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Leaping Back to the Founding, Part 3: If Natural Law is the Basis of America Then How Come No One Can Explain It?

October 27, 2009

5000-year-leap

Part 1: The Left Really Reveals Its Hatred of the American Idea

Part 2: Is This a Christian Nation Theory?

I was a tad put off with W. Cleon Skousen’s first point of the Founders’:

First Principle: The only reliable basis for sound government and just human relations is Natural Law.

I’ve never really liked — or even fully understood — the concept of “Natural Law.” (And as someone with a BA in Political Science and English I like to think that I’m usually able to read something and analyze and understand it. That’s what I’ve been trained to do and what I do for a living.) Whenever I read about “Natural Law” I never feel like it’s very well defined. And Skousen is no different:

To Cicero, the building of a society on principles of Natural Law was nothing more nor less than recognizing and identifying the rules of “right conduct” with the laws of the Supreme Creator of the universe. History demonstrates that even in those nations sometimes described as “pagan” there were sharp, penetrating minds like Cicero’s who reasoned their way through the labyrinths of natural phenomena to see behind the cosmic universe, as well as the unfolding of their own lives, the brilliant intelligence of a supreme Designer with an ongoing interest in both human and cosmic affairs.

Cicero’s compelling honesty led him to conclude that once the reality of the Creator is clearly identified in the mind, the only intelligent approach to government, justice, and human relations is in terms of the laws which the Supreme Creator has already established. The Creator’s order of things is called Natural Law.

A fundamental presupposition of Natural Law is that man’s reasoning power is a special dispensation of the Creator and is closely akin to the rational or reasoning power of the Creator himself. In other words, man shares with his Creator this quality of utilizing a rational approach to solving problems, and the reasoning of the mind will generally lead to common-sense conclusions based on what Jefferson called “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (The Declaration of Independence).

“Natural Law” is the conclusion we come to based on our logic and reasoning… Yet we all come to different conclusions on issues. Perfectly good, reasonable people come to polar opposite ideas on issues.

More from Skousen:

The Law of Nature or Nature’s God is eternal in its basic goodness; it is universal in its application. It is a code of “right reason” from the Creator himself. It cannot be altered. It cannot be repealed. It cannot be abandoned by legislators or the people themselves, even though they may pretend to do so. In Natural Law we are dealing with factors of absolute reality. It is basic in its principles, comprehensible to the human mind, and totally correct and morally right in its general operation.

Simply put, “Natural Law” refers to our natural sense of what is right and wrong. It’s not written down anywhere. No one defines it. It’s just innate. It’s what we come to when we put our heads together and reason what to do. Maybe it’s just me but I tend to think the word “Law” implies something written down.

Even though I’ve become politically conservative I still very much have my radical temperament. (Heck, I had it when I was a child — it’s something you’re born with.) I still have a tendency to continually dig further until I reach the root of an idea, the root of an argument. And the idea of “Natural Law” does not allow this. With “Natural Law” there’s nowhere to dig. With “Natural Law” it’s as though someone says, “Well that’s just the way it is” in answering an argument. It has a religious sensibility. Someone might as well be saying “It’s true because the Bible says so.” And because of that I have a hard time taking it seriously at an intellectual level.

But maybe one of our commenters can help get my head on straight about this subject. Any takers? Who wants to correct my understanding of “Natural Law”?

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18 Comments
  1. Alan Wolfe permalink
    October 27, 2009 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this series. The Declaration of Independence provides, for me, the essence of Natural Law as the Founders understood it:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be
    changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

    Natural Law constitutes a philosophy, a set of principles describing the relationship between the people and their government. The U.S. Constitution may be the closest thing to a codification of Natural Law.

  2. Cas Balicki permalink
    October 27, 2009 4:31 pm

    You can look at certain immutable as laws either of God or nature it makes no difference to me, but what you should not do is confuse immutable nature with behaviour. All men die eventually, for example, is what I might refer to as an immutable law of nature and what another might call a natural law.

    Law in reference to man’s conduct can be viewed as natural if it reinforces nature’s immutable laws. The law of self defence might serve as an example to prove this point, as no one would deny a man’s right to defend himself against threat. Still, there are limits to a man’s ability to defend self, for example, once the threat has passed he may not seek out his attacker and hill him. This put simply is a limit to the natural law of self defence in that it limits a man’s conduct or behaviour. Being a thinking being man must act in a manner that raises him above nature.

    Over our history on this planet we have devised laws that were eventually encoded into what we call our social order. For example: We know that all men eventually die, but we have made it illegal under most circumstances to expedite that process. So even though our human nature is by definition natural in that it takes root in nature as any other animal’s might, our conduct must rise above mere nature. We are held to a higher standard because we can and should rise above nature, because we supposedly know right from wrong. When it comes to law, therefore, any law whose implicit expectation is that we act above our natural inclinations is perforce not a “natural law.”

