When does Natural Law Justify Revolution

Jul 31, 2011 by

Molly Pitcher

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Natural law can furnish equally cogent arguments in favour of the state which is founded on force and the state which is founded on justice, for the nation-state and for imperialism, for democracy and for dictatorship.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Carl Lotus Becker writes, in The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas [1922], that classic Natural Law Philosophy of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights became unacceptable because it could be so effectively used as a justification of revolutionary movements. I would argue, however, that this is true only if you read Natural Law Philosophy as a Deist, that is, as being unrestrained by Eternal Law or Positive Divine Law.

A revolution in which immoral acts are allowed to take place is not one in which man is behaving through right reason, which “rests upon the conviction that God could not will us to do something contrary to our rational nature, as God has created us…morality is a matter of whether we choose to be faithful to the truth of what we are as humans.”

According to G.K. Chesterton, “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

Though the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic conquests are frightening to consider, they did not occur because Natural Rights Philosophy is flawed. Interpreted as the Founders intended, though natural rights are superior to those of positive law, they are not superior to Eternal Law or Positive Divine law.

According to Becker, it is fear of the implications of natural law that causes democracy to endorse only one article of the Jeffersonian philosophy — that government rests upon the consent of the governed. This is a dangerous way of reading the Declaration of Independence because democracy, which is a perversion of polity, takes to the extreme the idea of majority rule, in which it is unrestrained by law designed to protect man’s unalienable natural rights. This is not a true interpretation of the American philosophy.

However, it is this interpretation which allowed Jeremy Bentham, who opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts,” to become a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, According to Bentham,

“The object of society is to achieve the greatest good of all its members; do not ask what rights men have in society, but what benefits they derive from it. In the long run no man can decide for another what is good for that other. Each must decide for himself; and so, if you give each man a voice in deciding what is to be done and how, each man to count for one and none for more than one, the result will be to bring about the greatest good of all, or at least ‘the greatest good of the greatest number,’ which is perhaps the nearest approximation to the greatest good of all.”

When Natural Rights Philosophy is perverted, what happens is that the sovereignty of nations is not held to a higher law. It is subject to the whims of man, which the founders warned against.

“Finally, ye Freemen, all of every class whose high prerogative it is, to raise up, or pull down, to invest with office and authority, or to withhold them, and in whose power it is to save or destroy your country, consider well the important trust and distinguishing privileges which God and nature have put into your hands. To God and posterity you are accountable for your rights and your rulers. See that you preserve them inviolate and transmit them to posterity unimpaired. Let not your children have reason to curse you for giving up those rights, and prostrating those institutions which our fathers delivered to you. …And that this happy state of things may continue, look well to the characters and qualifications of those you elect and raise to office and places of trust. …

Choose ye out from among you able men, such as fear God, men of truth and hating covetousness and set them to rule over you. Think not that your interests will be safe in the hands of the weak and ignorant or faithfully managed by the impious, the dissolute and the immoral. Think not that men who acknowledge not the providence of God nor regard his laws, will be uncorrupt in office, firm in defense of the righteous cause against the oppressor, or resolutely oppose the torrent of iniquity. Their own emolument, ease or pleasure, will at any time induce them to connive at injustice and iniquity, or join with the oppressor. Watch over your liberties and privileges civil and religious with a careful eye. In defense of these be zealous, resolute and intrepid. They demand it of you and are worthy of it, even though your lives were to be sacrificed. …

Banish party factions from among you- let the general good take place of contracted selfishness, and the public welfare triumph over private animosity. Discountenance vice, and be patterns and promoters of virtue and good morals as the only security for the support and prosperity of a republican government.” – Reverend Matthias Burnet (1749-1806) Minister in the Second Great Awakening.

How is this relevant to today? With regard to the so called debt ceiling crisis touted by the current administration, as Benjamin Franklin so succinctly warned,

“When the people find they can vote themselves money; that will herald the end of the republic.”

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