Normative ethical theories


Natural Moral Law

Aquinas' Natural Moral Law Theory

Aquinas believed that:

  • God was changeless = consistent.
  • God is absolute good and the purpose of creation was to reflect that good.
  • The laws of nature reflect God's nature and regulate the created world.
  • Everything has a goal = the human goal is eudaimonia (happiness/well-being).

The fourfold division of law

1. Eternal Law: God's blueprint for the natural/moral order of things.

2. Divine Law: God's special revelation disclosed within the Bible and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

3. Natural Law: God's eternal law revealed through nature and interpreted by reason.

4. Human Law: The systems of law created by humans on the basis of natural law.

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Natural Moral Law

The Primary Precepts

  • Aquinas believed that it was in human nature to do good and avoid evil and to do this, we have to follow the primary precepts:
    1. Preserve life
    2. Reproduce
    3. Educate and care for offspring
    4. Worship God
    5. Live in an ordered society

The Secondary Precepts

  • These are rules that help humans apply the primary precepts to everyday life.
  • E.g. we can work out that the use of contraception is wrong because it hinders the precept that we should reproduce.
  • In most cases, these precepts are universally binding, so it doesn't matter what culture you're in, it still applies.
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Natural Moral Law

Real and Apparent Goods

  • It is hard for humans to decide what is actually good (real good) from what they think is good (apparent good).
  • The real good is achieved through practices of the virtues:
    1. Prudence - the ability to make the right choices in life.
    2. Justice - respecting the rights of others.
    3. Fortitude - the courage to help us face danger and difficulty.
    4. Temperence - the power to control ourselves.

The Principle of Double Effect

  • The nature of the act condition: The morality of the proposed action must be good or at the very least neutral.
  • The means-end condition: The bad effect of the action must not be the means by which the good effect is achieved.
  • The good intention condition: The intention must be to achieve the good effect.
  • The proportionality condition: The good effect must be at least proportionate in it's significance to the bad effect.
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Natural Moral Law


  • The moral principle arising out of natural moral law should be firmly upheld unless there is a proportinate reason for not doing so.
  • There are no intrinsically evil acts.
  • Two things should be taken into account:
    1. the intention of the moral agent.
    2. the value of the good effect weighed against the disvalue of the bad effect.


  • Strengths:
    - Its use in Just War theory shows that it works.
    - In situations where it applies, it makes good sense.
  • Weaknesses:
    - The Magisterum has denounced it because of it's claim that there are no intrinsic evils.
    - It's calculation of value/disvalue are based on the consequence.
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Natural Moral Law

Evaluation of Natural Moral Law


  • The guidelines and boundaries are helpful - esp. in post-modern society when everything has been made relative.
  • Some believe that there are things that are simply just instrinsically right or wrong.
  • The distinction between real and apparent goods recognise that people get easily confused about what is right and wrong.
  • Many versions can be developed and some don't have to be religious.
  • The emphasis on the virtues encourages people to focus on developing good character.


  • Many dispute the idea of everyone having a common nature.
    - modern science challenges this.
  • Applying the secondary precepts can lead to bad things - avoiding contraception = spreading STD's
  • Anthropocentrism - puts humans on the top of the hierarchy rather than animals.
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Situation Ethics

Three Main Approaches to Moral-Desicion Making


  • Excessive adherance to law, no matter what the situatuion is.
  • E.g. natural moral law theory or divine command theory.
  • Fletcher rejected legalism because it is too inflexible.


  • Christians believe they just know what is right and wrong by direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • In secular existentialism, individuals make their own morality.
  • Fletcher rejected antinomianism because it ignores Jesus' law of agape.


  • Based on purpose not passion.
  • Based on reason, without any set laws.
  • This is what Fletcher called the 'middle way because it has purpose but is also flexible.
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Situation Ethics


  • Conscience is something we do, not something we have.
  • It is just a form of guidance before the decision is made.

Fletcher's Four Presumptions

1. Pragmatismassessing whether something works in achieving the final goal (agape).

2. Contextual relativismassessing what is the most loving in each situation.

3. Positivismthe basis of situation ethics in agape requires a leap of faith as it stems from the belief that God is love.

