The Natural Law — Its Nature, Scope and Sanction
The N atural Law - Its Nature, Scope and Sanction
John E. McAnif 0
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Recommended Citation John E. McAniff, Th e Natural Law - Its Nature, Scope and Sanction, 22 Fordham L. Rev. 246 (1953). Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol22/iss3/2
JOHN E. McANIFFt
THE effects of the last war have again brought into vivid focus the
SNatural Law, its origins and its consequences. They have also
demonstrated once again that Natural Law is not a mere abstraction
without practical consequences but that it can and does have a profound
influence on the life and property of every living person.
When we speak of the concept of Natural Law, we are not speaking
of something new. It goes so far back that we cannot ascertain its
exact beginnings. It can be traced back through the writings of the
early American jurists (James Wilson, Works, Vol. 1, Part 1; Chancellor
Kent in Wigktman v. Wightman, 4 Johnson's Ch. 343 (N.Y. 1820)),
through the English writers (Blackstone, Commentaries Introd. Sec. 2,
p. 40, Edmund Burke on the East India Bill), through the Scholastic
writers (St. Thomas Aquinas, 10 Sent. 32-1-1, Suarez, De Legibus),
through the Latin writers (Cicero, Laws 1, VI, 18; Pandects Book 1),
and back through the Greek writers (Aristotle Rhetoric I, 1373 b;
Politics I, a; Sophocles, Antigone). Indeed, Antigone in Sophocles'
great play proclaimed the supremacy of the unwritten law and died
for it without regret.
When I refer to the history and origin of Natural Law, I do not
suggest that those who uphold the Natural Law have held the field
alone. On the contrary, there have been and are many who contend
that there is no such thing as Natural Law, and that it has no proper
place in our Jurisprudence. There have been others who have gravely
misunderstood the Natural Law and by misunderstanding it have denied
to it its rightful place in our Jurisprudence. We are concerned here
today, however, not primarily with refutation, but with a positive
What then is the meaning of Natural Law?
When God created the world, He necessarily intended that everything
in it should be directed to its final purpose. This act of God's will,
directing everything by a rule of action to its final purpose is the eternal
law. In non-living objects the rule of action operates by means of
compelling forces. Two parts of hydrogen will unite with one part of
oxygen to make water. In living things there are different classifications.
Vegetative agents, although they have life, also operate by means of
* Address at Symposium held by Guild of Catholic Lawyers of New York City, December
t Assistant Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law.
compelling forces within their natures but without consciousness, such
as the absorption of sunlight by plants. Animal agents likewise operate
by means of compelling forces within their natures but they do so through
the medium of consciousness. When an animal takes food, it is conscious
of a desire for food and it is also conscious of the presence of food
but it is nonetheless actuated by impulses that cannot be resisted.
With man, however, it is different. Man, unlike the rest of created
things, has a body and an immortal soul. He has intellect and will.
The rule of action by which God is guiding him to his eternal destiny
is known to man. He is conscious of it and he is not directed by
impulses that are irresistible. The participation by man in the eternal
law is what we call the Natural Moral Law. The word moral is used
because it applies to man since he has intellect and free will and therefore
moral responsibility. We speak of it colloquially as the Natural Law.
We can, therefore, state that the Natural Law is a mandatory rule of
action, established and promulgated by the Author of Nature, known
to man by reason, and imposed upon man by his nature.
We first note that the Natural Law is a rule of action. That means
that it acts as a guide to right conduct in the free actions of men.
It is a mandatory rule of action. That means that it is binding on
all persons and requires them to obey it.
It is established and promulgated. That means that the rule of action
has been determined by God and has been made known to man through
the medium of man's own intellect. Thus it is applicable to all men
since it is based on man as a creature composed of body and soul with
intellect and will.
It is known to man by reason. Revelation is not required to enable
man to know that there is a Natural Law. In that concept of Natural
Law, we have taken several things for granted. Everything we have
taken for granted, however, is established in other branches of philosophy.
When I say we have taken them for granted, I do not mean that we
have naively assumed that they are so, whether they can or cannot
be established. What I do mean is that they have been established in
other sciences or branches of philosophy.
We have taken for granted the existence of God, a personal God
who created the universe and everything in it for a purpose, including
man composed of body and soul, a spiritual immortal soul with the
functions of intellect and will, an intellect that can know objective truth
and a will which is free. Those are the foundations on which Natural
Law is based.
