Natural Law Theory: Definition, Ethics & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Natural Law Theory?
  • 1:36 Ethics
  • 2:26 Examples
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Natural law theory is a legal theory that recognizes the connection between the law and human morality. This lesson explores some of the principles of the natural law theory, as well as provides examples of ethical scenarios and how natural law theory would attempt to resolve those dilemmas.

What is Natural Law Theory?

Have you ever told a lie? Or taken something that didn't belong to you? If so, you probably weren't proud of how you acted in those moments. But why? What was it about doing something 'wrong' that made you feel bad deep, down inside?

Natural law theory is a legal theory that recognizes law and morality as deeply connected, if not one and the same. Morality relates to what is right and wrong and what is good and bad. Natural law theorists believe that human laws are defined by morality, and not by an authority figure, like a king or a government. Therefore, we humans are guided by our human nature to figure out what the laws are, and to act in conformity with those laws.

The term 'natural law' is derived from the belief that human morality comes from nature. Everything in nature has a purpose, including humans. Our purpose, according to natural law theorists, is to live a good, happy life. Therefore, actions that work against that purpose -- that is, actions that would prevent a fellow human from living a good, happy life -- are considered 'unnatural', or 'immoral'.

Laws have a purpose too: to provide justice. From a natural law perspective, a law that doesn't provide justice (an unjust law) is considered 'not a law at all.' Therefore, a law that is flawed is one that no one should follow. In short, any law that is good is moral, and any moral law is good. Legal positivism is a legal theory that is the opposite of the natural law theory. Legal positivists believe that a law can be deeply flawed, and yet still be considered a law.

Ethics

The concept of morality under the natural law theory is not subjective. This means that the definition of what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' is the same for everyone, everywhere.

The natural law approach to solving ethical dilemmas begins with the basic belief that everyone has the right to live their life. From there, natural law theorists draw a line between an innocent life and the life of an 'unjust aggressor.' The natural law theory recognizes the legal and moral concept of self-defense, which is often used to justify acts of war.

Natural law theory is not always a simple school of thought. It should come as no surprise that the ethics associated with natural law are equally complicated. The idea that the definition of what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' is the same for 'every person' is sometimes difficult to apply to complex ethical dilemmas.

Examples

Consider the following examples…

Example 1:

You are a passenger on a ship sailing across the ocean. Suddenly, your ship is overtaken in a powerful storm. You escape to a lifeboat with 25 other passengers. You notice that four of the passengers are badly injured, and unlikely to survive for more than a week. You also know that the lifeboat only has enough food and water to sustain 22 passengers. Some of the other passengers are considering throwing the four injured passengers overboard in order to save the other survivors. If you were a natural law theorist, how would you solve this ethical dilemma?

Acts of violence, like murder, work against our 'humanly purpose' to live a good life. Therefore, throwing the injured passengers overboard is an unnatural act and contrary to natural law. Even if their deaths would ensure the survival of the 22 other passengers, the act of murder is against our human nature. Natural law forbids killing the injured passengers under any circumstances. A law against murder is a just law under the natural law theory.

You are a doctor at a busy hospital. Every day you must turn sick patients away because you don't have enough beds to accommodate them. You treat an elderly patient who is dying of a painful illness. The illness is terminal and will kill the patient within a few weeks. You know that high amounts of pain medications will provide your patient with some comfort in his last weeks, but you also know that the medication will cause the patient to die within a matter of days. If your patient dies, a bed will be available for a new patient to receive treatment. How should you proceed under a natural law approach?

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