The Law of Nature.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  WE here use the term The Law of Nature as a convenient title under which to advert to the authority, in moral affairs, of what are called natural instincts and natural rights.

  “They who rank pity among the original impulses of our nature rightly contend that when this principle prompts us to the relief of human misery, it indicates the Divine intention, and our duty. Indeed, the same conclusion is deducible from the existence of the passion, whatever account be given of its origin. Whether it be an instinct or a habit, it is in fact a property of our nature which God appointed.”1

  I should reason similarly respecting natural rights,—the right to life,—to personal liberty,—to a share of the productions of the earth. The fact that life is given us by our Creator,—that our personal powers and mental dispositions are adapted by him to personal liberty,—and that he has constituted our bodies so as to need the productions of the earth, are satisfactory indications of the Divine will, and of human duty.

  So that we conclude the general proposition is true,—that a regard to the law of nature, in estimating human duty, is accordant with the will of God. There is little necessity for formally insisting on the authority of the law of nature, because few are disposed to dispute that authority, at least when their own interests are served by appealing to it. If this authority were questioned, perhaps it might be said that the expression of the Divine will tacitly sanctions it, because that expression is addressed to us under the supposition that our constitution is such as it is; and because some of the Divine precepts appear to specify a point at which the authority of the law of nature stops. To say that a rule is only in some cases wrong is to say that in many it is right: to which may be added the consideration, that the tendency of the law of nature is manifestly beneficial. No man questions that the “original impulses of our nature” tend powerfully to the well-being of the species.

  In speaking of the instincts of nature, we enter into no curious definitions of what constitutes an instinct. Whether any of our passions or emotions be properly instinctive, or the effect of association, is of little consequence to the purpose, so long as they actually subsist in the human economy, and so long as we have reason to believe that their subsistence there is in accordance with the Divine will.

  But the authority of the law of nature, like every other authority, is subordinate to that of the moral law. This indeed is sufficiently indicated by those reasonings which show the universal supremacy of that law. Yet it may be of advantage to remember such expressions as these: “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But fear him which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.”2 This appears distinctly to place an instinct of nature in subordination to the moral law. The “fear of them that kill the body” results from the instinct of self-preservation; and by this instinct we are not to be guided, when the Divine will requires us to repress its voice.

  Parental affection has been classed among the instincts.3 The declaration “He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,”4 clearly subjects this instinct to the higher authority of the Divine will: for the “love” of God is to be manifested by obedience to his law. Another declaration to the same import subjects also the instinct of self-preservation: “If a man hate not (that is, by comparison) his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”5 And here it is remarkable that these affections or instincts are adduced for the purpose of inculcating their subordination to the moral law.

  Upon one of the most powerful instincts of nature the restraints of revelation are emphatically laid. Its operation is restricted, not to a few of its possible objects, but exclusively to one; and to that one upon an express and specified condition.6

  The propriety of holding the natural impulses in subjection to a higher law appears to be asserted in this language of Dugald Stewart: “The dictates of reason and conscience inform us, in language which it is impossible to mistake, that it is sometimes a duty to check the most amiable and pleasing emotions of the heart: to withdraw, for example, from the sight of those distresses which stronger claims forbid us to relieve, and to deny ourselves that exquisite luxury which arises from the exercise of humanity.” Even that morality which is not founded upon religion recommends the same truth. Godwin says that if Fenelon were in his palace and it took fire, and it so happened that the life either of himself or of his chambermaid must be sacrificed, it would be the duty of the woman to repress the instinct of self-preservation, and sacrifice hers, because Fenelon would do more good in the world.7 If the morality of skepticism inculcates this subjugation of our instincts to indeterminate views of advantage, much more does the morality of the New Testament teach us to subject them to the determinate will of God.

  It is upon these principles that some of the most noble examples of human excellence have been exhibited,—those of men who have died for the testimony of a good conscience. If the strongest of our instincts, if that instinct, excited to its utmost vigour by the apprehension of a dreadful death, might be of weight to suspend the obligation of the moral law, it surely might have been suspen4ed in the case of those who thus proved their fidelity.

  Yet, obvious as is the propriety and the duty of thus preferring the Divine law before all, the dictates or the rights of nature are continually urged as of paramount obligation. Many persons appear to think, that if a given action is dictated by the law of nature it is quite sufficient. Respecting the instinct of self—preservation, especially, they appear to conclude, that to whatever that instinct prompts, it is lawful to conform to its voice, They do not surely reflect upon the monstrousness of their opinions: they do not surely consider that they are absolutely superseding the moral law of God, and superseding it upon considerations resulting merely from the animal part of our constitution. The Divine laws respect the whole human economy,—our prospects in another world as well as our existence in the present.

  Some men, again, speak of our rights in a state of nature, as if to be in a state of nature was to be without the jurisdiction of the moral law. But if man be a moral and responsible agent, that law applies everywhere; to a state of nature as truly as to every other state. If some other human being had been left with Selkirk on Juan Fernandez, and if that other seized an animal which Selkirk had ensnared, would Selkirk have been justified in asserting his natural right to the animal by whatever means? It is very possible that no means would have availed to procure the restoration of the rabbit or the bird, short of killing the offender. Might Selkirk kill the man in assertion to his natural rights? Every one answers, No,—because the unsophisticated dictates in every man’s mind assure us that the rights of nature are subordinate to higher laws.