We have said that the Natural Law is known to every human being
by reason. Does that mean that everybody will necessarily reach the
same conclusions regarding the morality of all actions under all
circumstances? By no means, and the reason must be clear. The Natural Law
contains a number of precepts. Some of these precepts are known clearly
and without difficulty. Other precepts are known only with more or less
difficulty and there may be reasonable ground for difference of opinion
For example, the primary precept of the Natural Law is "do good
and avoid evil." That principle is known by every human being who
has the use of reason. It is known to him by his intellect as soon as
he is able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. It is
the most universal of the precepts of the Natural Law and all the other
precepts of the Natural Law flow from it.
Knowledge of the terms "good" and "evil" will be acquired and
enlarged by education, training and experience. Good is something that
befits and perfects human nature. Evil is something that does not befit
human nature and which disrupts it. That is why the proper concept
of human nature is so essential for an accurate understanding of the
Then there are the secondary precepts of the Natural Law. The
secondary precepts are easily derived conclusions from the first precept.
They are generally recognized by all who have the use of reason.
Examples of these secondary precepts would be the following: Blasphemy
is forbidden. Murder is wrong. These secondary precepts are generally
contained and summarized in the Ten Commandments, but that does
not mean that they are known to us by Revelation. They are known
by reason and the Ten Commandments are simply a revealed codification
of the secondary precepts.
Finally, there are the other precepts. They are not as clear as the
principles contained in the primary and secondary precepts and are not
as easily known. To the ordinary person they would not be clearly
evident and in fact it would often be necessary for some persons to be
guided by the positive law on the subject, or, in the absence of positive
law, to seek the advice of persons more skilled in such matters.
It thus becomes evident that Natural Law demands that it be
implemented by positive human law. Those precepts of the Natural Law
which can be known with certainty are comparatively few and consist,
in large part of general principles. They are not sufficiently numerous
or particularized to act as moral guides in the conduct of everyday
affairs. They leave a large field of affairs not specifically or expressly
covered by the Natural Law. They must be supplemented by human
positive law. There is no conflict between the side-by-side existence of
Natural Law and human positive law. In fact, Natural Law demands
human positive law. There cannot, however, be any contradiction
between the content of Natural Law and of human positive law. The
Natural Law is the foundation on which human positive law must be
built. Human positive law is law only insofar as it conforms to the
Natural Law. If it is in conflict with the prohibitive precepts of the
Natural Law, it is not law. Such, for example, would be a positive law
which commanded one to do something which was intrinsically wrong.
If a law were enacted permitting murder or perjury, the law would not
be binding and indeed it would be a grave wrong for anybody to obey
the law. That is because it would be directly contrary to the prohibitive
precepts of the Natural Law. It does not follow, however, that every
law in conflict with the Natural Law is not a law and may be ignored
or disobeyed. A tax law, for example, may distribute the burden of
taxation inequitably but it does not clearly violate the prohibitive norms
of the Natural Law. For that reason the law should be obeyed though
every legal means may be employed to obtain its repeal or to secure
the passage of a law that is in accord with the principles of justice.
But all other positive laws which do not violate the precepts of the
Natural Law are binding. Positive laws are based on the Natural Law;
they are guided by it; they specify it; they apply it in practice; they
are required by it. It is only in a few of the evident precepts of the
Natural Law that we can have certainty. As we draw deductions from
them and as we apply them to the practical situations of everyday life,
the certainty of our knowledge decreases. There would be grave disorder
if each person were allowed to conduct his own everyday affairs by
applying the Natural Law. For the sake of public order, human positive
laws are imperative but also for the sake of public order and the general
welfare all positive laws must be based upon it.
We have spoken of natural rights which are based on the Natural
Law. What are some of the natural rights which man possesses and
which are thus derived from the Natural Law? The following are some
of them (The American Philosophy of Law, LeBuffe and Hayes; 1947,
First is the right to life. Man was created by God and has the duty
to use his life and to attain the end which God has destined for him.
That end is the complete knowledge and love of supreme truth and
supreme goodness. Man is not the master of his own life. He must
conserve his life and use it in accordance with God's purpose.
