Natural Rights Philosophy

//Second Essay for English

The idea of natural rights philosophy, though thousands of years old in thought, is just as applicable today. Mankind is in constant need of governance and order, the origin of which is based within our governments and the concept of natural law and tolerance. The power those governing bodies attain comes from both the governed and from a divine source, and both of those sources are required for fair governance.

Ever since the first law was laid out by Hammurabi in Babylon the debate has been present over what the true source of law is. With the rise of the city-states in Greece there are writings from the philosopher Aristotle that give us our first glace on the subject, around the fourth century BCE. In his Ethics, Aristotle describes the difference between civil and higher law, which is the basis of the Natural Rights Philosophy. The civil laws are the codes that we must abide by, being set in place by the governments that we live under. Those laws are “not natural but man-made are not the same everywhere” (Aristotle 190). Aristotle described natural law as, “that which has the same validity everywhere and does not depend upon acceptance” (189). That excerpt informs us that there is some set of rules that is a constant across all nature and sets forth an indisputable set of guidelines to live by. The question still remains to where this set of universal rules came from.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers us some insight to the evolution of this idea of natural rights. In the early fifth century St. Augustine of Hippo took the concepts laid out before him and made one of the largest steps forward for the idea of natural law. He directly related the theory of Natural Rights Philosophy with divinity. Ever since then natural law has been directly related to divine law, or higher law, and was put in play by god. Nearly millennia later, St. Thomas Aquinas expanded on the ideas of divine law. The reasoning behind higher law is unknowable to humans because its perfection is based in a level of being only attainable by god. Higher law is “nothing else than the participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” (Natural 1). That statement further implies the idea of a divine being setting these basic laws that all humans innately understand, mostly the preservation of himself and humankind.

Natural Law is given to us by a divine power. According to John Locke, who was known for his opposition to authoritarianism in England around the end of the seventeenth century, god realizes that most magistrates don’t believe in the true religion. “Issuing the command ‘coercively promote the true religion’ would be self-defeating since most magistrates would see it as an invitation to promote the religion they falsely believe to be true” (Tuckness 291). That idea opens the door for tolerance. It is not possible to know which, of the many religions, is the true one. Creating a civil law limiting a society to only practice one, or to not practice several, religions would more then likely negate the true religion (Tuckness 291). To ensure that the true religion has the opportunity to be practiced, tolerance is a necessary requirement to be incorporated into civil law.

The idea of tolerance was introduced by John Locke and is based around the concept of public good or “promoting the comfortable preservation of its residents” (Tuckness 292). If promoting the public good would be the goal of any governing body they would have to abide by certain general guidelines involving the restrictions that they set on their citizens. Supporting the public good allows most of natural law to be made into civil law. For example, natural and civil law would prohibit the destruction of another man’s life or property.

Locke continued by stating that there are boundaries as to how natural law can be applied to earthly society. As fore stated, natural law is given to us from a divine, and perfect source. Humans, by our very nature, are imperfect and aren’t able to act on the same level as the one who created natural law. One example of higher law, that doesn’t apply to civil law, is staying monogamous in a marriage relationship. Civil law would have to apply one of two interpretations; broad or narrow. If a broad law was written it would allow magistrates to use their own, imperfect, minds to enforce a law and it would suffer abuses from said magistrates. Referring back to our example, the law might be written similarly to; ‘Any unfaithful treatment of your spouse is unlawful.’ In counterpoint, a narrow and specific law would have the magistrates in unified understanding, but then allow the citizens a partially true definition of the extent that natural law should encompass. Revising the above broad interpretation to a narrow sense would derive; ‘When married you should not’ and then list actions that would be considered unfaithful to your spouse. By defining narrowly, your definition, any subjects missed in the law would then be considered by the magistrate and citizens to be of a monogamous nature, even if they directly contradict natural law. As a general rule; God “will not define the public good broadly if a narrower conception that would be misapplied less often would better promote” the public good (Tuckness 291). This role of higher law in government is currently under scrutiny in America.

Recently there has been movement throughout our government and country to remove association with god from government documents and structures. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contained an article in August of 2003, a federal court issued that a statue of the Ten Commandments removed from the Alabama Judicial building (Tharpe 1). That is only one example of certain groups trying to remove any mention of god from our government, and for a country founded on tolerance this action by our government is very unsettling. Currently the power of our government is given by a higher and divine being as stated eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, the power of the government comes from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (Declaration 1). Our government was set up to apply the laws of god to and for the governed and that premise creates bounds that the government can’t over step. When you start to and eventually have removed god from the government or place the government over the power of god you will destroy the bounds that are currently in place that limit action the government can take. Once government is placed above religion the concept of tolerance is ineffective and the rights of their people are then based on the minds of men at interpreting what is best for them instead of a divine being who is all knowing. This opens the possibility for abuses of power and law to occur.

The theory of natural rights has evolved over the centuries from trying to understand the origin of our laws, to the concept of tolerance. Currently, in America we are having small battles over the role of god in our government. Arguments over those roles have been alive since the golden era of the Greeks and are still as relevant today.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle. Ed. Betty Radice, Trans. J. A. K. Thomson. London: Penguin Books, 1976.

Declaration of Independence. Indiana University. 27 Oct. 2003. .

“Natural Law.” 2003. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 12 Oct, 2003. .

Tharpe, Jim. “Monument removed: Ten Commandments out of sight Alabama stone put in storage, but controversy continues to bubble.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 28 Aug. 2003, News sec.: 1. NewsBank NewsFile Collection. UW-Stout Library Learning Center, Menomonie, WI. 27 Oct. 2003. .

Tuckness, Alex. “Rethinking the Intolerant Locke.” American Journal of Political Science. Volume.46 (April 2002): 288-299. Academic Search Elite. EbscoHost. UW-Stout Library Learning Center, Menomonie, WI. 6 Oct 2003. .