What is Natural Moral Law?
Natural Moral Law is an ethical theory that attempts to teach people how to make moral decision using reason, the Bible and examination of natural order in the world. Natural law is absolutist and deontological as it refers to the use of reason to analyse human nature to deduce binding rules of moral behaviour.
Aquinas pioneered the theory maintaining that it is a universal theory as everybody with reason is able to see how the universe works according with regularity. The theory is best known as a Christian way of dealing with ethics and its moral teachings can be linked closely to the Bible.
What is Natural Moral Law? (1)
It begins with the ancient Greek philosophers continuing to the present day, in spite of society changes, those who accept natural law argue that all problems about defining good can be resolved by discovering what is natural.
The basis of natural law is that there is an objectively ideal way to be human and that it is by this ideal that we measure our humanity.
What is Natural Moral Law? (2)
Natural law also draws inspiration from the bible, Paul, in Romans 1-3, argues that the moral law of God is evident from the nature of man and the world: '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 maintains that, since the natural moral law is so clearly evident in the universe, there is no excuse for sinful men to do wrong. in Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus observes that the divorce law in the Torah is a concession to man's sinful nature and not what God had originally intended in the order of creation: 'For your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so'. hence, natural moral knowledge should make it clear that divorce is wrong.
St. Thomas Aquinas a 13th century monk is most notable for developing NML theory. In Summa TheologicaAquinas argued it is the destiny of humans to achieve union with God and NML helps them achieve this. Aquinas noted a very basic law is evident in nature and known through reason 'good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided'. For Aquinas this is a moral code that humans are naturally inclined towards and all moral precepts can be drawn from this, humanity was given reason by God and and freedom to follow the good (God's final purpose). Aquinas believed that everything has a purpose to which they work, this view was greatly influenced by Aristotle. The purpose can be understood through nature and the bible, which reveals the purpose that God created man. In this world humans are free but not lawless, because they live within an ordered universe, and the rules for human conduct are laid down within human nature itself.
Aquinas maintained that:
- The universe was created by God so that everything has a design and a purpose
- This could be understood through an examination of the natural world and a study of the bible
- Humanity was given reason and freedom to choose to follow good, which fulfils God's purpose for them
- He called this natural moral law- the rational understanding and following of God's final purpose
Real and Apparent Goods
Aquinas assumes that human nature is essentially good. However, if humans all naturally seek what is good, then why do they sometimes choose what is bad? He solves this problem by drawing a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ goods: what is actually good and what only seems good. A moral error involves choosing an apparent good, mistakenly supposing that it is really good. If I eat ten hamburgers, I may think it’s good because I’ll enjoy it. However, it is not a real good, because rational reflection will show that it will make me fat and depressed. The same would be true for stealing cars, adultery, etc. They might seem good, but they’re not.
Interior and Exterior Acts
As with other deontological theories, intentions are important in Natural Moral Law. Aquinas described the action itself as the ‘exterior act’ and the intention as the ‘interior act’, so that both are part of the ethical action. Accordingly, actions are only truly moral if they are good in both interior and exterior terms. The ultimate interior motivation for ethics should be giving glory to God. So, I should not give money to charity just to make people like me. I should do it to serve God.
Five primary precepts -
If humans are to flourish they need to follow the five primary precepts that can be derived from the observation of nature, the Bible and reason -
1. Worship God
2. Order society
5. Live (preserve self + innocent life)
Secondary precepts -
Using the 5 primary precepts, secondary precepts may be developed that teach people how to act in moral decisions/how to live -
Worship God → believe in God, attend Church, follow scripture, pray
Live – do not murder, do not abort, defend the defenceless, do not commit suicide
Four different kinds of law
Eternal law – God's will and wisdom and rational ordering of the universe
Divine law – given in scripture/through the Church and guides human beings to happiness in heaven
Natural law – the source of fulfilment of the earth
Human law – from it human law/positive law is derived
Human law regulates human behaviour in society and is exercised through the state and government, as an extension of natural and divine law.