The right to personal liberty is a natural right. Man has the faculties
of intellect and will, and his will is free. If he did not have personal
liberty, his free will could never be exercised. It would be thwarted
and a faculty which is part of his nature would be rendered purposeless
The right to freedom of speech is a natural right. Man by nature has
the faculty of knowing truth and of communicating it to others by
means of speech or other medium of expression.
The right to liberty of conscience is a natural right. Every man
having been created by God, he is required by nature to worship God
and to observe the law of God.
The right to private property is a natural right because private property
is the only satisfactory means by which man can satisfy his natural
requirements. He must have property to provide for the everyday
requirements of himself and his family and to provide for their future
requirements as well.
The right to marry is a natural right. Marriage is the natural means
for the procreation and education of human beings. The right to marry
as a natural right was recently affirmed by the courts (Rubin v. Irving
Trust Co. et al., 305 N.Y. 288, 113 N.E. 2d 424 (1953)). In the same
case, however, it was said that "the power of testamentation is 'not a
natural or inherent right, but one which the state can grant or withhold
in its discretion'." That statement, while it represents the great weight
of authority in the law, is subject to serious question. I mention it
merely in passing, however, to illustrate the point that, while the primary
and secondary precepts of the Natural Law are clearly known, the other
principles to be deduced are not so easily known and that such deductions
can and sometimes do result in reasonable differences of opinion.
The right to a just wage is a natural right. Man has a natural right
to the material things necessary to provide for himself and his family.
Under our present economic system most men can obtain these material
requirements only through the money which they receive in return for
their labor or other personal services.
The right to strike is a natural right. Since man has a natural right
to obtain the material things required for himself and his family, he
also has a natural right to use proper means to obtain those material
things. Among those means and among the other natural rights of man
is the right to form a union by means of which they can obtain collectively
what they could. not obtain individually. If they are not able to obtain
their legitimate objectives by other means, then they may strike and in
doing so they are exercising a natural right.
The last two (the right to a just wage and the right to strike) are
powerful examples of the application of the Natural Law to new
conditions. The question of a just wage and the right to strike have
arisen only under the stress of modern economic conditions. Yet the
Natural Law contained the principles applicable to those conditions in
order to ascertain the rights of men. Thus we see that, although the
primary and secondary precepts of the Natural Law are immutable,
the application of those principles can change in accordance with
Having observed what Natural Law is, we can now see what it is not.
Indeed, a proper knowledge of what it is not, is almost as important as
knowledge of what it is. Many of the attacks which have been made on
Natural Law have been directed not against Natural Law as it really is
but against gross misconceptions and misunderstandings of it.
Natural Law is not a mere abstraction without any basis in reality,
and without any practical value or application. In the first place, it is
not a valid objection to say that an idea or a principle or a judgment is
an abstraction. That objection usually means that the so-called abstraction
is general in nature and has not been applied to particular circumstances.
Those abstractions, however, sometimes change the face of the world.
Such abstractions as Justice, Order, Mercy and Reality have done more
than their part to help the progress of mankind. In the second place,
Natural Law contains a number of general precepts. Some of them can
be applied immediately to certain circumstances by individual persons.
For example, murder is wrong. Other general principles may be difficult
of application to a set of particular circumstances and it is necessary
then to enact laws for the guidance of the individual. The objection
then that the Natural Law is a mere abstraction is the same objection
that is leveled against any principle that must be applied to particular
and varying situations.
Natural Law is not a Divinely revealed code of ordinances. It is
known to man by reason and the precepts thus known to him by reason
are applied by reason to particular circumstances, or supplemented by
human positive laws so that they can be applied with greater accuracy
and uniformity. We must not, however, discount the influence of religion.
To a person who has firm faith in a personal God, the Creator of man,
and has given man a dignity which he has not received from his
fellowman or from the State or by man-made agreement, and who believes
that man's destiny is to be re-united with God, the Natural Law will
have a vitality and a meaning that it will not have to other men.
Natural Law is not an irresistible force which compels men to obey it.
Man has intellect and free will and while there is every incentive for
him to carry out the precepts of the Natural Law, he can refuse to do so
precisely because he has freedom of choice.
