Natural Moral Law A2

An overview of Natural Moral Law for those studying A2 RS

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  • Created by: Charlotte
  • Created on: 18-04-09 11:03


- 'The law is right reason in agreement with nature' - Cicero

- 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

- If we reached the ideal, we would be completely happy as we could have reached our maximum physical, mental and spiritual health

- Natural law argues that it is only by this objective ideal that we can actually understand what it means to be human

Thomas Aquinas

- Greatly influenced by Aristotle - all things have a purpose to which they work - 'telos'

- This purpose can be understood through an examination of the natural world and the Bible, which reveals God's reason for creating man

- Humans are free within this world but not lawless, they live within an ordered universe

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Aquinas (continued)

- He 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 the good, which fulfils God's purpose for them
  • He called this natural moral law - the rational understanding and following of God's final purpose

- In Summa Theologica, Aquinas maintained that there is a natural moral law towards which human beings naturally incline:

  • accessible through the natural order
  • universal
  • unchanging
  • for all time
  • relevant to all circumstances
  • given by God
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Aquinas (continued)

- All human beings can perceive the natural law, but only believers in God acknowledge that it has implications for them beyond the grave

- Draws inspiration from the Bible as well as from the common reason of mankind

- Paul in Romans 1-3 argues that God's moral law is evident from the nature of man and around the world; 'Ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature...has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20)

- He maintains that since natural moral law is so clearly evident in the universe, sinful man can have no reason for wrongdoing

Purposes of Human Life

- Aquinas maintained that the primary purposes of human life were to live, reproduce, learn, worship God and order society

- Secondary precepts are rules which direct people towards actions which uphold these primary purposes and away from action which undermine them. Natural moral law identifies 2 subordinate principles:

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Aquinas (continued)

1) The dictates of reason which flow logically from the primary principle and are therefore self evident. These dictates must be observed by all humans under all circumstances if moral order is to be maintained

2) Those dictates which are reached through a more complex process of reasoning. These dictates are supported by human and divine law, since reason alone cannot deduce them from nature. They contribute to public and private good but may be omitted under certain conditions

Aquinas identified 3 norms:

1) The discriminating norm - human nature itself

2) The binding or obligatory norm - the divine authority which imposes on the rational creature the obligation to live in accordance with His nature

3) The manifesting norm - reason, which determines the moral quality of actions tested by the discriminating norm

Aquinas maintained that God gave man reason to accomplish these purposes whether he believes in Him or not

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Aquinas (continued)

- He also claimed that everything is designed to fulfil a specific purpose, and fulfilling this purpose is the good to which everyone aims - summum bonum (highest good)

- However, Paul recognised that this is not always possible 'Since we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23)

- Reason should always be a guide in balancing conflicting desires, thus natural law is dependent on the natural medium of reason as well as on nature itself, and is made known to humans by supernatural revelation

- Aquinas maintained that every man also had a specific purpose to fulfil the skills and talents given to him by God

- However, this is somewhat controversial as if some are more talented than others, does that mean God has been fair in His distribution of them?

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Aquinas (continued)

Aquinas identified 4 types of law:

  • The eternal law - God's will and wisdom, and rational ordering of the universe
  • This is revealed in divine law, given in scripture and through the Church, it guides human beings to happiness in heaven
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Aquinas (continued)

  • It is made known in natural law, the source of fulfilment on earth
  • From it, human law or positive law is derived (regulates human behaviour in society)

- He also identified the four cardinal virtues, which are fundamental qualities of a good, moral life:

  • prudence
  • justice
  • fortitude
  • temperance

- He also warned of the 7 deadly vices, which would lead people astray from the natural law

- He stated that natural law was 'nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law'

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Aquinas (continued)

- He made several assumptions:

  • All people seek to worship God
  • God created the universe and moral law within it
  • Every individual has a particular purpose
  • As moral law comes from God, all humans should obey it
  • Human nature has remained the same since creation


- responds to natural law by working within its framework but without insisting on preserving a static, inflexible and absolutist interpretation if a greater good is served by laying it aside

- it allows for 'ontic goods' - qualities such as dignity, integrity and justice, which are in themselves non moral, but desirable to take into account when making a moral decision

- a proportionalist would argue that natural law fails to recognise 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

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Proportionalism (contd.)

