natural law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Natural law is a philosophical and legal theory that posits the existence of a set of universal moral principles that are inherent in the natural order of the world.

Natural law is a theory found in criminal justice, philosophy, and other fields. Its roots go deep into history. After all, philosophers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas talked about it centuries ago! The theory argues that there are certain principles, or “laws,” inherent in the world. It suggests that all people naturally understand these laws. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or how you grew up. The law is the law.

What Does Natural Law Mean?

The term “Natural Law” may sound confusing, but it isn’t. It deals with basic principles of right and wrong that everyone instinctively knows. These principles guide our decisions and actions. Imagine, for example, that you found a wallet full of money on the ground. This theory argues that most people would know that the right thing to do is return it to its owner.

Natural Law in Criminal Justice

So, what does this have to do with criminal justice? Both go hand-in-hand. The legal systems worldwide generally agree that certain acts, like murder or theft, are wrong. This agreement isn’t just based on written laws. It’s also based on natural law principles. Above all, it’s based on the shared understanding of right and wrong.

In criminal justice, the idea can also influence punishments. It might not seem fair, for example, to punish someone harshly for stealing bread if they were starving. While stealing is generally wrong, natural law recognizes that people might act differently in desperate situations. This understanding can make our legal system more compassionate and just.

Natural Law and Human Rights

It also has significant implications for human rights. It suggests that certain rights are universal and should always be respected, whether or not a country’s laws recognize them. After all, these rights are ‘naturally’ inherent to every human being.

Think about the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. These are examples of human rights that many believe are based on natural law. They’re so fundamental that no legal system should violate them.


Of course, not everyone agrees with the idea. Some critics argue that what people consider ‘natural’ can vary widely across different cultures or societies. What’s seen as right in one culture might be seen as wrong in another.

Also, critics argue that natural law might be used to justify harmful behavior. After all, if someone believes that their actions are ‘natural,’ they might feel justified, even when they’re hurting others.

All things considered, natural law is a complex theory with a lot of potential benefits and challenges. It’s a central part of discussions about criminal justice, morality, and human rights. It encourages us to think deeply about our actions and their impact on others. Whether we agree with it or not, understanding natural law can help us better understand the world around us.

Learn More

On This Site

Criminology » Criminology | Section 2.4

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Last Modified: 06/30/2023


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