Natural Law is not a subjective feeling of right or wrong which varies
with different persons. It is objective. It is truth. Being objective truth,
it is a standard which must be followed by all men and to which the laws
of all men must conform. In its ultimate principles it is not subject to
Natural Law is not a complete set of rules governing every human
action. Nor is it a set of rules so nearly complete that, by making
deductions from them, people can be led to conclusions which will
properly govern all their actions. Natural Law contains precepts, some
known certainly, others with more or less certainty. Large areas of the
practical everyday affairs of life are left uncovered by the Natural Law
to be filled in by human positive laws based on the precepts of Natural
Natural Law is not an all-embracing fixed set of rules which would
prevent any change in the law. The primary and secondary principles
of the Natural Law are immutable, but the applications of those principles
to particular circumstances can result in error, and in their applications
to varying circumstances, to change. The positive law may be changed
when a new statute is passed, or an existing statute amended or repealed.
The law may also be changed when a precedent is distinguished or
overruled, and a new rule announced in its place. There is no conflict between
those legal changes and the Natural Law. Such changes are applicable
to the areas which are not directly affected by the primary or secondary
precepts of the Natural Law. Whether consideration should be required
for a contract, whether contributory negligence should bar the remedy
of an injured person, whether an automobile should be driven to the
right or to the left-these are matters which have not been directly
covered by the Natural Law and are properly left to human positive
laws, which may be changed, if necessary, to obtain more equal justice.
The immutability of the Natural Law does not in any sense involve
unchangeableness or even rigidity in human positive law.
What sanctions are attached to the Natural Law? What are the
penalties for those who disregard it? Every law must have a sanction
and the Natural Law is no exception. The sanction supplies a
muchneeded motive for observance of the law. The Natural Law was
promulgated by God and He cannot be indifferent to its violation or
observance. Ordinarily, therefore, the observance of the Natural Law
will bring with it many rewards in this life-the satisfaction of integrity,
the deep quiet of a peaceful conscience, the joy of a life ordered in
accordance with God's will. The violation of the Natural Law, on the
other hand, will ordinarily take its toll in the form of a disturbed
conscience and dissatisfaction with ill-gotten gains. But that is not
always so. Sometimes the pendulum seems to swing only one way and
the penalties seem to go to the wrong persons. Consequently, for the
complete and perfect sanction of the Natural Law we cannot confine our
vision to this world. We must look to the future. It is the life after
death that will furnish the ultimate sanction of the Natural Law in the
loss of complete happiness.
But additional sanctions are needed. Even though murder and perjury
are wrong in themselves and are forbidden by the Natural Law, we need
the added and specific sanctions supplied by human positive laws. These
human positive laws will be enacted by legislatures which, like all
lawmakers, ultimately derive their authority from God. Experience has
taught us that the sanctions of the Natural Law which deal with the
hereafter are not sufficient. They must be supplemented by the sanctions
of the statutes. Those sanctions, of course, are not immultble and will
vary with circumstances of time, place and people. In fact, that variation
of sanction is another telling refutation of the false theory that the
immutability of the Natural Law involves not only fixed principles but
also fixed rules applicable to all phases of conduct and fixed penalties
for any violations that occur. One of the finest examples of progressive
and forward-looking change is to be found in the address made by
Pope Pius XII to the Sixth International Congress of Penal Law on
October 3, 1953. In that address the Pope proposed the adoption of
an International Penal Code to punish such crimes as the making of
unjust war, the execution of hostages, mass deportations and slave labor.
Nothing could illustrate more graphically the value of having a
foundation of immutable precepts from which deductions and applications can
be made to new and changing circumstances.
The issue is clear. If there were no Natural Law, man would be the
creature of the State. He would have no rights derived from God.
He would have no rights based upon his own nature as a rational being
possessed of intellect and will. What rights the State might give to him,
it could take away from him. "Inalienable" would become another
synonym for "expendable." If there were no Natural Law, the State
could enact and enforce any laws. Murder, perjury, adultery would no
longer be intrinsically wrong. They would be wrong only if the State
declared them wrong.
If there were no Natural Law, then any system of government would
be permissible and it would be wholly immaterial that the government
did not recognize the rights which we regard as beyond the interference
of any power. Democracy would mean the same thing as Fascism,
Nazism and Communism, and the trials now being held behind the
Iron Curtain would be justified. That is the issue. In the solution of
that issue we must be guided by a clear understanding of what the
Natural Law is, what it has done for us in the past, and what, with
God's help, it can do for us in the future.