Natural Law

Brian Cleeve 2001


There is a belief among lawyers and lay men interested in the concepts of Law, that there exists a “Natural Law” superior to any human Law Code and one that all law codes should recognize and on certain occasions bow to. In Ireland, those who describe themselves and their concerns as “Pro-life” are the strongest supporters and invokers of this idea.

They do not call it Divine Law, the Law of God, but claim it to be an idea, an ideal, that is innate in every human being, in our nature. We recognize it, its supporters claim, even when we do not obey it. It springs from a subconscious consensus of what is right and wrong and of what our consciences will tell us once we listen to them.

“Surely everyone agrees that such and such an act is simply wrong!”

The idea is plausible. We all agree that murder is wrong, theft is wrong, and so on. That the Ten Commandments are good, and to break any of them is bad. Plausible, yes. But is the idea true? Universally true? Always true from the beginnings of mankind?

As soon as one begins to examine the facts they fail to support any belief in a universal consensus as to right and wrong. The very issue which arouses the greatest passion, that of abortion, demonstrates the lack of agreement. There are passionate believers on both sides, each as furiously convinced as the other that “Natural Law” is on their side. If “Natural Law” was inborn in all of us, the sense of absolute right and wrong over certain important matters, then such arguments and conflicts could not exist. One side would so obviously and clearly be wrong, and the other so clearly right. But this is not the case.

Nor is it the case in other matters of great importance; war and pacifism; the taking of human life by the State; the disciplining of children by parents; the enduring obligation of marriage; the exploitation of Nature. And if there is passionate and sincere disagreement about these and kindred matters of great importance to-day, there is still less agreement to be found in the past.

Early communities saw all other communities, every stranger, as potential victims, to be killed or enslaved. That attitude still exists under the surface, and suggests that the only truly inborn, universal Law is that of the jungle, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. “Greed is good.” “Look after number one.” There are the modern universals or so they seem.

The only truly universal Law is surely that of Nature’s reality; that we die. If we ask whether there is a Reality, a Law, beyond that, we enter into the realm of religion, the area of greatest disagreement and least consensus.