Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Frank van Dun’s Natural Law

The word 'law' means order, hence natural law is simply the natural order. …In short, natural law is the natural order of the human world.

I will examine natural law through the lens of Frank van Dun (FvD), beginning with this essay entitled “Natural Law.” 

The student of natural law is one who undertakes the discovery of this natural order.  It is a value-free undertaking – one is to discover that which is – to discover this natural order of human beings in the human world.  Yet, if natural law is to represent the natural order, it also seems clear that that which is, is also that which ought.

The most obvious (and to most people for all practical purposes sufficient) reason why we ought to respect the natural law primarily involves the fact that not doing so usually causes immediate harm or loss to some innocent people and is likely in the long run to be harmful to many more.

The natural order must respect the characteristics of these human beings:

…human beings that are capable of rational, purposive action, speech and thought.  Each one of us by nature is an element of the human world and each one us by nature is capable of doing, thinking and saying things, independently of what others are doing, thinking and saying at the same time.

By not recognizing these characteristics, and by not respecting these in others, we create disorder.  Examples of this disorder occur when we “obfuscate our true identity” or the true identity of others, when we take another’s work and lead others to believe it is our own, when we act toward another person not as a human but as an animal.

It happens most clearly when we treat another as a mere object that we may hit or hurt at our own pleasure. It also happens, and on a large scale, in most political societies that practice the arts of taking from some to give to others and of burdening or crippling some to give others a 'competitive advantage'.

These last two are most directly connected to the non-aggression principle.  Yet all of the above actions – including the ones not tied directly to the physical person or property – make it difficult to understand who did or said or produced what; they prevent us from rightly assigning blame.  All of these actions can compromise the integrity of a private property order.

What I take from this is that for person and property to have integrity, there must be trust.  Therefore, there must be truth.  This goes beyond the non-aggression principle, suggesting that there are underlying necessary values or principles if one is to come to protection of person and property.

FvD contrasts natural and positive law:

The natural law and the positive law are not alternative systems of rules that apply to the same thing. The natural law is the law of natural persons and positive law is a law of artificial persons. Thus, natural law and positive law relate to different things.

Regarding positive law, it can be obeyed or disobeyed; this is not the case for natural law.  Natural law just represents the order of human beings as persons.  It can be respected or disrespected – this is how FvD would put it.

I have had someone who is partial to FvD’s natural law views explain to me that natural law does not need to be defended, anymore than gravity needs to be defended.  Perhaps it is something like this when considering FvD’s statement.  Gravity can also be respected or disrespected.  Conceptually, I think I can grasp this.  Yet…

Gravity does a really good job of ensuring that you respect it – like right now.  Try disrespecting it while on a suspension bridge.  You will learn respect quickly.  Natural law?  It can be disrespected for an extended period of time, and quite thoroughly.  Sure, it eventually will flex its muscle – if it is the natural order based on humans as humans, it must.  But this could be decades, even centuries, in the making.

In the meantime?  In this sense, it seems to me that a) while demanding respect as gravity does, natural law has no similar self-generated instantaneous respect-enforcing mechanism, and b) therefore, someone or something must defend it.

FvD continues by examining the relationship of natural law and morality, noting that these need not be identical:

Respect for the natural law is a precondition of morality. This is not to say that because there is only one natural law there can be no more than one morality. On the contrary, there may be any number of different moralities, all of which are compatible with respect for the natural law.

FvD moves forward with an examination of natural rights:

…my rights are the things that I control. My natural rights are those things that by nature are under my control: my own body, various parts of which I can control directly and which naturally or organically are connected to other parts and organs of it. 

Just because I have a natural right to certain acts does not mean that all acts conform to natural law.  That you ought to respect my rights to my body does not mean you ought to let me use my body to destroy yours.  It is here where self-defense – violence in defense of aggression – is appropriate. 

What I didn’t see in this treatment by van Dun (but I have at least one or two other sources I will examine in the future):  what if I want to use my body to destroy my body – say abuse drugs or alcohol?  A violation of natural law, yes.  But is it a violation of my natural rights?  And what would this say about when punishment is or is not appropriate? 

FVD inserts the word “property” into his formulation, in order to clarify his point:

Then a person's right to do something is simply his lawful use of his property. His natural right to do something is simply his lawful use of his natural property, or else, in a wider sense, his use of his property in a manner that is consistent with natural law.

This cannot be measured in utility, or driven by any scheme of utility-maximization.  Utility for some can be maximized precisely by trampling on the natural rights of others.  It is even conceivable that the overall utility for a society (as far as such things can be measured or estimated) can be increased by some people violating the natural rights of others.  This can never justify the violation of natural rights.


It is clear that van Dun is looking to something broader than the non-aggression principle if liberty is the objective.  In some ways, maybe not all, I find this not different than what Murray Rothbard has proposed.

The non-aggression principle is quite value neutral.  The natural law is not.  It is not “anything peaceful,” as the thinnest of libertarianism would suggest.  It is something that – by recognizing the human being as a human being – moves us toward liberty.


  1. Simpleminded, but made me think (and generally on government roads, but such is life): it is natural, through our culture, to drive on the right side of the road. It is forced to drive under an arbitrary number, the speed limit. Yet generally many people drive regularly above that limit to a more natural speed conducive to the conditions (nature in a sense) around them. Am I way off here?

    1. I am spitballing a little here: I don't know that natural law can give us a specific speed limit in different situations. Local custom would do this. And local custom that is not in conflict with natural law makes for good law, I think.

  2. Thanks for working through this. I have had some trouble understanding the connection between natural law and natural rights. I had worked through it myself logically, but it is always helpful to read others who have a better grasp of the subject.

    I really like the thought that self-harm is a violation of natural law but not natural rights.

    That would mean a non-violent solution is needed. Something like a moral agent or community directing the individual to natural law or morality or God.

    1. I don't think I had worked through the distinction much before. So it helped me to read and write about this FvD post.

      "Something like a moral agent or community directing the individual to natural law or morality or God."

      Yeah, maybe like a church!