Natural Law
One of the arguments behind the case for human rights is the invoking of what is termed “natural law.” The history of this concept of “natural law” is once again a Western phenomenon. The concept or understanding of “natural law” may be summarized as a belief that there are some laws or principles that are derived from “nature” and which must be adhered to, whether they form part of the rules of society (positive law) or not.

Resorting to natural law to justify the concept of human rights, which contemporaries like George still do , is questionable at best. Even if there is some moral code that is “present” via nature, that moral code certainly does not provide details to humans. Again, the human rights paradigm is about much more than general principles of being good to other humans. Secondly, it may be very difficult to determine what that “natural law” is. This could lead scholars to affirm laws that actually are in violation of “human rights” or that have very negative consequences. As Spain was moving across the new world, Francesco Victoria, one of the early scholars of “natural law,” was asked whether the Christians could use military force to convert the Indians to Christianity. His reply was in the negative. However, he further stated that the Spaniards, by natural law, had the “right” to preach Christianity as well as the right to pass through Indian lands.

If the Indians refused these two, which they should know by virtue of the fact that it is natural law, the Spaniards would then have the right to use military force against them. As James Turner Johnson wrote, “The rights of which Victoria spoke were conceived by him as universal, as ‘natural’; yet the Indians knew nothing of them. They were in fact historically derived from the customary practices of European societies. In the name of natural law Victoria was justifying cultural imperialism.”

A leading proponent of the natural view, George, demonstrates how it is a very fragile justification for human rights—and in the process demonstrates how all “rational” theories are bound to be error-prone.

He wrote,
As human beings, we are rational animals; but we are imperfectly rational. We are prone to making intellectual and moral mistakes and capable of behaving grossly unreasonably-- especially when deflected by powerful emotions that run contrary to the demands of reasonableness. Even when following our consciences, as we are morally bound to do, we can go wrong. A conscientious judgment may nevertheless be erroneous. Some of the greatest thinkers who ever lived failed to recognize the human right to religious liberty.
Their failure, I believe, was rooted in a set of intellectual errors about what such a right presupposes and entails. The people who made these errors were neither fools nor knaves. The errors were not obvious, and it was only with a great deal of reflection and debate that the matter was clarified.

In reality, anyone who advocates human rights from a “secular/humanistic/rational” perspective, turning his or her back on revelation from God, is inevitably falling prey to the same types of faults and errors that George describes in this passage. In fact, one could argue that the human kind cannot escape such shortcomings. As is well-known, the social sciences are very different from the physical sciences. Many years ago, Aristotle recognized the shortcoming in human reason but his solution was just to opt for a lesser standard of rigor for ethics and politics, saying “ethics and politics do not afford the same kind of rigorous proof standards that math and science demand.”

One cannot study humans in a vacuum. As such, no human, simply based on human reasoning, experimentation or study, should have the audacity to claim that any right is undoubtedly and unquestionably a human right. Such a claim is, in reality, beyond the realm of human reasoning and rational conclusion. Yes, one may be very convinced that something, based on all of one’s understanding and reasoning, must be considered a human right. However, as George’s passage demonstrate, great minds in the past also passed judgment on many aspects of human life with the same kind of certainty and exuberance only for the humans of today to look back upon them and realize how wrong and misguided they were.

Actually, George makes the claim that most natural law theorists are deists. They seem to believe in a concept of fitrah (human disposition) that, it could be argued, is close to the Islamic concept. However, Muslims would argue that the deistsfail to realize that this fitrah is not sufficient for the complete guidance of humankind. Thus God revealed more than simply general moral precepts in the nature of humans. Instead, God has revealed a complete law to guide humankind through His Messengers. This is part of God’s overall mercy and compassion to His creatures.

Touching on both Darwinian consequences and natural law, Jean Bethke Elshtain recognizes the problems of both approaches as being the basis for any human rights scheme:
There are other bases, critics responded, than the theistic one. Perhaps one might make recourse to nature and nature's laws, although here the post-Darwinian understanding of nature and the survival of the fittest does not seem the stuff out of which human rights is derived. Nature pre-Darwin could be appealed to in a strongly teleological sense. But nature post-Darwin seems a rather different sort of entity--far more likely to feed the fancies of authors of tomes arguing that pitying and trying to spare the weakest and least fit is womanish sentimentalism (though "womanish" would likely be avoided in a day and age when sensitivity about gender, not about weakness, is pervasive).

There are all sorts of ways to dress the thesis of survival of the fittest up in its Sunday-best, of course, so it sounds a good bit less harsh. We are more likely, therefore, to read about "evolutionary strategies" than about a harsh neo-Darwinism, but, one way or the other, it comes down to the conclusion that, if nature structures anything, it is the quest for survival. Although the new natural law thinkers…are doing their best to revive the older notion of natural law as it indeed survives, especially in Thomistic philosophy and theology theirs is often a lonely struggle.