Natural Law

Updated on April 4, 2024
Article bySusmita Pathak
Edited bySusmita Pathak
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Natural Law?

Natural law is a philosophical and ethical theory stating that humans possess intrinsic traits, such as moral values and the ability to make rational decisions. A morally driven person can differentiate between right and wrong and good and evil. It is a universal and constant law based on human nature and remains unaffected by culture, custom, or society.

The reasoning-based decision-making behavior allows humans to focus on what is morally correct. It also establishes a connection between the law and morality, rights, and obligations as being human. This law of justice differs from positive law in that there is no interference of the judiciary or legislature in it.

Natural Law

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Key Takeaways

  • Natural law is a theory asserting that humans are born with intrinsic values like morality and the ability to be rational in decision-making. Morally motivated individuals can distinguish between right and wrong and good and evil.
  • It is a consistent universal law based on human nature that remains untouched by culture, custom, or society. However, it evolves based on its intended use, function, and conditions.
  • Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato were the first advocates of the theory, but Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas proposed the notion in the medieval period.
  • Unlike positive law, this system of justice is devoid of judicial or legislative intervention. But sometimes, emotions take precedence over the factors that influence a decision.

How Does Natural Law Theory Works?

The natural law theory advocates that the effective implementation of the law depends on human beings’ morality, conscience, and rationality. Therefore, the concept mainly focuses on being good and supporting good while avoiding evil. According to this law, the sense of right-wrong and good-bad comes from individual choices and behavior.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle and Athenian philosopher Plato were the first advocates of the natural system of law. It also finds existence in different theories related to multiple disciplines, such as ethics, philosophy, civil law, politics, theoretical economicsEconomicsEconomics is an area of social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of limited resources within a society., etc. However, one theory propounded by natural law theorist Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period is still the most influential.

Natural law characteristics

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The natural justice system derived from ethics and morals is common to everyone irrespective of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. It asserts that ideals inherent in human nature instead of being taught are the foundation of a just society. But the concept has been a subject of criticism concerning crimes perpetrated around the world.

The theory states that there are times when the emotional overflow overtakes reasons that influence a decision. Anxiety, frustration, rage, fear, and greed are emotions that drive people to commit crimes, even though they are well aware of their wrongdoings deep down.

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Natural Law and Basic Goods

The natural law theory categorizes “basic goods” into seven categories:

Basic goods - natural law

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  1. Life – The first good is to make sure living creatures preserve their lives. This understanding is what keeps them off from dangers.
  2. Reproduction – To reproduce is one of the fundamental goods for the society to propagate the human population.
  3. Education – Humans must educate their offspring, as it is the foundation for their moral and behavioral development.
  4. Worship – It is the next step towards gaining a sense of morality and conscience. It allows differentiating between good and evil.
  5. Social Life – It plays a crucial role in developing the moral character and sensibility of human beings. Even Aristotle, one of the first advocates of the natural justice system, called humans “a social animal.”
  6. Avoid Offense – The next essential good is no involvement in any crime.
  7. Shun Ignorance  Avoiding ignorance signifies not forgetting essential goods at any cost. There are instances where humans bury their conscience and do something they know is wrong.

It is worth mentioning that the role of the natural system of right changes over time, depending on its usage, function, and circumstances.


Let us consider the following natural law examples to understand the theory even better:

Example #1 – Natural Law Of Economics

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, defined the three natural laws of economics:

  1. Law of Self-Interest  It lets humans work for their growth and development.
  2. Law of Competition  It states how competition encourages the development of better products.
  3. Law of Supply and Demand  It specifies that output must rise while costs stay low.

Example #2 – Natural Law Of Ethics

This natural system of law encourages people to make decisions based on their conscience. To ensure that a decision made satisfies the level of conscience, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. Self-Perseverance – It urges people to take care of their health. Also, it restricts them from endangering or killing others.
  2. Behavior With Others – It expects humans to be humble, polite, and kind to others. Also, it never wants them to be rude to others at any cost.
  3. Propagation of Human Species – According to this criterion, it is wrong if someone is sexually involved with the other without intending to reproduce.

Natural Law vs Positive Law

The law of morality conferred by choices or reasoning contradicts positive law enacted by the state or society. How?

  • The former is undocumented and guided by human morals, ethics, and conscience. On the other hand, the latter is man-made and governed by statute and common law.
  • Also, the natural system of right dictates human behavior based on intrinsic values. But the human-made law is subject to specific actions and places.
  • Furthermore, the natural system of justice enables people to distinguish right from wrong. The positive law attempts to defend individual rights, resolve conflicts, and provide safety.

While different factors drive natural and positive laws, moral values and the level of conscience of governing authorities influence the making of nationally or globally accepted legal standards. For example:

  • Buying and consuming alcohol is morally reprehensible, yet it is legal.
  • Abortion is wrong per human conscience, although it is lawful in some countries.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does natural law mean?

Natural law is a philosophical and ethical theory that states that humans have inherent values such as moral standards, rationality, and conscience, which allow them to make rational decisions. It also develops the sense of right-wrong and good-evil based on individual choices and behavior. However, emotional outbursts can occasionally take precedence over the elements that affect a decision.

What are the seven basic goods of the natural law?

The seven “basic goods” defined by the natural justice system are – Life, Reproduction, Education, Worship or Seek God, Social Life, Avoid Offense, and Shun Ignorance.

What are the three elements of the natural law of economics?

Adam Smith postulated the following three natural laws of economics:
1. Law of Self-Interest – It empowers people to take charge of their growth and development.
2. Law of Competition – It explains how competition promotes the development of superior products.
3. Law of Supply and Demand – It states that output must increase while costs remain low.

This has been a guide to natural law and its definition. Here we discuss how does natural law theory works, along with basic goods, examples, and its differences with positive law. You may also have a look at the following article to learn more –

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