Natural Law for Dummies 2 : David Hume

In this short post we will study the reasons for the decline of natural law and its revival by Finnis. In the first post we studied the emergence of the school of Natural Law and it can be found here.

Where did Natural Law go Wrong?

  • History of natural law up to the end of the 16th century is often termed as conservative
  • Theories that appeared after the 17th century are often termed as revolutionary
  • Dissatisfaction with natural law resulted into legal positivism
  • From the middle of the 17th century the naturalists came under sustained attack

David Hume (1711-1776):


  • David Hume was an empiricist who believed that if something had an empirical standing then it would exist. For him all knowledge was a posteriori which means that all knowledge was gained after gaining experience.
  • He criticized natural law and obliterated its foundation by propounding the grounds for solid criticism against it.
  • According to Hume, therefore, reason cannot tell us anything about justice or political obligation.
  • Hume criticized natural law for the following reasons:
  1. Naturalistic Fallacy: Hume attacked natural law on the ground that it ended the essential difference between scientific laws of nature and the rules of ethics or morality and classified the latter as value judgements. According to Hume, you cannot derive a statement about what ‘ought’ to be done (i.e. one about evaluation) from a statement about what ‘is’ (i.e. one about fact). Therefore he classified this fallacy in other terms as well such as: is/ought fallacy and fact/value fallacy.
  2. Non-Cognitivism: This is the opposite of the word cognitivism and both these words stem from the word cognition – which means “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding it through thought, experience and senses”. Hume says that for naturalists, prescription (i.e. ‘ought’) is derived from description (i.e. ‘is’) which is illogical. Since he is an empiricist and because he believes that all knowledge is a posteriori, i.e. gained after experience or through ones senses i.e touch, taste, hearing, smell and vision, he believes that any statement that can be verified through experience is a sensible one. For Hume, moral statements are non-nonsensical because there is no rational procedure to determine its veracity. (See illustration of radio below)Untitled
  3. Emotivism: This is a claim of Hume’s where he asserts that morality is not objective. A very famous quote      of his states that : ‘A man is a slave of his desires’. According to Hume, morality is based on emotions. Examples of this can be a person living in the tribal areas of Pakistan, holding conservative beliefs and values and a person living in Karachi with non-orthodox beliefs and values and with a progressive and non-conservative mindset. Both these persons with have a different stance on how to dress. According to Hume both are irrational  because they are clothing rationality with their emotions. Thus morality cannot be objectively found as a person’s emotions are his prejudices, his personal thought and it cannot be constant or common for all. (See the illustration below)

NL9After about 700 years, there came a natural law jurist who not only defended his predecessors against Hume’s critique but also laid down the edifice of anthropocentric foundations of natural law. 

Finnis (1940-still alive):


  • Finnis denies that the true classical doctrine of natural law ever purported to derive ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements.
  • According to him naturalists to the present day drew normative inferences from nature and in that sense they confused fact and value.
  • But he defends two of his predecessors and claims that from all of these Aristotle and Aquinas were different.
  • Aristotle was different because he clearly differentiated between two different kinds of reasoning. One was called ‘pure reason’ and it existed in the realm of science and included facts and ‘is’ statements. And the other was called ‘practical reason’ and it existed in the realm of ethics and included values and ‘ought’ statements. Finnis claimed that it was under practical reasoning that Aristotle based his claim and by doing so he didn’t derive ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements as the two existed in completely different domains. Thus Finnis asserted that all naturalists didn’t commit the ‘is/ought fallacy’ and that Hume was mistaken when it came Aristotle.
  • Aquinas was different because Finnis argues that for him the first principles of natural law which specified the basic forms of good and evil are self evident and indemonstrable and thus no experience is needed to determine them. Thereby once again refuting the claim of non-cognitivism laid down by Hume where he stated that since ‘ought’ statements are derived from ‘is’ statements then there is no rational procedure to determine their veracity.
  • Here once again another comparison is drawn between what Hume thinks all knowledge is about and he calls it a posteriori which is knowledge gained after gaining experience, and what Finnis thinks all knowledge is about and he calls it a priori which is knowledge gained before gaining any experience.
  • Thus by pointing to the fact that all knowledge is a priori, Finnis is asserting that it doesn’t need experience thereby challenging the whole debate propounded by David Hume against naturalists.

Hope this helps.

In the next post, Finnis and Fuller will be discussed in detail. Stay tuned.



About MaryamAkram

Maryam Akram is a law graduate of University of London and an adjunct faculty member of Pakistan College of Law teaching the subject of Jurisprudence and Legal Theory. Apart from her academic responsibilities, she aspires to be a professional street photographer. An easy going person who loves to laugh and make other people smile as well. She loves eating ice cream. Her philosophy of life can be summed up in three words "Eat (preferably ice cream), pray, love."

One comment

  1. Megan Tai

    Hi there, your post are excellent! May i know when will you post something on Fuller and Finnis?

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