Some Natural Confusions About Natural Law

To describe this renewed interest in natural law as a resurgence does imply, no doubt, that the ideas associated with the concept are too vital to be put permanently to rest; but resurgence also implies that natural law, for whatever reason, has been assigned the role of challenger to the reigning orthodoxy, rather than that of defending champ. By and large, this inference about the role assigned to natural law by the general public is, I think, correct. Natural law seems to evoke a degree of skepticism in our society that forces any theory that goes by the name to confront a higher burden of proof than is placed on other, more familiar theories. In this article, I explore some of the reasons for this skepticism – reasons that seem to me to represent confusions about what the concept entails, rather than legitimate objections to the substantive doctrines of natural law.

I call the confusions I have in mind natural for two reasons. First, I suggest that there are good historical or logical explanations for the confusions – indeed, in several cases, the natural law proponent has invited or perpetuated the confusion and thus helped to jeopardize the public reception of his own ideas. Second, I hope that revealing the “natural” origin of these common misunderstandings will help us to lay them aside and thus give natural law a better chance to make its case on its own terms.