Understanding the Legal Theory of Natural Law
Natural law is a type of legal theory that explains the idea of the set of laws or a legal system that is universal and set by nature. The opposing force of natural law is often thought of to be positivism, in which morality has no bearing on the validity of a law.
The importance of a legal system in natural law is that they serve the function to secure justice. Any immoral laws or truly unjust laws are just considered pervasions of the law or even violence. Because of this, there is not only no moral obligation to follow an unjust law, but there is also no legal obligation to support it.
One of the biggest advocates for natural law was Thomas Aquinas who felt that natural law was the human participation of eternal law, or the law that comes directly from god or the will of god. More recent philosophers
Today, the theory of natural law looks at legal rules and legal order and where they derive their legal validity from. This authority is thought to be some higher force outside of the human realm.
Often, this higher force would be associated to a god, where his eternal law overrules natural law, making human laws or natural laws valid only if they comply with eternal law. In more secular times, natural law’s source of validity is thought to be an indefinite higher human moral order.
The theory of natural law is classically contrasted with positivism, which disagrees with the need for a higher power but instead argues that the validity and source of a law is determined by whether the law in question was passed through the correct procedural process and whether the law was passed or created by an authority who had the power to do so in the first place.
When looking at natural law, the most common question is whether a law can be immoral and if it should be obeyed. An appropriate response using natural law would say that if the law is immoral, it cannot be a law in the first place and thus it does not have to be followed. In this situation, the laws in place during Nazi Germany would be deemed immoral and not actually laws.
This is contradicting to the positivist stance which would suggest that if the law was correctly made, it is in fact a law and whether it is immoral or not is irrelevant. The law must not be broken since that itself is immoral. Using the same analogy of Nazi Germany, power was acquired correctly under the law and thus all laws made in the Nazi regime were valid laws, despite many of them being immoral.