PHILOSOPHY & ETHICS: Natural Law, Deontology & Virtue Ethics


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  • Natural Law's long and varied history has made it more of a field of moral philosophy rather than a singular ethical theory.

Ancient Greek debate over the importance and relevance of two concepts: 

  • nomos - human laws and conventions; changeable
  • phusis the fixed laws of nature; eternal and unchangeable.

Plato, 'The Republic' (380BCE) - Theory of forms, presented using the allegory of the cave, suggests that there are underlying objective truths.

Aristotle, 'Nicomachean Ethics' (350BCE)- Applied ideas of cause and purpose

  • For something to be 'good', it must fulfill its own nature.
  • A thing's 'nature' is its 'inner principle of change', and in humans, this is reason.
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NATURAL LAW: Origins 2

Cicero, 'On The Republic' (c.54-51BCE) - Added God to Natural Law.

  • ' eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and rule, that is, God...'

St. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica' (1265-1274BCE)

  • Synthesised Catholic dogma and ancient theory, transposing theological ideas onto the the core principles of the theory, and turning it into something most definitely normative; commanding rather than describing.

Aquinas evidently saw worth in both concepts of nomos and phusis, incorporating both into his theory with two categories of precepts.

  • Primary precepts - The eternal, fixed laws of God.
  • Secondary precepts - Conventional human laws that guide individuals to act in accordance with the primary precepts.
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NATURAL LAW - Evaluation


  • The core idea of an objective moral law is incredibly appealing; it is what almost all ethical theories attempt to establish, and Natural Law goes some way to acheiving this, using scripture and ancient theory as its basis. (The theory works as a general rebuttal of moral skepticism)
  • Compatibility of the idea - Original core principles advocate the discovery of morality through reason, and theories such as utilitarianism are methods of reasoning which could be applied. Collaboration of ideas can often lead to a stronger overall idea, as shown with R. M. Hare's two-level utilitarianism.


  • Commits naturalist fallacy; use of 'nature' and 'natural' is ambiguous.
  • homosexuality as an assault on heterosexual values. Andrew Sullivan points out rifts in families.
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  • Aristotle, 'Nicomachean Ethics' (350BCE) - Development of the normative ethical theory on the basis of the concept of a causal relationship between doing and being. In this sense it is quite teleological.
  • Eudaimonia, from the latin words 'good' and 'spirit,' to mean 'happiness,' is acheived through adherence to the 'golden mean'.
  • The theory is also slightly deontological, however, because in telling us what virtues to cultivate, it suggests that there are at least some objective and absolute moral truths.
  • Plato, 'The Republic' (380BCE) - 4 Cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence.
  • In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas also added his own 3 virtues to the pre-established list: faith, hope and charity.
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VIRTUE ETHICS - Contemporary

G. E. M. Anscombe, 'Modern Moral Philosophy' (1958)

  • Called for a new approach to normative ethics. Anscombe saw that a 'law conception of ethics' dealing with duty and obligation could not work in a modern, secular society, because we no longer assume the existence of an objective lawgiver.
  • Called for more emphasis on emotions, an understanding of moral psychology, and a return to Aristotle's virtue ethics, with concepts of character and flourishing.

Richard Taylor, 'Virtue Ethics: An Introduction' (2002)

  • Rejected a system of morality based on divine commands, because it discourages people from acheiving their potential.
  • Also, Christianity's emphasis on human equality advocates a self-negating humility, rather than encouraging people to strive for greatness. Lauded Aristotle's emphasis on an ethic of aspiration.
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VIRTUE ETHICS - Contemporary 2

Philippa Foot, 'Virtues and Vices' (1978)

  • Tried to modernise Aristotle. One of the founders of leading UK charity Oxfam, Foot firmly believed, like Aristotle, that ethics should be about actively making the world a better place, rather than simply theorising.
  • Saw the virtues as being beneficial to both their possessor and to the community; contributing to the good life rather than constituting it. Criticised utilitarian thinking with the trolley problem thought experiment.

Alasdair MacIntyre, 'After Virtue' (1981)

  • Sees a pursuit of Aristotelian virtue ethics as the way for people to remove themselves from the harmful capitalist ideology of the modern world, although he considers himself to be outside of the field of virtue ethics, because the virtues themselves are culturally relative.
  • Defines moral goods as the 'internal goods' or 'goods of excellence' of a community engaged in ordinary social 'practices.'
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  • The term 'deontology' originates from the Greek word 'deont', meaning duty, and was devised by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to mean 'the science of morality' and to be used as a label for the entire field of ethics. Ironically, it is now associated with the ethics of duties and obligations.
  • Although deontology is in firm opposition to teleological or consequentialist thought, it is inaccurate to view deontology as an advocate of moral absolutism, and teleology as that of relativism.
  • Immanuel Kant, 'Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals' (1785) - Tried to establish an a priori basis for morality without the involvement of unforseeable consequences. Thought the morality was determined by motivation or will of the agent as well as the act itself. A suitable motivation would be reverence for a moral law.
  • Kant's syllogism of the categorical imperative is such a law, made up of three principles: the Formula of the Law of Nature, the Formula of the End in Itself, and the Formula of Autonomy.
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  • William D. Ross, 'The Right and the Good' (1930) - 20th century Scottish philosopher, argued that there are moral truths that may be derived a priori: 'the moral order ... is just as much a part of the fundamental nature of the unvierse ... as is the spatial or numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry or arithmetic.'
  • Despite sharing ground with Kant, Ross expressed the contention that we can only control how we will act, and not why we will act; the task of separating and analysing every factor affecting the morality of an act is impossible. Therefore, Ross focused upon the factors of self-improvement, providing others with help, and treating others justly.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica' (1265-1274) - The Divine Law, dictated through revelation, allows man to be 'directed how to perform his proper acts in view of his last end.'
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DEONTOLOGY - Evaluation


  • Acheives a sense of realisability with simple instructions: we can consult a derivable law, have a good will, fulfill our duties, or do a mixture of these.
  • Doesn't suffer the impracticality or elitism of consequentialist theories, exhibited in Bentham's hedonic calculus and Mill's higher pleasures.
  • Mathew 7:12: 'Do to others what you would have done to you.' (Kant's humanitarianism, without religious bias)


  • Unlike teleological theories such as utilitarianism, deontological theories give only vague explanations of rights, duties and motivations.
  • John Stuart Mill, 19th century - Deontologists fail to specify which principles should take preference; absence of complete moral guidance.
  • Shelly Kagan, Yale University Professor of Philosophy - Provides constraints, but doesn't encourage moral acts; decline in moral goodness?
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