Natural Moral Law


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  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 19-04-12 09:00

Intro & Key Ideas

  • Deontological ethical theory that began with ancient Greeks & states that what is good is what is natural
  • Provides way of looking at life that is intellectually appealing & in some way empirically verifiable
  • Italian philosopher Cicero = "True law is right reason in agreemnet with nature" (what is good can be rationalised & the law is absolute)
  • Deontological, so involves following duty (following Bible & God's law in nature), & opposite to teleology, although similar in that God designed nature to hold purposes
  • Key idea = NML is objectively ideal way to be human; measure humanity by this ideal, & if reached would be happy (reached max. physical, mental & spiritual health)
  • People naturally follow NML because are inclined to do good, & what is good is what is natural
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Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle's idea that all things have a purpose to which they work, & developed the theory

  • Said our purpose can be understood through examination of natural world & Bible, which reveal God's purposes for us
  • Humans free to make own decisions but are not lawless because live in ordered universe

Maintained that:

  • universe & moral law within was created by God, & therefore has design & purpose which can be understood by looking at Bible & nature
  • humanity was given reason & freedom to follow God's purpose

Called this NML, which is the rational understanding & following of God's final purpose

In the summa Theologica, Aquinas claimed that:

  • all humans naturally incline towards NML
  • this is accessible through nature
  • it is universal and unchanging
  • is relevant in all circumstances
  • & is given by God

All can perceive NML, but only believers that attribute NML to God & recognise the eschatological implications will be rewarded in heaven

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Primary purposes of human life & contradictions

Aquinas gave details to the purposes Aristotle mentioned, & said the primary purposes of life are to:

  • Live
  • Reproduce
  • Learn
  • Worship God
  • Live in an ordered society

However, there are contradictions within these:

  • E.g. is abortion wrong if it saves the mother's life/are the infertile not fulfiling the purpose to reproduce?
  • Suggests NML may be less applicable/of less value now because many medical procedures go against it
  • OTOH, natural law states that in a conflict, reason should be the guide to balance conflicts (when situation not in Bible or nature)
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Applications & Biblical Reference

  • NMl is supported by Roman Catholicism & Westborough Baptist Chruch
  • It draws inspiration from the Bible in Paul's letters to the Romans, 1:20 "Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made"
  • Paul maintained that since NML is so evident in the universe, sinful man has no excuse for wrong doing
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Secondary Precepts

= rules which direct people towards actions which uphold the primary purposes, and away from actions which undermine them

NML identifies 2 subordinate principles:

  • those dictates of reason which flow logically from a primary purpose & are therefore self evident
  • those dictates which are reached through a complex process of reasoning, which are supported by humans & divine law for public and private good, but which may be omitted in certain circumstances
  • Aquinas stated that God gave man reason to accomplish the purposes (whether a believer or not), & fulfilling the purposes is the good towards which everything aims
  • However, not possible to aim for perfections in fallen world
  • Paul recognised this; "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"
  • Nevertheless, Aquinas believed rational people would desire communication with God & act to accomplish that, & any action that promotes this is good
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Aquinas' 4 laws & assumptions

Aquinas identified 4 kinds of law:

  • Eternal Law (God's will and wisdom), which is revealed in
  • Divine Law (given in scripture & church, & guides us to heaven), made known in
  • Natural Law (the source of fulfillment on earth), from which
  • Human Law, is derived

Romans, 13:1 says "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God"

Aquinas also made several assumptions:

  • that everyone seeks to worship God
  • that we all have a purpose
  • that as moral law comes from God we should obey it
  • & that human nature has remained the same since creation

However, all of these are oen to challenge

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To overcome the challenges, Hoose & McCormick proposed Proportionalism:

  • It responds to NML by working within the framework but without insisting on preserving inflexible & absolutist interpretation, if a greater good is achieved by laying it aside
  • It allows for ontic goods (which are non-moral but are desirable in moral decisions), E.g dignity, integrity & justice
  • It has more practical value because it is more compassionate than NML, & insists NML must change because it is impossible to have eternal laws (as laws must be relative), & this is more applicable to daily life because it is flexible

However, does this not carry proportionalism away from deontology & into the realms of teleology?

  • NML makes the distinction between the body & soul, rather than psycho-physical unity
  • proportionalism remains more compassionate as does not allow for suffering for the sake of upholding laws, although Aquinas did allow that if a man were starving, would be better to steal food than die

Proportionalism allows for change because there are no eternal laws, but does it allow too much freedom?

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Strenghts of NML

  • it is a simpe & universal guide for judging moral actions, & the purposes are common to all people
  • moral law is accessible through our reason which makes belief in God accessible because according to Aquinas, humans & God share the same rationality
  • natural law appeals to the sense we have that morality is more than just a matter of personal preference
  • & eventhough there is no universal consensus of right/wrong, there is a prevailing sense that some things are of intrinsic value
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Weaknesses of NML

  • Is everything in nature good?; natural disasters/murder/extinction & even abortion occurs in nature, meaning can not always look to nature to deduce what is good
  • Aquinas' assumptions are not natural to all, E.g. assumed all seek to worship God = artificial because atheists do not (although, is it natural to be an atheist?)
  • If main purpose is to live and reproduce, causes issues because of homosexuality and infertility, & also there have been amny advancement since Biblical times, incl. medical - how are we supposed to know whether to accept help if something is neither in the Bible nor natural, but can fulfil a purpose?
  • The basis that everyone has a particular function to fulfil goes against modern portfolio thinking that we have a variety of purposes because life is complex & has many aspects
  • there is no room in absolutist natural law for situationism/ relativism/ consequentialism/ individualism
  • Aquinas commits the naturalistic fallacy, as claims we ought to follow our purpose, but does not mean we always can, & Aquinas did not follow purpose of reproducing because he was celibate (which means his understanding may have been limited)
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Concluding Points

  • Aquinas NML is - "Nothing else than the rational creatures' participation in eternal law"
  • gives humans credit by claiming all have a purpose, although it does disregard individualism & is not subjective, so therefore is not always compassionate

In some ways wimilar to Kant's deontology because both are:

  • absolutist
  • do not take account of motives
  • are not situational & do not rely on experience
  • both state that people have rationality to access a moral law
  • Concluding points (adapt to question):
  • has meaning to followers
  • has use in community but not so much for individual use
  • can be used in modern day because proportionalism offers more flexible approach, but may be utilitarianism in disguise
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