Natural Law Theory in Political Thought

Sigmund, Paul E. Natural Law in Political Thought. Lanham, MD: Winthrop Publishers, Inc. 1971.
Book review by James Booker
December 12, 2015

paul sigmundPaul E. Sigmund was Professor of Politics, Emeritus Lecturer with the rank of Professor in Politics at Princeton University. He passed away at the age of 85, April 27, 2015. Professor Sigmund’s book, Natural Law in Political Thought, highlights the importance of natural law theory throughout history and its impact in law and politics. Professor Sigmund’s main purpose was to offer an “alternative to relativist skepticism and to blind faith in traditionalist, religious, or political authoritarianism,” (x). Furthermore, natural law theory has had many advocates (such as Thomas Aquinas) and its critics (such as David Hume), throughout history.

Unfortunately, natural law theory has waned over the years especially under secularism. In addition, moral relativism flourishes in Western societies, in academia, in politics, and in law. But the backdrop to moral relativism was and is natural law theory. Indeed, it stands in clear contrast to the perfunctory political systems that run amuck today. The Supreme Court and the lower federal courts rule by fiat on fundamental moral issues. They have become the de facto “moral” conscience of the United States. Only five lawyers say what is “right” or “wrong” for millions of Americans. They believe they have prerogatives much like a Monarch.Consequently, there are far more critics today of natural law theory than there are advocates for it.

Natural law theory assumes that there is a rational in the universe – at least in part. That there are universal truths and objective laws. These universals extend beyond culture, religion, and politics. Natural law theory rejects the notion of moral relativity. In other words, natural law theory is about absolutes. But these absolutes are connected to human nature. Natural law theory is not connected to the theory of evolution or the animal kingdom. Humanity reflects a higher “ethos,” for lack of a better term. Since humanity can think abstractly, its nature reflects a commonality. And what helps keep each of us in check is a natural law that binds humanity together.

In ancient Greece, Plato addressed moral relativism. Protagoras, one of Plato’s interlocker, taught moral relativism. Protagoras coined the phrase, “Man is the platomeasure of all things.” Some scholars believe he was one of the first moral relativist, whereas others claimed otherwise. At this point I will take Plato at his word in believing Protagoras was a moral relativist.Plato used Protagoras’ arguments to juxtapose the concept of moral relativism to absolute truth and/or the meaning of justice. If “Man is the measure of all things,” there is no higher law or natural law. Because, according to Plato, Protagoras believed each experienced truth or reality differently. Each person determines his or her own truth or reality based on personal experience. What is true for you may not be true for another. Consequently, Plato laid the foundations for natural law theory. Obviously, whichever a political system adheres to will determine the outcome of its laws, its political structures, and its culture.

But how can one see these absolutes in human nature? Many natural law theorists argue that cognitive reasoning opens the window to universal truths found in human behavior. By observing that murder – for example – is destructive to individuals and society, a natural law can be deduced from this observation. Therefore, a natural law theorist can arrive to a determination that murder is wrong. It is irrational to murder another person – for a whole host of reasons. There need not be an arbitrary rule or otherwise to prohibit murder since nature teaches us it is wrong. But if a society reflects natural law theory it will codify some natural law theory.

Conversely, if a political system and a legal system does not use reason (based on natural law theory) to arrive at just laws – then, “Might makes right” concept rules. Arbitrary rulers pass laws based on a whim. Mobs form, forcing blind obedience. Whatever the majority says is moral or right becomes moral or right – regardless of the natural order of things. Emotions, passions, base appetites, drives and blinds the mind from reasoning and thinking objectively. Simply ask yourself, “what makes something right or wrong?” Most will answer it just is. This “just is” notion is the product of moral relativism. Until rulers and the hoi polloi says different – a right or a wrong will remain.

The authorities at the Nuremburg trials found it difficult to charge and condemn the Nazis. The Nazis were moral relativist, but so was most of Western society at the time. The Nazis simply stated by what laws do you condemn us? Subsequently, the question remains. What makes a right a right and a wrong a wrong? Moral relativist have a difficult time answering this question – if they are intellectually honest. But natural law theorists have no such problems.
Natural law theory assumes there is a moral dimension or component in human nature. Without this moral sense, there can be no absolutes or universals. Even the Apostle Paul used natural law theory in Romans 2: 14 to establish his treatises on human nature, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,” (NASB translation). Thus, the reason why advocates of same-sex marriage wants desperately to use the institution of marriage to legitimize and justify their behavior. They have a moral component within them. But no amount of positive law can change the natural order of things. At the end of the day, natural law condemned the Nazis for their actions against humanity. And natural law dictates same-sex marriage inherently destructive and hence – wrong.

Natural law theory is over 2,500 years old. Professor Sigmund’s book covers natural law theorist from Plato, to Aristotle, to Thomas Aquinas, to Hobbes, to John Locke, and many more. His book is a treasure trove of wisdom and erudition. Its historiography is excellent. He brings out the pros and cons of natural law theory. His book is filled with footnotes and each chapter has a bibliography with some primary sources from each of the major natural law theorist. Indeed, professor Sigmund’s book makes a compelling argument for a return back to natural law theory.

In conclusion, the age old battle between absolutes and moral relativism continues. Moral relativism has ushered in a new era of “Might makes right.” Arbitrary rulings, and majoritarian rule. Political parties wrestle to find ways out of this abyss. Yet, many today reject natural law theory. During the 1991 Senate hearings to nominate Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the sitting Democratic Senators excoriated Judge Thomas on his adherence to using natural law theory at justifying law and interpreting law. judge clarence thomasAccording to Judge Thomas, “We look at natural law beliefs as a background to our Constitution.”
He understood that the Framers were natural law theorist and one way to interpret the Constitution is through natural law theory. His belief in natural law did not sit well with Democrats. Why? Because natural law theory demands restraint in interpreting law and connects humankind to a universal morality founded on the supposition that there are certain rights and wrongs that transcend all politics, positive laws, and cultures. In 1937, the prolific Walter Lippmann stated natural law theory in no certain terms,

To the development of human rights is simply the expression of the higher law that men shall not deal arbitrarily with one another. . .. The rights of man are not the rights of Robinson Crusoe before his man Friday appeared. They stem from the right not to be dealt with arbitrarily by anyone else, and the inescapable corollary of the rights of man is the duty not to deal arbitrarily with others.

I highly recommend this book for students and scholars. Both the layman and the scholar will find it accessible and readable – yet scholarly. It can serve as a compliment to any text in political science course, philosophy course, law course, and history course.



Lippmann, Walter. The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy of Liberal America. Edited by Clinton Rossiter and James Lare. New York: Random House, 1963.

Plato, Plato Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. Kindle.

Sigmund, Paul E. Natural Law in Political Thought. Lanham, MD: Winthrop Publishers, Inc. 1971.

Thomas, Judge Clarence. “Thomas Confirmation Hearing Day 2, Part 1. (Video of hearing C- Span). September 11, 1991. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://www.c-

Pojman, Louis and James Fieser. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. 7 ed. Boston MA, Wadsworth, 2006.


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    Once again, a clear defense for a position that was standard thinking not 40 years ago. Mr. Bookers championing of a both fundamental, and morally valid precept like “Natural law theory” is refreshing. By pointing us towards Paul Sigmunds writing, I feel, he has done all of his review followers a service. Well done sir.

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