It seems ironic that I have been doing a bit of reading in natural law lately. This is the irony: entire textbooks could be written about natural law theory and never address the world of nature. Nature, when used in the term “natural law,” carries the notion of common, or universal: What about law, or what particular laws, are common to all people, regardless of when or where they are born or live?
Santiago Legarre credits medieval philosopher/theologian Thomas Acquinas with dividing all human law into two parts: they are either conclusions or determinations.
The following two examples will suffice to explain the difference. First, American citizens recall that our founders accepted as foundational the right for each individual to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The prohibition of murder, on the one hand, would have been understood as a conclusion that can be drawn from the preexisting, foundational right to life.
On the other hand, not stated in the Declaration of Independence, but clearly accepted elsewhere is the right to property. Municipal zoning laws are determinations that attempt to protect property.
For example, no municipality would allow a free-range hog farm to be built in a neighborhood. Not only would the offensive smells reduce property value, the roaming hogs would destroy neighboring property. The difference is that operating a free-range hog farm is no violation of a natural law, but operating it in a neighborhood would likely be.
While every human society prohibits at least some form of murder, only some human societies would determine it prudent to prohibit roaming pigs in neighborhoods.
How does this discussion relate to laws about trees? It seems to me that every tree law fits into the category of “determinations”—even though you are sure your neighbor’s tree is going to kill someone some day.
Because your neighbor’s tree is a risk, lawmakers determine how to legislate the risk. The right to own a tree is a conclusion drawn from universal property rights. However, municipalities determine that the property right may be circumscribed by another right, the right to pass by your property without being damaged by a tree that falls out of your property.
So right-of- way tree ordinances are determinations.
This discussion may tentatively be extended. Nearly 2,000 years ago St. James referred to an already ancient “royal law:” You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The notion of love, here, I infer, may move past mere restrictions of negative behavior and commend activity for one’s neighbor’s benefit.
What municipal policies can be determined from that “royal” principal? On the basis of many scientific studies, I suggest planning greenspace and planting municipal trees is a good start.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business.