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social sciences

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Natural Law  

Natural Law refers to the tradition of reading into nature laws that are not merely descriptive, but prescriptive. For adherents of natural law, nature does not merely state natural facts, but also offers a moral code, or reveals a moral order, usually anchored in a god whose intentions can be read in nature.

In Christian theology, natural law is that part of God's teaching that can be discerned through nature (as opposed to revelation or grace or scripture). As developed by medieval scholasticism, it became the basis of both sacred and secular law, including laws regulating sexual practices.

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From the perspective of natural law, nature is viewed as the basis for morality and the civil law. Significantly, however, natural law does not refer to the regularities found in the natural world as discovered by natural scientists, who, qua scientists, are not engaged in ethical evaluations of the natural world.

Origins in the Ancient World

The natural law tradition began with the Stoics of ancient Greece, who viewed reason as mankind's common tool, one connecting human beings to the natural reality of the cosmos that revealed itself and its objective principles through the natural light of human reason.

Aristotle (384-321 B. C. E.) later argued, moreover, that nature and its laws also reveal a common telos, or purpose, shared by all mankind; namely, it is human nature to achieve happiness through cultivation of the right habits of virtue as naturally befit a human being and appear "good" to reason.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a medieval scholastic, rearticulated the Aristotelian conception of natural law in a Christian context, writing that "a law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community," by whom is meant God, whose will is the "eternal law." Aquinas adds that "this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law." Human laws that do not reflect this grounding are simply not laws, properly speaking.

Aquinas, then, argues that natural law governs all of nature, but, unlike the brutes, only man possesses a will of his own and can choose to ignore the natural law or, worse, become habituated to defying it and so reject that to which he is naturally inclined, acting not according to reason and virtue, which incline him to know God, but according to his basest instincts.

Aquinas used the conception of natural law to condemn illicit sexual relations: "certain sins are said to be against nature; thus contrary to sexual intercourse, which is natural to all animals, is unisexual lust, which has received the special name of the unnatural crime." It is from Aquinas' moral systematization of natural law that the general condemnation of same-sex behavior received its most enduring legal justification in the Western tradition.

Anti-Gay Appeals to Natural Law

Claims that homosexual activity violates natural law continue to be part of Roman Catholic teaching, including the 1992 Catechism.

Recently, natural law theorist John Finnis, an anti-gay rights advocate, has updated the argument so as to focus attention on the natural complementarity between male and female both as physical beings (that is, penis and vagina fit) and as emotional beings with personalities and physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Finnis directs his purportedly objectively-based argument against same-sex marriage, and denigrates all non-heterosexual relationships, as well as sexual relations between unmarried heterosexual men and women.

Critiques of Natural Law

The obvious and fatal critique of the argument from natural law and its objectivity is to point out that it selectively derives a normative stance from a description of the sex organs and other biologically-determined structural features of men and women. The natural law argument ignores other arguments neutral or favorable to homosexuality made by some natural scientists and psychobiologists.

Moreover, the natural law interpretation of nature is biased in favor of religious belief, since it is ultimately grounded in the presupposition that nature has an ethical purpose or intention that is identical with the purposes and intentions of the Christian God. Hence, natural law tends to depend on circular reasoning; it discovers in nature what its adherents already believe is the intention of the Christian God.

In the final analysis, despite natural law's pretense to objectivity, it is impossible to downplay the divine element in the scholastic natural law tradition, with its prior notion that biological facts are as they are because that is how God commanded them to be.

Contemporary gay men and lesbians who wish to adhere to natural law theory may have to reject its grounding in the goodness and purpose of a god, or, alternatively, adopt a rival view of the intentions of the god that they believe give natural law its basis and legitimacy.

Gordon Babst


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Top: A Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of the head of Aristotle.
Above: An altarpiece depicting Thomas Acquinas created by Carlo Crivelli in 1476.

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Aquinas, St. Thomas. Treatise on Law. Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 1956.

Finnis, John. "Law, Morality, and 'Sexual Orientation.'" Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy 9 (1995): 1049-76.

Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Pronk, Pim. Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality. John Vriend, trans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1993.

Weinrich, James D. Sexual Landscapes: Why We Are What We Are, Why We Love Whom We Love. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987.

Weithman, Paul J. "Natural Law, Morality, and Sexual Complementarity." David M. Estlund and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Sex, Preference, and Family: Essays on Law and Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


    Citation Information
    Author: Babst, Gordon  
    Entry Title: Natural Law  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 11, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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