  Situations similar to those of a state of nature sometimes arise in society;8 as where money is demanded, or violence is committed by one person on another, where no third person can be called in to assistance. The injured party, in such a case, cannot go to every length in his own cause by virtue of the law of nature: he can go only so far as the moral law allows. These considerations will be found peculiarly applicable to the rights of self-defence; and it is pleasant to find these doctrines supported by that skeptical morality to which we just now referred. The author of Political Justice maintains that man possesses no rights; that is, no absolute rights,—none of which the just exercise is not conditional upon the permission of a higher rule. That rule, with him, is “justice,”—with us it is the law of God; but the reasoning is the same in kind.

  Nevertheless, the natural rights of man ought to possess extensive application both in private and political affairs. If it were sufficiently remembered that these rights are abstractedly possessed in equality by all men, we should find many imperative claims upon us with which we do not now comply. The artificial distinctions of society induce forgetfulness of the circumstance that we are all brethren: not that I would countenance the speculations of those who think that all men should be now practically equal; but that these distinctions are such, that the general rights of nature are invaded in a degree which nothing can justify. There are natural claims of the poor upon the rich, of dependants upon their superiors, which are very commonly forgotten: there are endless acts of superciliousness, and unkindness, and oppression, in private life, which the law of nature emphatically condemns. When, sometimes, I see a man of fortune speaking in terms of supercilious command to his servant, I feel that he needs to go and learn some lessons of the law of nature. I feel that he has forgotten what he is, and what he is not, and what his brother is: he has forgotten that by nature he and his servant are in strictness equal; and that although, by the permission of Providence, a various allotment is assigned to them now, he should regard every one with that consideration and respect which is due to a man and a brother. And when to these considerations are added those which result from the contemplation of our relationship to God,—that we are the common objects of his bounty and his goodness, and that we are heirs to a common salvation, we are presented with such motives to pay attention to the rights of nature as constitute an imperative obligation.

  The political duties which result from the law of nature it is not our present business to investigate; but it may be observed here, that a very limited appeal to facts is sufficient to evince, that by many political institutions the rights of nature have been grievously sacrificed; and that if those rights had been sufficiently regarded, many of these vicious institutions would never have been exhibited in the world.


  It appears worth while at the conclusion of this chapter to remark, that a person when he speaks of “nature,” should know distinctly what he means. The word carries with it a sort of indeterminate authority; and he who uses it amiss may connect that authority with rules or actions which are little entitled to it. There are few senses in which the word is used that do not refer, however obscurely, to God; and it is for that reason that the notion of authority is connected with the word. “The very name of nature implies that it must owe its birth to some prior agent, or, to speak properly, signifies in itself nothing.”9 Yet, unmeaning as the term is, it is one of which many persons are very fond; whether it be that their notions are really indistinct, or that some purposes are answered by referring to the obscurity of nature rather than to God. “Nature has decorated the earth with beauty and magnificence;” “Nature has furnished us with joints and limbs;” are phrases sufficiently unmeaning; and yet I know not that they are likely to do any other harm than to give currency to the common fiction. But when it is said that “Nature teaches us to adhere to truth,”—“Nature condemns us for dishonesty or deceit,”—“Men are taught by nature that they are responsible beings,”—there is considerable danger that we have both fallacious and injurious notions of the authority which thus teaches or condemns us. Upon this subject it were well to take the advice of Boyle: “Nature,” he says, “is sometimes indeed commonly taken for a kind of semi-deity. In this sense it is best not to use it at all.”10 It is dangerous to induce confusion into our ideas respecting our relationship with God.

  A law of nature is a very imposing phrase; and it might be supposed, from the language of some persons, that nature was an independent legislatress, who had sat and framed laws for the government of mankind. Nature is nothing: yet it would seem that men do sometimes practically imagine that a “law of nature” possesses proper and independent authority; and it may be suspected that with some the notion is so palpable and strong, that they set up the authority of the “law of nature” without reference to the will of God, or perhaps in opposition to it. Even if notions like these float in the mind only with vapoury indistinctness, a correspondent indistinctness of moral notions is likely to ensue. Every man should make to himself the rule, never to employ the word nature when he speaks of ultimate moral authority. A law possesses no authority; the authority rests only in the legislator: and as nature makes no laws, a law of nature involves no obligation but that which is imposed by the Divine will.

1 Mor. and Pol. Phil. b. 3, p. 2, c. 5.
2 Luke xii.4.
3 Dr. Price.
4 Matt. x.37.
5 Luke xiv.26
6 See Matt. iv.9. 1 Cor. vi.9. vii. 1, 2. Gal. v.19, &c.
7 Political Justice.
8 See Locke on Gov. b. 2, c. 7.
9 Milton: Christian Doct. p. 14.
10 Free Inquiry into the vulgarly received Notions of Nature.

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