Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Is natural law timeless?

Jonathan Crowe

Natural law theories maintain that there are certain goods and principles that are uniquely conducive to human flourishing. Historically, the content of natural law has often been depicted as timeless and unchanging. This makes natural law seem like (in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes) a ‘brooding omnipresence in the sky’—a set of austere and unwavering rules imposed on humans from above.

In Natural Law and the Nature of Law, I take a different view. I argue that natural law, rather than simply being posited from above, is shaped over time by both our intrinsic natures and our external environments. Principles of natural law do not arise out of nowhere, but reflect the ongoing human quest to work out how best to live flourishing, fulfilling lives given the nature we have and the social worlds we inhabit.

Natural law, on this view, has three key features. First, it is socially embodied. The way we discover natural law is by interpreting social practices. We will generally start by looking at our own community, asking what goals we value for their own sake and what constraints these place on practical reasoning. We can then compare these ideas to the practices of other communities that we know about.

It is by looking beyond our own community and considering human societies in general that we can potentially identify goods and principles that are common to humans. This kind of inference works two ways. First, it is by observing different communities that we form knowledge about what values and principles are universal and not merely relative to one’s own society. Second, it is the fact that natural law provides guidance for humans in a range of settings that makes it natural law in the first place.

Second, natural law is historically extended. Our collective knowledge about how humans can flourish in a variety of different natural, social and economic environments is not something that can be gained or processed all at once. Rather, it is something that human communities have worked out over a long period of time.

The content of natural law, in this sense, is the product of a process of social evolution stretching over multiple generations. Our grasp of natural law changes and grows with our self-understanding. More fundamentally, however, natural law itself changes as it adapts itself to our changing circumstances. The best way of living a fulfilling and harmonious life in centuries past may not be the best way of doing so today.

Third, natural law (as the name suggests) depends on human nature. Our nature as humans is partly a product of our biology. However, it also reflects how we structure our communities. Natural law instructs us in the best way to live given our nature and social surroundings. If human nature changes with major shifts in social conditions, then natural law might also be expected to evolve throughout our history.

A potential worry about this conception of natural law is that it undermines its objective and normative character. However, if anything, I think it puts us in a better position to defend the objectivity of natural law by explaining where it comes from. The idea that natural law is imposed fully formed makes its content seem arbitrary. The view I propose, by contrast, enables us to place natural law within a broader account of the evolution of social practices and how they promote human fulfilment.

Natural Law and the Nature of Law by Jonathan Crowe

Natural Law and the Nature of Law by Jonathan Crowe

About The Author

Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe is Professor of Law at Bond University and the author of Natural Law and the Nature of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Thanks to Catherine Carol and Constanc...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!