Natural Law

What is Natural Law?

Natural Law (NL) is an absolutist, deontological (fixed and intrinsic) theory that suggests how people are in their natural state. This theory is commonly associated with Thomas Aquinas as he used the thinking of Aristotle to develop his own ideas about ethics.

Aristotle thought that something was good if it is fulfilled its purpose and by doing so it helps reach eudaimonia (living well as an ultimate end in life which all other actions should lead towards).

Aquinas thought that moral acts come from free rational beings we must be free to make decisions and use reason to make them correctly this was given by God. He argued that God should be the ultimate end so being in the presence of God is the human telos (the ultimate reason for existing) so people need help from God to direct their motives and actions so that the right things can be done for the right reasons.

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The four tiers of law

NL is a hierarchical system that comes down from God to humans. Aquinas thought morality was about following and he identified 4 tiers of law:

  • ETERNAL LAW - The principles by which God made and controls the universe and which are only fully known to God
  • DIVINE LAW - The law of God revealed in the Bible, particularly in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount
  • NATURAL LAW - The moral law of God within human nature that is discoverable through the use of reason
  • HUMAN LAW - the laws of nations in response to the higher tiers of law
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The Primary and Secondary Precepts

Aquinas' basic understanding of NL was that humans innately try to do good and avoid evil in order to find fulfilment and happiness in life (Synderesis Rule). From this rule, there are 5 main precepts that are fundamental principles revealed to us by God that are:

  • Self-preservation and preservation of the innocent
  • Continuation of the species through reproduction
  • Education of children
  • Living in an ordered society
  • Worshipping God

Secondary precepts are the way humans interpret and fulfil the requirements of the primary precepts and they may change due to circumstance/culture 

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Reason and Good

Aquinas believed that it was for man to use reason in order to establish how we should live our lives, we use reason to fulfil the requirements of the primary precepts and therefore to achieve the synderesis rule. This is what separates humans from animals and if we don't use it we are not allowing ourselves to come closer to God.

Real goods are acts which follow the primary precepts and our actions with good intention and a good consequence (good interior and exterior acts). Apparent goods are acts you think are good but are actually not. We use reason to distinguish real goods from apparent ones.

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Doctrine of Double Effect

This doctrine says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect it's ethically OK to do it providing the bad side-effect wasn't intended. This is true even if you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.

So for example, if someone was to walk down the street and is randomly attacked and in defence, the victim sprayed mace and pushed them away but the attacker slips walking backwards and cracks their head killing them. It is okay because the intention was to protect their own life not harm another.

Action can have two effects but as a deontologists argument if the intent is good (to save and protect the victim's life) then the end (although bad in this scenario for the attacker) is good for the victim

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Advantages of Natural Law

  • Flexible - Allows for secondary precepts to vary according to culture, as they are the practical working out of the universal primary precepts.
  • Natural law concentrates on human character and its potential for goodness and flourishing rather than on the rightness or wrongness of particular acts and so it allows for some measure of flexibility.
  • Reasonable- Primary precepts are common in many cultures so Natural Law is reasonable.
  • Objective – Natural Law gives us rules that are true independently of our individual thoughts and desires.
  • Helpful system of ethics- easy to understand what's right and wrong using Natural Law
  • Autonomy - Natural Law allows the individual, using reason, to work out for themselves what is objectively right and true, not relying on religious authority, scripture or tradition. 
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Disadvantages of Natural Law

  • Aquinas assumes that all things have one specific purpose Natural Law theory assumes all things work towards a common purpose.
  • Cultural Relativism - Neilsen questions the unchanging nature of Primary Precepts in Natural Law, using Cultural Relativism.  Gareth Moore argues our nature is a product of culture and society.
  • Too optimistic - It has a too optimistic view of human nature.  Augustine disagrees (original sin), as does Calvin (total depravity). 
  • The Naturalistic Fallacy - G.E. Moore argued that all philosophies that depended upon deriving a moral property from a natural property rested upon a mistake, which he called naturalistic fallacy. Meaning it will always be possible to ask whether a particular pleasure is good, therefore Moore argued no moral definition can be analytic and all naturalistic ethics (including natural law) rest on a conceptual mistake
  • Human nature is too damaged by sin - it can be argued that natural law doesn’t take into account the doctrine of the fall. It can be argued that sin (the consequence of the fall) has so damaged our perception that we can see nothing reliable at all.
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