Natural Law Notes

Note cards on Natural Law

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  • Created by: serebro
  • Created on: 22-03-14 17:20


  • Put forward by Thomas Aquinas
  • Written in the Summa Theologica
  • Draws from the Hedonist idea of seeking happiness with Aristotle's final purpose
  • Idea is that people have to fulfil their purpose to achieve happiness/eudaimonia.
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Aquinas' Laws

  • Aquinas believed that Natural Law existed alongside other laws
  • The highest is Eternal Law, this is the law set out by God, unknown to humans.
  • The Divine Law follows, which is the instruction of the Bible/Holy Book. It bridges NL with EL
  • Thirdly, there is Natural Law, an absolute moral code for which all humans follow from their God-given natural ability to reason.
  • Finally there is Moral Law, these are laws that we as humans set out in society and have less of a significance, such as a business laws. 
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The Precepts

  • In order to make Natural Law clear, Aquinas developed the Precepts (rules).
  • Fulfiling these precepts will enable a person to fulfil their final purpose and be happy.
  • Precepts are based on: "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided."



  • Protect and Preserve human life (i.e doctors, babysitting)
  • Reproduce and Educate your offspring (i.e parents, teachers)
  • Know God and live in Society (i.e be religious and be a good citizen)
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The Precepts (Secondary)

  • The Secondary Precepts are extensions to the Primary Precepts
  • Aquinas believed that we can used our reason to create these
  • They tend to be focussed on preventing unnatural actions
  • They are all deontological, concerned primarily with the action

For example:

  • Preserving Human Life: Do not kill
  • Reproduction of Life: Do not ********** (humans must procreate)
  • Living in Society: Do not steal
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Aristotle's Causes

  • Aquinas used Aristotle's Causes in the development of Natural Law
  • He specifically looked at the efficient cause and the final cause

Efficient & Final Cause

  • The efficient cause is what makes a thing happen and how it came to be
  • Aquinas presented them as appealing to humans to do their final purpose
  • For example, sex is an efficient cause and leads to the final cause of having a baby. Humans enjoy it and this give them the reason to procreate in the first place 
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Apparent and Real Goods

  • Aquinas said that there are two types of good available to humans

Apparent Good:

  • An action that seems good and pleasureable to a person, but teleologically brings about evil or unhappiness.
  • They drift a person away from achieving their final purpose
  • For example, taking drugs seems enjoyable at first but it will complicate a person's health and lead to a person breaking the precepts (they would need treatment which could be more useful 'preserving life' elsewhere)

Real Good:

  • A good action that will teleologically bring about happiness.
  • It will further a person to their final purpose
  • Examples include: volunteering (being a good citizen) or living healthily (preserving life)
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God & The Afterlife

  • Aquinas did believe in the afterlife or heaven
  • He said that human life's goal is to reach
  • Interestingly, Aquinas believed that anybody could follow NL, including atheists.
  • Fulfilment was possible for non-Christians, since they are trying to fulfil God's plan anyway.
  • However, it did say it there was no good reason to reject God if someone wants to follow Natural Law, as it puts them at a disadvantage (i.e cannot follow 'know God' precept).

Today Natural Law does not have a large ethical following. However Catholic ethics are based on Aquinas' Natural Law and many conservative societies see NL as a correct moral way of living.

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