The Natural Law Challenge

By Arkes, Hadley | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Natural Law Challenge


Arkes, Hadley, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


It is never out of season to recall James Wilson's line that the purpose of this Constitution was not to invent new rights, but to secure and enlarge those rights we already had by nature. (1) In radical contrast, Blackstone said that when we enter civil society, we give up that unrestricted set of rights we had in the state of nature, including the "liberty to do mischief." (2) We exchanged them for a diminished set of rights under civil society-call them "civil rights"--which are rendered more secure by the advent of a government that can enforce them. To which Wilson responded: When did we ever have a "liberty to do mischief"? (3) When did we ever have, as Lincoln would say, a "right to do a wrong"? (4) The laws that restrained us from raping and murdering deprived us of nothing we ever had a "right" to do. And so when the question was asked as to what rights we give up in entering into this government, the answer tendered by the Federalists was, "none." As Hamilton said in Federalist No. 84, "Here ... the people surrender nothing." (5) It was not the purpose of this project to give up our natural rights. And so, what sense did it make to attach a codicil, a so-called "bill of rights," reserving against the federal government those rights we did not give up? How could we do that without implying that, in fact, we had given up the corpus of our natural rights in coming under this Constitution?

If we are invoking traditions here, this is the tradition I would claim. I should represent nothing exotic in this assembly; I am here to sound again the things we used to hold. (6)

My friend Dan Robinson remarked that he wanted on his tombstone the inscription "He died without a theory." A former President of Amherst College remarked that "Hadley has a theory of natural law." I remarked that when one says something like that, one imagines a detached observer, watching theories whiz past him, and somehow coming to a judgment on the fragments of those theories he regards as plausible or implausible, true or false. And I said, take me back to the ground on which you make those judgments, and you would be led back to what some of us have regarded as the ground of the natural law in "the laws or canons of reason," or what Blackstone called "the laws of Nature and reason." (7)

That first generation of jurists in this country showed a remarkable knack for tracing their judgments back to those anchoring axioms of the law. Hamilton remarked in Federalist No. 78 that we draw on this rule of construction: Any later statute supersedes an earlier one. (8) But that is not the rule of construction we draw upon for the Constitution, for the Constitution, coming earlier, must be able to override a statute, coming later, or else it loses its function as a control on the legislative power. Hamilton asked how this rule of construction was derived. It was not part, he said, of the positive law--it was not a rule set down in the Constitution. Rather, it ran back, he said, to the "nature and reason and nature of the thing." (9)

We may recall that at the end of Gibbons v. Ogden, as a kind of throwaway line, John Marshall apologized to his readers for spending so much time demonstrating what should stand in the class of an "axiom." (10) He assumed that all of his literate readers understood that, before we can carry out a demonstration, certain axioms had to be in place--like the law of contradiction. They were things that had to be grasped, as the saying went, per se nota as true in themselves. As Hamilton put it in the Federalist No. (31), there are certain "primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend." (11) They contain, he said, "an internal evidence which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind." (12)

We grasp the law of contradiction in the same way we grasp that it is senseless, even in the age of "animal rights," to sign contracts with horses and cows or seek the informed consent of our household pets before we authorize surgery on them; but, we continue to think that those beings who can give and understand reasons deserve to be ruled with a rendering of reasons in a regime that elicits their consent. …

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