Define: Absolute Law

Absolute Law
Absolute Law
What is the dictionary definition of Absolute Law?
Dictionary Definition of Absolute Law

Absolute law refers to a set of principles or rules that are considered to be universally true and unchanging, regardless of individual beliefs, cultural differences, or societal norms. It is a concept often associated with moral or ethical principles that are believed to be inherently right or wrong, independent of subjective opinions or personal preferences. Absolute law is often seen as a guiding framework for human behaviour, providing a foundation for justice, fairness, and the preservation of fundamental rights and values. It is often contrasted with relative or situational ethics, which consider moral judgements to be context-dependent and subject to interpretation.

Full Definition Of Absolute Law

Absolute law refers to a system of legal rules or principles that are considered to be universally valid, immutable, and not subject to any external influence or change. Unlike relative laws that can vary depending on circumstances, cultures, or interpretations, absolute laws are seen as eternal truths. This concept has significant implications in legal theory, moral philosophy, and the practical administration of justice. This overview explores the foundations, principles, and implications of absolute law in the context of British legal thought and jurisprudence.

Historical Background

The idea of absolute law has roots in ancient philosophy and religious teachings. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle explored concepts of universal justice and natural law, suggesting that certain principles of justice and morality are inherent in the nature of human beings and the cosmos.

In the context of British law, the notion of absolute law can be traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215, which introduced the idea that even the sovereign is subject to the law. This principle laid the groundwork for the development of constitutional law and the rule of law, which assert that laws must be applied consistently and impartially, and that certain rights and freedoms are fundamental and inviolable.

Theoretical Foundations

The theoretical basis of absolute law is often linked to natural law theory, which posits that certain laws are derived from nature and are universally binding. Natural law theorists argue that these laws are inherent in human nature and can be discovered through reason and moral intuition.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher, and theologian, was a significant proponent of natural law theory. He argued that natural law is part of the divine order and is accessible to human reason. According to Aquinas, human-made laws (positive laws) should reflect natural law principles to be just and legitimate.

In modern times, the concept of absolute law has been further developed by legal positivists and moral realists. Legal positivists, such as H.L.A. Hart, distinguish between the descriptive nature of law (what the law is) and its normative aspects (what the law ought to be). While legal positivism generally rejects the idea of absolute moral laws, it acknowledges that certain legal principles can achieve a high degree of universality and consistency.

Principles of Absolute Law

Absolute law is characterized by several key principles that distinguish it from other forms of legal systems. These principles include universality, immutability, and supremacy.

  • Universality: Absolute laws are applicable universally, without exceptions. They are considered binding on all individuals and institutions, regardless of context or circumstance. For instance, fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and freedom from torture, are often viewed as absolute principles that should be upheld universally.
  • Immutability: Absolute laws are immutable, meaning they do not change over time. Unlike relative laws that may evolve with societal changes, absolute laws are seen as eternal and unchanging truths. This immutability is grounded in the belief that these laws reflect fundamental aspects of human nature or moral reality.
  • Supremacy: Absolute laws hold a position of supremacy over other laws. They are considered higher laws that provide the foundation for all other legal rules and principles. In the British legal system, this principle is reflected in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, where certain constitutional principles, such as the rule of law and separation of powers, are regarded as fundamental.

Implications in British Legal Thought

In British legal thought, the concept of absolute law has profound implications for the development and interpretation of legal principles. It influences various areas of law, including constitutional law, human rights law, and international law.

Constitutional Law

The British constitution, while unwritten and flexible, embodies certain principles that can be viewed as absolute. The rule of law, for instance, is a fundamental principle that underpins the British legal system. It asserts that all individuals and institutions, including the government, are subject to the law and must act in accordance with it.

The principle of judicial review, which allows courts to assess the legality of executive actions and legislation, is another manifestation of absolute law. It ensures that governmental power is exercised within the bounds of the law and protects individual rights and freedoms.

Human Rights Law

Human rights law is a key area where the concept of absolute law is particularly relevant. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), incorporated into British law through the Human Rights Act 1998, enshrines a range of fundamental rights and freedoms that are considered absolute or nearly absolute.

Rights such as the right to life (Article 2), the prohibition of torture (Article 3), and the right to a fair trial (Article 6) are treated as fundamental and non-derogable, meaning they cannot be suspended even in times of emergency. These rights reflect the idea that certain principles are universally binding and must be upheld regardless of circumstances.

International Law

In the realm of international law, the concept of absolute law plays a crucial role in the development of norms and principles that govern the conduct of states and international organizations. The principles of jus cogens, or peremptory norms, are a prime example. These are norms considered so fundamental that no derogation is permitted, and they bind all states regardless of consent.

Examples of jus cogens norms include the prohibition of genocide, slavery, and torture. These norms reflect the idea that certain principles of justice and morality are universally binding and cannot be overridden by national or international agreements.

Criticisms and Challenges

Despite its theoretical appeal, the concept of absolute law faces several criticisms and challenges. Critics argue that the idea of absolute, immutable laws is unrealistic and impractical in a diverse and evolving society.

  • Cultural Relativism: One of the primary criticisms is cultural relativism, which posits that legal and moral principles are culturally specific and cannot be universally applied. Critics argue that what is considered just or moral in one culture may not be viewed the same way in another. Therefore, the imposition of absolute laws may lead to cultural imperialism and undermine local customs and traditions.
  • Practicality: The immutability of absolute laws is also questioned on practical grounds. Societies change over time, and laws must adapt to new social, economic, and technological realities. The rigidity of absolute laws may hinder legal development and reform, leading to outdated and ineffective legal systems.
  • Interpretation and Enforcement: The interpretation and enforcement of absolute laws pose significant challenges. Different judges and legal scholars may have varying interpretations of what constitutes an absolute law and how it should be applied. This can lead to inconsistencies and uncertainty in the legal system.

Contemporary Perspectives

In contemporary legal thought, the concept of absolute law continues to evolve. Legal scholars and philosophers are exploring ways to reconcile the universality of certain legal principles with the need for flexibility and adaptability in the law.

Procedural Absolutism

One approach is procedural absolutism, which focuses on the process rather than the content of laws. It emphasizes the importance of fair and consistent procedures in the administration of justice. For example, the principles of due process and equal protection under the law are considered procedural absolutes that ensure fairness and impartiality in legal proceedings.

Substantive Absolutism

Substantive absolutism, on the other hand, maintains that certain substantive principles, such as human dignity and equality, are universally binding. This approach seeks to identify and uphold core values that transcend cultural and historical differences. It recognizes that while the application of these principles may vary, their underlying essence remains constant.


The concept of absolute law represents a foundational aspect of legal theory and practice, particularly in the context of British legal thought. It embodies the idea that certain principles of justice and morality are universally binding, immutable, and supreme. While the notion of absolute law faces several criticisms and challenges, it continues to play a crucial role in shaping constitutional law, human rights law, and international law.

In a rapidly changing world, the challenge for legal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers is to balance the universality of absolute laws with the need for flexibility and adaptability. By striving to uphold core principles of justice and fairness while allowing for cultural diversity and societal evolution, the concept of absolute law can continue to provide a firm foundation for a just and equitable legal system.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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