  3. CGinz permalink
    October 27, 2009 9:19 pm

    To walk through the world by ones self you can’t be protected.

    In other words only you can take care of you, and only you can better you. That’s Natural Law.

  4. October 27, 2009 11:24 pm

    I, too, have struggled intellectually with the concept of natural law. I think Alan and Cas are on the right track. Over time, I’ve come to the idea that natural law refers to the inevitable consequences of human behavior. The problem David outlines, that reasonable people can differ greatly in their interpretation of right and wrong, stems from a culture that has attempted through misguided “empathy” to separate man from the natural consequences of his thoughts and actions. Cas points out man’s right to self-defense, which today has become so warped that we regularly question the rights of Americans and Israelis to protect themselves from attack. In our litigious society one scarcely dares to confront a burglar in one’s own home.

    However, I think the problem David articulates goes further. For the most blatant and easily reasoned example: The natural consequences of promiscuous sex include the spread of disease, unwanted pregnancies, single parenthood as well as the psychological/physiological coarsening of the self and ultimately the coarsening of civil society. Yet we celebrate promiscuous sex in our culture and then charge medical science and government to devise the means to avoid the consequences. Because this is “natural” law, we cannot in reality avoid the consequences and the more we attempt to do so, the worse things get.

    By the same token, one can look to the Ten Commandments, and other precepts of major religions and find they all ban the same behaviors or types of behaviors, varying mostly in the type and severity of punishment for engaging in them. Why?

    Religion and Law are entwined in that both attempt to govern individual behavior in such a way as to, in a sense, preempt natural consequences in order to create a civil society. Think about it: sloth, greed, gluttony, adultery, the killing of innocents, not “honoring” our fathers and mothers, not “honoring” others, theft, coveting, etc. all carry natural consequences beyond law or religious dictates. Yet today, we excuse all of these things out of a foolish sense of “empathy” for the “sinner.” We make it a case of supporting the “sinner” or the “victim” and forget the natural consequences of the “sin.” (one can even make the case for not worshiping any other Gods, but Beck is on in a few minutes)

    Today we’ve twisted everything in such a way as to present right as wrong and wrong as right to such an extent that David and most of us are rightly confused. Natural law gets all mixed up with the notion of the Noble Savage and our inner desire to express our own Will. And so we have a whole segment of society that believes Man is evil and a pox on the earth. When in reality, Man has both an animal and god-like nature. The evils we perpetrate are most often the result of giving in to our animal nature and forgetting to be god-like and denying the responsibilities entailed.

    Our founders understood this in ways I am continually discovering …

    • Gunnar permalink
      October 28, 2009 7:08 am

      Bobbi,
      I think you have expressed it very well. I too, have been coming to speculate that much of what the world’s religions espouse is a code of behavior that is supposed to help society to function, for the most part. It is as if this code has been embedded in the surrounding dogmas, which, I believe are dispensable. But this code is certainly not dispensable. And it seems to reflect something embedded in ourselves, either genetically or, who knows? from “Nature’s God”. My sister is a neuroscientist and theorized about that some years ago. If that is what Natural Law is than that makes sense to me.
      You have wonderfully helped to clarify the concept for me, and being intellectually lazy as I am, I just figured that Natural Law had to mean something and somebody else knew what that was!

    • November 8, 2009 4:29 pm

      I agree that commentor Bobbi has expressed it as I would have and as I understand it. Although societies can stray far from it, the consequences eventually bring us back to it.

  5. JoAn permalink
    October 28, 2009 5:06 am

    Natural Law is discoverable and it is written down. The Total Deposit of Faith handed on by the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church safe guards and promulgates these laws. Please, do not confuse the One Church Christ established with the conciliar new religion of post-Vatican II council many believe to be Catholic. That newly revised claimed Catholic church is not historical nor is it universal per its own 16 .documents.

    It is only in the pre-Vatican II Council that unambiguous ecclesiastical writings, Encyclicals. the lives of the Saints and Martrys and Doctors of the Church that one will discover solid direction without embarrassment and apologies.

    Natural Law provides us with all we need to combat the many social upheavals. We are witnessing the pride of many that is creating the destruction of the world. Humanity cannot safe itself.

  6. The Inquisitor permalink
    October 28, 2009 9:52 am

    For me, Natural Law is law appropriate to entities according to the nature of who they are. That is human beings: living, thinking animals.

    It is the province of Ethics to lay the foundations for Natural Law. For an understanding of such a rational Ethics you can do no better than “The Objectivist Ethics” by Ayn Rand.

  7. October 28, 2009 12:12 pm

    No doubt different people use the term “natural law” as a catchall for several different concepts (much like Guy DeWhitney’s recent observation about “Religious Right”), but from my understanding of the Founding Fathers, I don’t think they’d necessarily posit natural law as a comprehensive guide to the right conclusion on any given question. I think that, if we look at natural law as something with a narrower focus, we may be able to resolve David’s objection and shed light on just why it was so central to the Founding.

