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What is Absolute Law?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Absolute law is a code for human conduct that is derived from the morals that are believed to be universal to all human beings. It is also sometimes known as natural law, referencing the idea that it reflects the laws of nature rather than the laws developed by humans. Many nations incorporate absolute law into their legal systems in addition to positive law, which are the laws created by society in order to make it function more smoothly.

The concept of absolute law is very old. Many societies have had philosophers who argued that humans are bound by universal moral codes of conduct. These moral codes are believed to be innate and unchanging because the principles of morality do not alter even as society itself undergoes shifts. Murder is a classic example of an action that is believed to go against human nature and it is notable that many societies historically and in the modern era have criminalized and heavily penalized murder.

Proponents of the concept of absolute law argue that, unlike positive law, it is not developed by legal authorities in response to social needs. Absolute law is instead natural to a society and it is possible to arrive at it by following a logical series of steps. People can understand absolute law without having a grasp of positive law because they should have an innate moral sense that governs basic behaviors.

While absolute law may be innately embedded in a society, societies are still required to define illegal activities through the use of legislation and case law. Without a law criminalizing a given activity, it cannot be prosecuted in court. In addition to clearly outlining types of crimes, whether they are based in absolute law or positive law, the government can also set out guidelines for sentencing in cases where people are convicted of these crimes.

There may be situations in which people lack the capacity to comprehend absolute law. These are cases in which people may offer insanity as a defense, arguing that at the time of the crime, they were of a mental state that interfered with their understanding of right and wrong as moral concepts. It is also generally believed that people below the age of majority may not be able to understand the consequences of their actions and they are not held liable in the same way that adults are, except by special arrangement in unusual cases.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SZapper — On Sep 24, 2011

@strawCake - I see what you're saying. But I don't think the same things are natural for humans and animals. For instance, some animals will mate with their close relatives and it won't create any hereditary problems. But for humans, we consider this naturally wrong and inbreeding does result in genetic anomalies.

So I think the concept of absolute law holds up just fine.

By strawCake — On Sep 23, 2011

I'm not sure if I agree with this concept of absolute law being based on "natural" law. If you look at animals in nature, they kill each other fairly frequently. But murder is "naturally" wrong for human beings?

Now, I'm not saying murder is right. Obviously it's morally wrong. But I don't think the reason murder is morally wrong is because of the natural order of things! If that makes any sense.

By TreeMan — On Sep 23, 2011

@Emilski - I have always believed that although absolute law is a basic human notion of understanding I have always questioned whether or not it is simply understood in a particular society as opposed to being a basic law of humanity that is well understood.

One example I can think of is the concept of cannibalism. Although cannibalism is seen as being absolutely not socially acceptable throughout most of the civilized world it is accepted in some societies and not seen as being wrong. In this instance this idea is simply relative to the society and not a basic understanding among humanity.

By Emilski — On Sep 22, 2011

@matthewc23 - Since positive law is created in a response to the needs of society is absolute law based on the needs of humanity?

Since a society does not exist without laws or boundaries, some have to be created in order for society to function. That is when laws are created in order to combat the problems of society and create the boundaries and those you have positive laws. However, what do they base these boundaries off of? Although it seems like common sense for someone not to commit murder in a society how is this notion readily accepted as a basic component in society? I have taken a philosophy class in the past and these types of questions were brought up as to how absolute law is determined and whether or not it is only relative to that society or if it is a basic component of humanity that is simply understood.

By matthewc23 — On Sep 21, 2011

@stl156 - I understand the concept of absolute law, but considering that there is so much gray area in the field of law that there is little that can be deemed as absolute law.

Some concept that would fit under absolute law would be to not commit murder, as stated in the article. It is common sense to know that it is wrong in any form and it is up to the courts to decide the sentence of punishment. However, there are many instances that could occur that have extinuating circumstances or have unique circumstances that cannot be deemed as absolute under the law.

There is just way too much to consider under the law to live in a society filled with absolute law, so that is why polices and written laws are created in order to deal with the huge gray area that plagues any society in regards to the law.

By stl156 — On Sep 21, 2011

I have always thought of absolute law was similar to natural rights given to citizens. Both are understood as being an inherrent part of a society and are readily accepted in the courts should issues arise.

The article gives an example that it is understood that murder in any way, shape, or form is bad and thus it is an absolute law in society. Same thing goes for basic or God given rights. It is just known that people living in a society deserve those rights.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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