Proportionalism (contd.)

- they would also argue that the best we can aim for is a theology of compromise which recognises that since we live in a fallen world (original sin), the best that human beings can strive towards is a moral compromise, not moral perfection

- this approach is more compassionate than a strict application of natural law as it takes the circumstances of the individual into account

- it accepts that some non moral evils must be permitted to bring a greater good, and what is most important is to bring about a proportionate amount of good and evil

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Proportionalism (contd.)

- it recognises that the natural law must be allowed to change and that it is almost impossible to identify laws which are eternally valid without adaptation

- however, it could be said that there is too much freedom to decide what is proportionately good and allows for the reflection of authoritarian moral codes e.g. the Church

- a proponent of natural law may use the principle of double effect to resolve conflict: using the situation to determine the best outcome even if it means commiting a potenitally immoral action

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+ it is a simple, universal guide for judging the moral value of human actions

+ it is made accessible by reason, and it makes God's reason accessible because humans and God share the same rationality

+ it appeals to the sense that we have that morality is more than just a matter of personal preferences

+ even though different individuals may reach different conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of a moral action, there is a sense that some things are of intrinsic value

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- it depends on accepting the view that good is what is found in nature, which is not necessarily true e.g. are hurricanes good?

- Aquinas assumed that all men seek to worship God, and that He created the universe and the moral law within it. These are unnatural assumptions for the atheist

- by giving pride of place to reproduction, this creates issues for homosexuals and those unable to conceive - are they immoral because of this?

- Aquinas thinks of every individual as having a purpose to fulfil, which goes against the modern view that people people have a variety of purposes to fulfil. He said that man was the same since creation, disallowing room for the divine redemption of man

- there is no room for situationism, relativism, consequentialism or individualism - people are suspicious of absolutist theories that rest on 'never' and 'always'

- Aquinas committed the naturalistic fallacy as he maintained that moral law comes from God (a matter of fact in his thinking), thus we ought to obey it (value judgement)

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Weaknesses (contd.)

- his understanding of human purpose is limited - if he claimed it is the purpose of humanity to reproduce, how could he explain his decision to be a celibate priest?

- he tried to avoid this by saying that there is room for some individuals to fulfil a different purpose as long as humanity collectively works together towards the general purposes

Natural law, authority and justice

= Aquinas argued in the naturalistic law tradition that human beings only function properly in a community when some human beings have authority over others

= there must be leaders and the led - God is the source of all authority

= 20th century Catholic scholar Jacques Maritain argued that democracy depends on the belief that God holds ultimate authority; 'from the very fact that authority has its source in God and not in man, no man and no particular group of men has in itself the right to rule others'

= the 'common good' is a concept that arises from natural law since if we all share the same basic human nature and purpose, then what is good for one is good for all

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Natural law, authority and justice (contd.)

= Aquinas believed that human or positive law should serve the purposes of natural law

= he argued that the first principle in practical matters, which are the first object of practical reason, is the telos and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness

= according to Aquinas, we have laws against murder and stealing etc because these stop people from their ultimate goal of happiness

= natural law suggests that our purpose in life is to find happiness and the threat of punishment stops us from going against our human nature and creating suffering

= this is a teleological view of punishment as it is justified in terms of its consequences in confirming the importance of natural moral law

= for strong supporters of natural moral law, it is the one objective and rational view of human nature, and its relevance to a religious view of humanity is also appealing

= for those who oppose it, it is an outdated attempt to work from the idea that there is an objective human nature. Utilitarianism may be a more realistic way of coming to decisions for these people

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