or give any to another.  And the consequence would be that mankind could never have any rights; and for them to talk of any such things as their rights, would be to talk of things that never had, never will have, and never can have any existence.

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