    The key is the mental experiment John Locke proposes about how men would be without government, left to the state of nature (for those unfamiliar, it’s available online here: http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtreat.htm). There is one conclusion about such a state that no reasonable person can deny: no man comes with a discernible mandate or entitlement to rule over the lives or affairs of any other man. Everybody is completely equal in this regard, and any such authority must be some sort of artificial construct. The Founders inferred from this that basic individual rights are natural, that the violation of said rights is unnatural, and that consent can be the only natural basis for governing people who have a natural right to govern themselves.

    To be sure, most of the Founders thought they owed this “natural law” their allegiance because it reflected a divine order (though they differed on the divine’s precise nature), which brings us to the age-old question of whether or not there can be an objective basis for societal morality without religion (the Founders would say no). But regardless about whether or not somebody thinks there’s something bigger behind natural law, or thinks of it strictly as the determination of pure reason, there’s nothing arbitrary about it. It may not tell us what to do about everything that comes our way (though much of modern progressive policy & dogma can be traced directly back to a rejection of consent of the governed), but when applied to its proper place – the basis for governing free men – it’s indispensable.

    • John Hendrix permalink
      November 1, 2009 5:21 am

      First of all, great post. I admire the way you described Locke’s thought process.

      Regarding your comment, “much of modern progressive policy & dogma can be traced directly back to a rejection of consent of the governed”, can you give some specific examples?

  8. October 28, 2009 12:22 pm

    Actually our nation was founded by God inspired men on a foundation of Natural Law, English Common Law and Secularism that was the precept of the Roman Republic system of law. Throw in checks and balances and it was the most perfect form of governance in all history. As always it took our inherent sin nature to screw it up, much to the consernation of the founders as revealed in their writings.

    The Turban Torpedo

  9. Kenneth Hall permalink
    October 28, 2009 5:51 pm

    I would like to applaud Bobbi and Calvin on their contributions!

    I’ll try not to duplicate there efforts any more than necessary!

    As a christian I believed the bible was the word of GOD! God’s Laws and wisdom to guide us!

    While working at GM back in the late 80″s I was a challenged to study it because I started a bible study with 12 people from different Denominations!

    I soon became motivated to put all the books about the bible away and study it!
    To lay aside everything I was taught about it and question everything I had believed by what it actually said! So for 8 Hrs a day 5 days a week I read a few scriptures and thought about them while I did my 20 second job every 60 seconds for 8 Hrs. plus my 2 -15 minute breaks and 30 minute lunch!
    Until I could finish any scripture in the new testament you started to quote and many in the old!

    I learned there are some mistranslations, some seeming conflicting information about events, and what seemed at first to be Blatant contradictions on principles!

    As I continued to study, what seemed to be contradictions were really a check and balance!
    What do I mean for instance Mercy, and judgment! The law said anyone caught in adultery was to be put to death! Yet when Jesus told those raising this issue about the prostitute He said! He who is without sin let Him cast the first stone!
    When they had all left He told who where are your accusers and she said they have all gone and He said neither will I condemn you then so go and sin no more! Where is the justice in that, What about the message it could send to everyone else!
    Another example! Jesus forgave the tax collectors like Zakious, and Mathew His disciple, and Prostitutes, but had little patience with the religious leaders telling them that the Thieves and prostitutes would inherit the Kingdom before them!

    Where is the justice in that?
    To deny those who had dedicated their lives to spreading of the laws of God and holding others accountable for their obedience to them! But to allow Harlots, Tramps, and Thieves into the Kingdom instead hardly seems fair right!

    At least if your short sighted and stop reading the bible at that point!
    It goes on to say people living to satisfy their Carnal (NATURAL DESIRES) at the expense of others will not be allowed into the NEW WORLD ORDER GOD IS BUILDING! Jesus is watching to see if we are struggling to be free from our sin, not practicing to get better at it!

    No one who loves sin will be allowed in! No one who doesn’t love the truth and doesn’t cling to it to the death will survive what’s coming next!

    It isn’t living a perfect life that persuades the one person who will decide your fate to let you into His Fathers NEW WORLD ORDER!
    IT’S THE DEGREE THAT YOU STRUGGLE TOOTH AND TOE NAIL TO DO SO!
    That is what proves the degree of your love for the truth and the GOD who is those truths!
    They are His laws because HE LIVES BY THEM! To sling mud at the principles GOD BELIEVES IN AND LIVES BY IS TO THROW MUD AT GOD!

    NOT A GOOD IDEA if you want HIS SON to let you in!

    AS MIAGYSON said in karate kid! The secret to life is balance!
    It is also the secret to everything in nature if it going to continue!
    With out balance the universe itself will self destruct!

