What is the relation between naturalism and the natural law theory?

Natural law (Britannica):

natural law, in philosophy, system of right or justice held to be common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society, or positive law.

Naturalism (Wikipedia):

In philosophy, naturalism is the idea or belief that only natural laws and forces (as opposed to supernatural ones) operate in the universe.[1]

I feel the two are extremely compatible, to the point that natural law is naturalism as applied to the philosophy of law.

As a point of fact, are advocates of naturalism also advocates of the natural law, and vice versa?

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    Wikipedia is using "natural laws" incorrectly to mean "laws of nature". Two different things. Natural laws are about ethics; laws of nature are about science. Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 6:44
  • @DavidGudeman I modified my post with another definition, but I don't think it changes the issue
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 7:51

1 Answer 1


As a point of fact, are advocates of naturalism also advocates of the natural law, and vice versa?

I think not. The historical proponents of natural law as an ethical theory are Aristotle and subsequently Thomas Aquinas (although of course there have been many since). Natural law theory in their sense posits that there are objective moral laws that are grounded in human nature and are discoverable through reason. These are found in Aristotelian virtue ethics and also in his teleological conception of human nature. But this suggests that there is a metaphysical reality - a summum bonum or true good - that provides a foundation for ethics, which would be at odds with naturalism's overall rejection of supernatural or transcendent realities.

I think this is because overall, and certainly for Aquinas, natural law is grounded in a theistic conception of nature, within which such laws and principles are seen as manifestations of the divine will. Modern naturalism, as a matter of principle, generally rejects such conceptions.

  • Very clear and coherent answer. How do you articulate that with the definition of natural law in the question though?
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 5:55
  • Aristotle's ethics is naturalistic in his terms, but those terms - Aristotle's conception of nature - are very different to modernity's. Remember his conception of cause as 'aitia', which includes formal and final causation, something generally absent from today's naturalism.
    – Wayfarer
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 5:58
  • “ Natural law[1] (Latin: ius naturale, lex naturalis) is a system of law based on a close observation of human nature” close observation of human nature seems to me very at odds with metaphysics and theology/supernatural
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 5:59
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    Excellent answer, but @Starckman is still confused, presumably because you did not specifically say that naturalism involves the rejection of such entities as are posited in natural law theory. Can I recommend adding something about that? Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 13:55
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    @Starckman, natural law theory is not grounded in humanism. Humanism is an Enlightenment thing. Natural law theory goes back to Classical Greece. Natural law is incompatible with humanism because it proposes that there is something above man, something to which man owes allegiance. Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 14:06

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