Natural Law, Human Rights and Sociological Theory

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 8:30 AM
Room: Booth 46
Oral Presentation
Mark GOULD , Sociology, Haverford College, Haverford, PA
Barnett has argued that the requirements of organized social life are the principles of natural law. These laws are “as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world.” For Barnett, the (normative) force of natural law is found in “if-then” propositions. “If you want to achieve Y, then you ought to do Z.”

There are three dimensions of sociological theory integral to a natural law argument, which is essential in the formulation of a human rights agenda. Barnett’s characterization of the normative force of natural law requires that sociological theory have a functional dimension, specifying propositions that are held to be valid for all social systems. Second, analyses of social relations must focus on patterns of interrelationship and these patterns will differ depending on the nature of the social structure under analysis. Social theory formulates universal-class propositions about more particular types of social structure. Third, if, for example, a functional theory enables us to say we must do X if we are to avoid social disorder, it does not suggest that we ought to do X. If we are to have hope of providing guidance about how we ought to act, we need to introduce a developmental dimension into our argument. A developmental model characterizes immanent possibilities for social and individual development, where later stages are hierarchically-ordered progressions capable of generating earlier ones, but where the reverse is not the case. The last stage in this progression may then serve as the critical standard judging earlier stages.

A characterization of the stages of social development culminates in a stage that constitutes equitable social relationships. Here, Barnett’s standard for natural law is in play, and the theory that guides our selections is contestable. This theory articulates a natural law standard for human rights.