Natural Law Notes for January 20

Main points

Most of the authors we will read in the first three weeks were self-consciously opposed to the natural law tradition. So we began with a quick overview of natural law.

Megan identified the main reason why something like natural law is appealing. We expect judges to do at least two things: interpret the law and reach just or fair decisions. When the written statutes don’t themselves get the judges to the just result, most of us expect judges to fill in the blanks. That’s the lesson of the case of Elmer, the man who poisoned his grandfather and sought to inherit his grandfather’s estate. We expect judges hearing that case to take “no one should profit from their own wrongdoing” to be a par of the law that they interpret, even if it isn’t explicitly written down.

Meredith pressed the most important objection against this way of thinking. How are the value judgments that are part of the law distinguished from those that are not? And do we trust judges to adhere to the line?

The handout was meant to illustrate another problem with the natural law tradition. The idea that there is a law of nature fits most comfortably with either religious traditions or with a view of the natural world that attributes goals to the nature of things. The former is not an accepted basis for the law in most modern societies and the latter was largely displaced by the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

That said, Fuller’s modest statement at the end of the handout is interesting: it does seem to show that there are some norms or values that are inherent in the law. And the religious may argue that the attempt to arrive at a secular understanding of law and morality is a mistake.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2010. It was posted January 21, 2010.
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