Natural law holds that law and morality are deeply connected. Law is not simply what is passed as legislation – if legislation is not moral, then it is not true law, and has no actual authority. For example, if we were living in times of widespread slavery and, for some arbitrary reason, you were designated by society as a slave due to your beliefs, ethnicity, class, gender, in the eyes of the law you have no rights. This is perfectly legal, yet obviously unjust.
What if the arbitrary reason you have your natural rights stripped from you is because you belong to a different species? It is not wrong to harm a human because they are human – it is wrong because they are conscious, feeling, complex beings, not because they belong to the same species. The immorality of harm crosses across species boundaries; unless nature so makes it an absolute biological necessity for an animal being to consume others – a true obligate carnivore – we have no right to destroy the lives of billions of others simply because we fancy it.
Law is simply the contractual, enforceable obligation to behave in a certain way, to a defined moral standard. It entrenches moral guidelines – law is ultimately a discussion of moral philosophy – separating the good, acceptable from the bad – like not abusing children, not killing, not causing suffering – almost all of society deems these things as “wrong” or “bad.” Other moral issues, most notably animal rights, get sidelined in the moral grey areas, in which we suspend judgement, even on things we know are wrong. Murder and suffering are normally things we would never normally agree to, yet with animals our laws are sadly lagging behind our morality.
St Thomas Aquinas asserted that law lacking morality is a “perversion of law”. Natural law holds that there is an definitive connection between law and morality and that an unjust law is not a true law. Just because law and cultural custom dictates something to be lawful and acceptable that doesn’t mean it is truly a law worth adhering to. It follows that if a law is not just we need not obey it.
Cicero said that:
“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. … We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times…”
If slavery was legal, would sheltering and helping slaves be wrong? Should you be in trouble with the law for doing the great good of helping the weak and vulnerable? If tomorrow the law dictated that it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves, would you own slaves? If it were not only legal to belittle and demonise another ethnicity, but encouraged, would it be acceptable to do that? Through our law, mainstream society says that abusing and killing the weakest and most vulnerable members of the wider natural society – fellow animal species – is acceptable. This is not in alignment with the morality of natural law. We need to recognise this and change our society’s legislation to remedy the gross injustice of the animal issue.
Currently, society’s laws reduce animals to property – they are only valuable based on their ownership by us and their emotional value to a human being. Natural law however tells us otherwise, what we know deep down to be true: that animals lives matter to them and we have no right to interfere with their lives, nor to own them or use them.
Does an animal not deserve your respect, regardless of whether or not you personally derive pleasure and contentment from it? Does the chicken in a slaughter house 100 miles away not deserve the same respect as someone’s cat or dog? This is the empathy gap between our rational, compassionate morality versus our inconsistent application of it. When an individual animal is slaughtered, their entire right to life is wiped away and they are callously reduced to their physical flesh. The utility of their bodies, to a species that doesn’t even need to eat them, is deemed more significant than their entire lives are to them. If law and cultural custom states this as acceptable, we all ought to adhere to the greater authority of natural law which holds that harming innocent, vulnerable beings is wrong.