The Existence of the Natural Law

Fr. Raymond Taouk

This first principle can be state : “Do good and avoid evil”. This primary truth which, as St. Thomas says, is self-evident, cannot be invincibly unknown to anyone who has the use of reason at all.

The good is what is suitable according to the natural inclination. It is the end and the perfection of the agent. See Metaphysics : “ bonum est quod omnia appetunt.”

The first precept is founded on an natural appetite towards beatitude.

1)      There are other common or general principles based on the first principle, following from it with immediate inference, or with mediate inference so simple and easy that no normal mature person can fail to make it.

These principles can be regarded as moral axioms. They express the natural inclinations man has in common with all substances, such as “Preserve your own being”, or in common with other animals, such as “Care for your offspring”, or the inclinations clearly and obviously springing from man’s rationality, such as “Adore God”, “Do not murder”, “Treat others with fairness”, “Be faithful to your friends”. One could hardly know the first principle, “Do good and avoid evil”, and fail to see what is good and what is evil in such obvious cases.

These common principles cannot be invincibly unknown to persons whose reason is developed, that is, to persons of normal intelligence, who have arrived at mental maturity, and have received an adequate moral education. If knowledge of the natural law is not innate but must be discovered by reason, it is to be expected that the feeble-minded through incapacity and children through immaturity will be deficient in it.

St. Paul, speaking of the pagans, points out that they are not excusable from the knowledge of this natural law: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable." - Romans 1:18. Hence according to St. Paul, even those who have never head the revealed words of God are still bound by a moral  law. This law is fix for al men and is written in their hearts. it forbids idolatry, avarice, envy etc to all men.

The non-Catholic testimony from a historical perspective is strikingly similar to the Catholic one. Although paganism is at the furthest ethical extreme from Catholicism, even it agrees with the Church on this point. The greatest religious leaders and ethical thinkers of all times have taught the existence of the natural law.

The Hymns of the Rig-Veda of ancient Hinduism proclaim that 'the Law (Rta) pervades the whole world and all gods and men must obey it.' (S. Radhakishnan, Indian Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1951, I, 109).

And Buddha taught that 'the moral law is not the chance of intervention of an exceptional mind or even the dogma of revelation but the necessary expression of the truth of things.' In the Dhammapada, we find clear evidence of Buddhism's understand of the natural law and of its position as the source of ethical norms.

"They who forbid when there is nothing to be forbidden and forbid not when there is something to be forbidden, such men ..  enter the evil path. They who know what is forbidden as forbidden and what is not forbidden as not forbidden, such men enter the true path.' (Dhammapada, XXII, 319).

Confucius taught refers to the 'absolute standard of righteousness' (Liki, ch. 32). And the great Confucian Scripture, the Works of Mencius, shows an accurate insight into the Philosophical origins of natural law: "Every faculty and relation of man must have its laws." Part II, Bk 6, par. 8.

Plato affirmed that some laws, like that commanding resect for parents, are universal laws and are observed everywhere in any country (Xenophn, Memorabilia, IV, 4; Nat. Law inst. Proc. II, 16-7).

Aristotle affirms that "Equity is that natural justice which exists independently of human laws' and also 'If the written law tells against our case, clearly we must appeal to the universal law and insist on its greater justice and equity.' (Rhetoric, I, 1375a; Nat. Law inst. Proc. II, 24).

According to Cicero, "There is a true law, right reason, consonant to nature, coextensive with the race of man, unchanging and eternal . . . It is not allowed us to make any alteration in that law: we may not take away any least portion of it; nor can we repeal it as a whole. Neither senate nor people have power to release us from our obligation in its regard. We need not search for some one to explain or interpret it. We shall not find one law at Rome, another at Athens: one now, another hereafter; but that law, one, everlasting and immutable, is binding on all races and at all times; and there is one common Master and Lord of all, God. He it is who drew up this law, determined its provisions, and promulgated it." (On the Republic, III, 22).

Catholics and all the greatest ethical thinkers among non Catholics agree that the natural law exists and that it is based onn human nature itself. And that it binds all men of all times and in all places.