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Natural law

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-T012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

When made within the discourse of ethics, political theory, or legal theory or philosophy of law, the claim that there is a natural law is an offer to explain and defend certain claims often made, in different terms, in the discourse of moral argument, politics or law. In pre-theoretical moral discourse, certain choices, actions or dispositions may be asserted to be ‘inhuman’, ‘unnaturally cruel’, ‘perverse’ or ‘morally unreasonable’. In pre-theoretical political discourse, certain proposals, policies or conduct may be described as violations of ‘human rights’. In international law and jurisprudence, certain actions may be described as ‘crimes against humanity’ and citizens may claim immunity from legal liability or obligations by appealing to a ‘higher law’. A natural law theory offers to explain why claims of this sort can be rationally warranted and true. It offers to do so by locating such claims in the context of a general theory of good and evil in human life so far as human life is shaped by deliberation and choice. Such a general theory can also be called a general theory of right and wrong in human choices and actions. It will contain both (1) normative propositions identifying types of choice, action or disposition as right or wrong, permissible, obligatory and so on, and (2) non-normative propositions about the objectivity and epistemological warrant of the normative propositions.

Citing this article:
Finnis, John. Natural law, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-T012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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