In law, natural law is the doctrine that just laws are immanent in nature (that can be claimed as discovered but not created by such things as a bill of rights) and/or that they can emerge by natural process of resolving conflicts (as embodied by common law). These two aspects are actually very different, and can sometimes oppose or complement each other, although they share the common trait that they rely on immanence as opposed to design in finding just laws. In either case, natural law is considered to be something that exists independent and outside of the legal process itself, rather than simply being a principle whose origin is inside the legal system.
The concept of natural law was very important in the development of Anglo-American common law. In the struggles between Parliament and the monarchy, Parliament often made reference to the Fundamental Laws of England which embodied natural law since time immemorial and set limits on the power of the monarchy. The concept of natural law was expressed in the English Bill of Rights and the United States Declaration of Independence -- and by 19th-century anarchist and legal theorist, Lysander Spooner.
The Roman Catholic Church understands natural law to be immanent in nature; this understanding is in large part due to the influence of Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274 A.D.), often as filtered through the School of Salamanca.
Natural law is intended to function as a non-theistic standard by which laws may themselves be judged. One classic example is that of the Nazi final solution: the laws which permitted the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, Poles, Communists, etc. may have been formulated and ratified within the legal structures of Germany, but they violated natural law.
Natural law is currently undergoing a period of reformulation. A number of American philosophers, including Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert George, and Canadian Joseph Boyle, have constructed a compelling new version of this venerable tradition. Besides utilitarianism and Kantianism, natural law theory is with virtue ethics, a live option for a first-principles ethics theory in analytic philosophy. "New Natural Law" theory as it is sometimes known, is the theory originating with Grisez; it focuses on “basic human goods”, such as human life, which are self-evidently intrinsically worthwhile and states that these goods reveal themselves as incommensurable with one another.
One problem with this "basic human goods" approach is that there is no way to decide which among the basic human goods is to be favored in a particular action. If knowledge and human life are two "basic human goods," which one helps decide whether the question of whether a life can be taken in the pursuit of knowledge? As there is no priority among the goods, there is no way to decide this question. If one takes the life to pursue knowledge, then one is acting against the good of human life. If one does not take the life, one is acting against the good of knowledge, which may save millions of lives.
Natural law theorists often portray a deep need for their teachings in modern Western societies. Natural law affirms the worth of all members of the human species, and proposes that sexuality should always be "open" to the goods of unity and procreation.
For complete theories of law based on natural law, see libertarianism and particularly anarcho-capitalism. For theories of law which reject the concept of natural law, see legal positivism.
There is also a political Natural Law Party.
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