    It’s the balance between Mercy and punishment or Justice that really makes it JUSTICE!
    Killing a girl because she was raped by Her father isn’t justice is it, should we start killing everyone who is guilty of adultery now?
    That would solve our population problem if we really had one!
    should we punish teenagers for committing adultery after we have bombarded them with a never ending flood of temptation!
    Then we would be just like SATAN, who tempts men to sin. Then He goes before GOD and demands they be punished for it. Wouldn’t we!
    Would we not then share His fate!

    Our founders understood that men must be free to follow their own conscience to allow GOD’s plan to be fulfilled. After all Freewill came from GOD!
    They also understood as I do now from studying God’s word that His way’s are the only way to secure a lasting freedom, peace, and true happiness for everyone!
    Period!

    He isn’t right because HE is GOD, He is GOD BECAUSE HE IS RIGHT!

    The bible does contain the Laws and principles of GOD and you could say GOD HIMSELF if want to know Him and understand Him.

    But balance is the key to everything including interpreting the bible!
    Finding the interpretation that is consistent with every principle in the bible!

    Taking only one side of any issue and only regarding those scriptures that support that side of the issue is how people reach 2 opposing views!

    Can 2+2 equal anything but 4?
    Can 10 X 10 equal what ever you decide it does?
    The there cannot be to different rights and wrongs can there?
    But what is right in any given situation is a matter of balance!
    Speeding is against the law unless someone will be seriously harmed by not breaking that law!
    As the bible says the law was made for Man not man for the law!
    But those with no regard for it and looking for an excuse to break it are by NATURE LAWLESS!

  10. Rhodi permalink
    October 29, 2009 12:13 pm

    I have not read all of your responses, but I have two recommendations–to look more into Natural Law and the Christian belief system, the origins of relativism, the founding of our nation, the beliefs of our founding fathers–those that believed the Bible and those who did not…where many of the worldviews came from all the way back to the Greeks, etc.

    Read:
    “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall, which was revised March of this year and watch “The Truth Project” series that came out in 2008. You may not agree with everything, but I think that both of these have helped me to clearly understand all of these concepts. And have many, many resources which you can research for yourselves. The book is fun and historically accurate (it includes both the positives and extremely negatives of our nation), with a spiritual perspective–easy to separate the two, with most of it’s resources based on actual writings of the early settlers and founders of America.

    But if you really want to understand “Natural Law”, you cannot really base it off of secular beliefs. “Natural Law” in the U.S. is based off of a Biblical worldview and so if you want to understand it, you must go to the source–the Bible. Think of it this way…the Bible was read to children from early childhood at every meal, from the Pilgrims to the Puritans; much of the language of the Constitution is based off of the Old and New Testament–even the press quoted Bible verses on freedom to inspire the people to revolt against the British during the Revolution.

    You don’t have to read the entire Bible, but word search things such as “freedom”, “the law of sin and death”, “just” or “justice”, “God’s attributes”, “God’s love and judgement”, “commandments”, or whatever you come across in early documents and see what similarities there are.

    You can even research our universities and see how they were founded.
    Good luck!

  11. BillSoCal permalink
    October 29, 2009 2:28 pm

    ood reading on this would be Clinton Roosevelt’s Science of Government Founded in Natural Law. It was written in 1841. Clinton Roosevelt is the most under the radar political writer in the last two hundred years. What he expressed in his booklet was used by Karl Marx in the writing of his Communist Manifesto in 1848. Roosevelt helped to finance the Communist League, which paid Marx to write it. Clinton was a distance cousin of both Teddie Roosevelt and FDR. Teddie Roosevelt freely used his cousin’s ideas principles in his New Nationalism Speech. FDR used Clinton’s plan of his Marshall’s in his New Deal in the 1930s. What is scary is Comrade Obama’s Czar smacks of Clinton Roosevelt’s Marshalls in his booklet. Yet it seems not historian seems to know about Clinton or ever mentions him. The only way I find out about him was reading Antony Sutton’s Wall Street and the Rise of FDR. Note both of these books can be read on line.

  12. November 1, 2009 8:22 pm

    What is has been; what will be has been and human nature doesn’t change. It loves (Human nature), hates, and plans revenge and self preservation.
    When one looks at the Old Testament, which is one of the greatest records of history, we see all the human frailties being repeated.

  13. debbie 1960 permalink
    December 6, 2009 12:33 am

    Interesting. Just had an oral examine where we discussed natural law and absolute truth. We decided that you had to treat it like a math problem and get it down to its most basic unit. We also brought in Emerson and a speech he gave, I think at Harvard and suggested that man learn from nature, books and action. We concluded that we can look to nature for laws, because they are there, but as men, we have free choice to obey those laws. So they exist, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

    I would also suggest looking at Frederick Bastiat’s 40 Laws for fun.

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