4. Personalism - Fletcher's situationism is people-centered, so the needs of people are more important than the rules.

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Situation Ethics

Fletcher's Six Working Principles

1. Love only is always good
Love isn't something that people have/are, it's something they do.

2. Love is the only norm
If love requires it, any/every law can be broken, even the Ten Commandments.

3. Love and justice are the same
Justice is the way in which love expressed, so we can use an agapaeic calculus to show what the most loving thing to do is.

4. Love is not liking
It is a selfless act that doesn't seek anything in return, and hates sin not the sinner.

5. Love justifies the means
What makes something right doesn't mean it's lawful.

6. Love's decisisons are made according to the situation and not according to rules
Love alone is not enough, the situation must be considered aswell.

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Situation Ethics

Evaluation of Situation Ethics


  • It's flexible.
  • Its emphasis on freedom of choice encourages taking responsibility for one's decision making.
  • The nature of love as agape encourges a selfless approach to moral decision making.
  • It works in the modern age and meets people's needs.


  • It can be argued it's every close to antinomianism.
  • Many people see value in rules and it doesn't diminish their freedom.
  • There is sometimes a lack of clarity in what Fletcher calls love.
  • The only examples Fletcher gives are extreme, which questions the usefulness of the theory in everyday life.
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Virtue Ethics


  • Every action is aimed at attaining some good.
  • This suggests that there is some final end to which every action is geared.
  • The final end for humans is eudaimonia - human flourishing.

The Function Argument

  • Everything has a function: a knife's action is to cut.
    - goodness consists in performing one's function well: a good knife is one that can cut well.
  • Everything living has a soul.
    - the nature of the soul determines the function: a plant fulfils its function through taking in food and growing.
  • The uniqueness of the human soul lies in its capacity for rational thought.
    - a human is 'good' if they are able to reason well.
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Virtue Ethics

The Nature of the Soul and the Virtues

There are two parts of the soul: the rational and the non-rational.

Rational: the 9 intellectual virtues which can be taught and are controlled by reason.

  • Primary virtues - technical skill, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, intelligence, theoretical wisdom.
  • Secondary virtues - resourcefulness, understanding, judgement, cleverness.

Non-rational: the 12 moral virtues which ar formed by repetition, practice and imitating virtuous people and are directed by the rational soul.

  • courage, temperence, generosity, magnificence, high-mindedness, possession of right ambition, good temper, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, just resentment.
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Virtue Ethics

The Doctrine of The Mean

  • This doctrine helps people act virtuously.
  • Emotions can be excessive, so practical wisdom steers a person to the mean between those two extremes - this is where moral virtues lie.
  • The mean is not a fixed point and is relative to each individual.
  • E.g. you have to be the perfect amount of couragous to be virtuous.

The Importance of Proper Intention

  • People can only act virtuously if they know what they're doing.
    e.g. if someone saved someone from drowning without knowing the risks that they could drown, they are not acting virtuously.
  • People are only acting virtuously if their act is a reasoned choice.
    e.g. you are only acting virtuously if you stop eating due to self-indulgence/greediness.
  • A proper intention is essential to perform a virtuous action.
    e.g. this entails thinking about the action and making a choice based on the reason.
  • People can only intent to do something that they have the power to do.
  • Actions based on reason show a person's character = gives ability for praise or blame.
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Virtue Ethics

Evaluation of Virtue Ethics


  • Modern virtue ethics are able to adpt to different cultures and different circumstances.
  • It has been adapted to not be anthropocentric- Rosalind Hursthouse has promoted the virtue of 'animal concern'.
  • Virtues like justice and temperence can form the basis of rules that will be appropriate.
  • Basing approaches on established virtues seem more reliable than 'thinking on one's feet'.
  • Virtuous political leaders are more likely to make virtuous political judgements.


  • It does not take into account different cultures and times.
  • The anthropocentric nature of the hierarchy of souls ignores the interests of animals and the enviroment.
  • Lack of clear guidance makes it too vague for some.
  • Many of the virtues listed are not relevant to modern moral dilemmas (AI, cloning etc.)
  • Most governments can't fit the needs of every individual.
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