Religion and Ethics


Eternal Law


Manualist approach- author of one of the manuals.

This tended to emphasise natural law in relation to the commandments. For Aquinas the commandments reveal what can be known by the light of human reason. Adultery does not become wrong because the Ten Commandments say so. The wrongness of adultery can be seen in its effects and is knowable by reason, as Aristotle, with no knowledge of the commandments, knew very well.

Summarised- God's will for how the universe is to be. God could have made the universe differently but willed that it and it occupants are of this type. God made us to want things that will help us survive and carry on the human race.

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Eternal Law Continued

What Aquinas means is that God has willed that the universe is of this kind and not something different. Because he is all powerful, God could, for example, have made humans immortal, or naturally solitary. Instead, he made them mortal and social. Why God willed things this way, we cannot know, but he presumably had his own good reasons for doing so. So Eternal Law is best interpreted as the principles by which God created and controls the universe.

"Law is nothing but a certain dictate of the proactical reason 'in the leader' who governs any perfect community."

Human beings cannot fully understand God's Eternal Law but it does not follow that they cannot work out, through reason, its meaning in human life.

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Divine Law

Divine Law in Aquinas is something of an oddity. As a believer, he knows that God has taught certain mpral truths in revelation, in the Ten Commandments and in other ways, including Jesus' answers to particular questions.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduces us not a specific set of answers but rather the need for developing the appropriate virtues. He is very much telling us the dispositions we should cultivate, describing the types of people we should be:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theis is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew)

Summarised= That which is revealed by God, such as the 10 commandments. For AQUINAS, Divine Law teaches what our natural reason is capable of knowing. God helps us by codifying that which we could know through reason.

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Natural Law

This follows the direction of Eternal Law. 'Right reason in accordance to human nature'. What is good for human flourishing. The Primary Precept- Do good and avoid evil.

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Human Law

As humans are social animals, they need to make regulations for society to be orderly so that people may flourish. This is why we have a governing system. Aquinas' basic principle is that a human law's value is essentially prudential, but its validity is dependant on not contradicting Natural Law. EG- If the king said we should kill our first born children, it would be bad for human flourishing.

"Human law has the quality of law in so far as it is according to right reason" (Summa Theologica)

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The telos

For Aquinas, the universe is purposive. Things on earth seek to achieve their goal. Only humans have fully rational thought. By usingreason, we can figure out what is good for us, but also work out how to achieve our goals in life. Aquinas believed that we are only able to be fully what we should be, what God meant us to be. To achieve that goal, we need to live this life in faithful service of God. The goal of human life is flourishing. This leads to true happiness. For Aquinas, we are fulfilled only when we are most complete at our best.

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IUS= Latin term which refers to the general principle of Law, not to be specific regulations. Sometimes translated in terms of nights, and the word which we derive justice.

LEX= Latin term from which we derive 'legislation'. Refers to specific rule or regulation.

AQUINAS always talks through IUS.

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Primary and Secondary precepts

The primary precepts of Natural Law is the natural inclination to do good.


The secondary precepts follow this from initial insight. The value of stable relationships and good education of children is evident because they help to preserve life and enable flourishing. Based on Aquinas' thought, there are five broad areas of moral conduct:

1. preservation of life2. ordering of society3. worship of God4. Education of children'5. Reproduction

They are referred as the 5 PP because they are saying "not something added to the original demand to do good"

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Prudence and Natural Law

The need for intellect- the virtue of prudence of practical reason- becomes apparent in Aquinas' discussion of particular cases. We don't know by a kind of gut feeling of what we should do. Intrinsinc to human nature is that we are rational creatures, nature is that we are rational creatures, capable of directing our behaviour through a process of thinking. We need to look at the results of our actions in a rational way.

"Practial reason is used in the contingent affairs in which human actions are located." (Summa Theologica)

Aquinas' theory is that the use of reason does not end at the formulation of the general precepts.

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A modern development of natural Law theory

JOHN FINNIS- his theory is strongly based on Aristotelian principles, what he called 'basic forms of human flourishing'. Finnis believes that these forms are used more or less effectively, more or less adequately- by everyone who considers what to do.

Each aspect of ourselves has its own rights. Men deprived of leisure and play don't flourish. These areas of flourishing are supported by 'basic methodological requirments'. Such as:

  • Persuit of goods
  • A coherant plan of life
  • No aribitary preferences among values.
  • the limited relevance of concequences
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The principle of Double Effect

An act may have more than one effect, and be known to have more than one.What matters is the intention.

"Nothing hinders an act from having two effects, only one of which is intended" (Summa theologica)

We need to consider both intention and result of an action. An important part of moral life is making judgements about an intention and behaviour. EG= In medicine, a doctor may relieve a persons pain with medication that may shorten their life. It isnt the doctors intention to kill but to end the pain of the person.

Natural Law theorists would say euthinasia is wrong because a doctor is giving them lethal drugs. In Natural Law approaches, four conditions are required in the principle of the double effect...


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The principle of double effect Continued

1. The act must not be evil in itself.

2. The evil and good that come from the act must be least equal.

3. The intention of the agent must be good.

4. A proportionally serious reason must be present to justify allowing the indirect effect.

That last point is significant. Aquinas insists on proportion. People should not perform acts which are in any way harmful.

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