Burlamaqui’s Views Natural Law

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Bur...

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), a Swiss jurist and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burlamaqui views natural law as something that is imposed on mankind by divine law. For him, all laws of nature and their corresponding obligations embody “the will of the Supreme Being” (Williams 96). He defines natural law as “a law that God imposes on all men,” and argues that men “can discover and understand” this law by carefully considering their own nature and condition using reason (Williams 94). As a result, for Burlamaqui, divine law is God’s will and natural law is God’s will that is imposed on mankind. According to Burlamaqui, God is a creative force who imposes rules and a code of conduct on humanity, and, in return, men, “through their natural constitution,” are obliged “to subordinate their actions to the will of this First Being” (Williams 94). Burlamaqui interprets divine law by stating that God “has given existence to everything through His will alone” and it is through his will that he is able to preserve, destroy, or change anything he wants (Williams 94). Furthermore, he argues that people can use reason to discover what God’s will and wishes are for mankind. In particular, he states that people are able to achieve “true knowledge of the specific laws and duties that God imposes on us through plain reason” (Williams 96). In other words, Burlamaqui is arguing that mankind is able to interpret God’s will or divine law using reason.

Stemming from his notions of divine law and the will of God are Burlamaqui’s views about natural rights. According to Burlamaqui, “natural right is the system, the totality or the corpus of these [natural] laws” (Williams 94). He groups rights into perfect and imperfect rights and argues that perfect rights are the ones that people can defend or exercise using force. He believes that force is justified against a person who infringes on another person’s property rights because “sociability is a mutual obligation” (Williams 99). Here, he defined sociability as a “benevolent disposition toward fellow man: “to do them every good that is within our power to do, to reconcile our happiness with that of others, and to always subordinate our private advantage to that of the general community” (Williams 98 – 99). Though Burlamaqui notes that God’s will, or divine law, imposes the natural law that prescribes sociability, he argues that sociability is a mutual obligation that can only be broken “through malice or injustice” (Williams 99). Thus, he is essentially arguing that people who break bonds of sociability are outside the social order, and they “cannot reasonably complain if those whom they offend cannot treat them as friends” (Williams 99-100). In other words, Burlamaqui argues that force and possibly deadly force are justified against a thief because the thief had broken the bond of sociability, and therefore does not deserve it and return.

In general, Burlamaqui’s entire argument is based on the premise that God is good and mankind can interpret God’s wishes using reason. Natural law is God’s will imposed on mankind as interpreted by reason, or in this case Burlamaqui’s reason and natural right is a system of natural laws. The system, just like the natural laws depend on mankind’s ability to use reason to interpret God’s will.

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