Natural Law, Authority and Justice
Aquinas argued in NML humans can only flourish in a society where some people have authority over others – there must be leaders and those who are led. For Aquinas, political authority – the right to rule a country – is given by God who is the source of all authority. According to Aquinas and NML the distribution of goods in society should depend on the meeting the needs of human nature 'laws are said to be just .. when they made to serve the common good'. The 'common good' is a concept that arises from NML since if we all share the same basic human nature then what's good for one is good for all. For Aquinas, human law should serve the purposes of natural law.
Proportionalism allows for ontonic goods, which doesn't insist on preserving static, inflexible and absolutist interpretation if a greater good is served by laying it aside. Ontonic goods are qualities such as dignity, integrity and justice, which are in themselves non moral, but which it is desirable to take in to account when making a moral decision. Aquinas's teaching does allow for some degree of proportionalism. For example he allowed that if a mean were starving, it would be acceptable to steal rather than to let him die of hunger. However, a proportionalist may argue that natural law fails to recogniise the holistic nature of human beings because it makes a distinction between body and soul, rather than recognising that humans are a psycho-physical unity, which combines reason and nature. A proportionalist may also argue that the best we can aim for is a theology of compromise since that is the best that humans can strive for.
Proportionalists such as Bernard Hoose have suggested that natural moral law is not just lists of absolute 'thou shalt not's but a system of guidelines which individuals must navigate for themselves. Proportionalism accepts as NML does that certain acts are wrong in themselves HOWEVER, it says that it might be the right thing to do if there is a proportionate reason to perform such acts e.g. we know that disobeying a parent is wrong ('learn', 'order society') but if they say 'do not run inside' we may disobey this command if there was an accident outside.
How are they different?
Proportionalism has attempted to simplify natural moral law and to make it more applicable to everyday life. Hoose's theory of proportionalism is less absolutist as it says we can lay the precepts NML aside if it is relative to the situation.
Strengths of Natural Moral Law
- NML lets communities with clear common rules structure and organise moral life. It gives clear and unambiguous answers to moral questions in times of moral uncertainty
- Many cultures have recognised that preserving life, educating, building a good society etc. are fundamental, independent of Aquinas
- NML is accessible to all since everyone has a sense of reason and can examine the place and purpose of everything in the universe
- Whilst absolute, NML can make allowances for the differences between particular situations – human reason can take general principles offered by NML and seek to apply them in situations
- NML looks at whether actions are intrinsically good, not at their consequences like other ethical theories do e.g. utilitarianism
- NML does not depend on any particular culture or society, it transcends them all – just because everyone else does something this does not mean it is okay
- NML is based on reason which is usually preferred to emotional responses – feelings are subjective and open to change whilst reason is objective and stays the same
Weaknesses of Natural Moral Law
- Some question whether we can take general principles and apply them to everyday life. Aquinas maintained that since human beings must preserve life, every emission of semen must be associated with life generation. Vardy and Grolsch argue there may be secondary benefits like pleasure.
- The idea that there is a fixed single human nature is simplistic and seems to fly in the face of increasing diversity e.g. mixed views on homosexuality and changes in personal identity e.g. sexual orientation, transexuality and so on
- Does everyone have a sense of reason? Why then are some academically brighter than others? Would an all-loving God give us different abilities in this crucial life skill?
- Aquinas' NML is a Christian ethic yet Jesus opposed legalistic morality. He debated sharply with the moral legalists of his time, the Pharisees. NML is apparently similar to Pharisaic law and Joseph Fletcher argues this is not good
- NML cannot take into account the situation or consequences of actions – sometimes it may be necessary to act in such a way that would benefit others e.g. shooting down a hijacked plane
- Karl Barth argues NML relies too heavily on reason as human nature is too corrupt to be tested and not enough on the grace of God and revelation in the Bible. Some Catholic scholars distrust this theory and insist on revelation and Church teaching.