Explain Natural Law Theory
St Thomas Aquinas was a 13th Century Italian Philosopher, well renowned for his seminal work Summa Theologica. A significant amount of Aquinas’ ideas, particularly his scholastic works regarding Natural Law, are still very highly regarded, predominantly in the Catholic Church.
Aquinas was greatly influenced by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who held a very teleological view, saying that ‘good is what most people pursue.’ He believed that good must exist simply because we see people doing it (this is known as Naturalistic Ethical Theory). Aristotle believed that all objects and people have a specific nature, purpose and function. He also believed that when something fulfils its purpose, it finds its ‘supreme good’. Furthermore, Aristotle regarded certain virtues (later called Cardinal Virtues) as very important in order for somebody to achieve happiness and to be a good person, such as prudence or courage. Aquinas linked this idea with the views of the Stoics (for example, Cicero) who believed that God could be seen and found in everything, including humans. And so Aquinas concluded that the supreme good, or goal, for humans was ‘eudaimonia’ (flourishing), and thus pleasing God. This is supported by his quote: ‘Our ultimate end is unrelated good, namely God, who alone can fill our will to the brim because of infinite goodness.’ Aquinas, like Aristotle, believed that this could be achieved using reason, and indeed Aristotle once said: ‘Reason is, in the highest sense, a man’s self.’
And so, upon this idea of fulfilling one’s ultimate purpose and flourishing, Aquinas based his ethical theory. He believed that an action is good if it agrees with the purpose of human beings, and promoted their eudaimonia. He also believed that God had given us reason to help us to learn the laws that lead to flourishing, even without knowing the Divine Laws (e.g. the laws outlined in the Bible, given by God). And so the laws that we discover using our own reason are known as Natural Laws. The Natural Law, however, is only a reflection of the Eternal Law, which is God’s law that only he can know and understand. What Aquinas really did was adapt the ideas of the Stoics and Aristotle, making them Christian (as Aristotle was not a Christian).
However, the belief that all humans are good, and that all people try to follow the Synderesis Law (‘to do good and avoid evil’) created a huge problem for Aquinas – what about people who did bad things, such as murder. To defeat this, Aquinas came up with the idea of apparent goods – things which may seem good, but do not, in reality, fit the perfect human ideal. However, he also believed that if a person uses their reason correctly, they are able to differentiate between a real good and an apparent good. Furthermore, Aquinas insisted that there was a difference between the act and the intended act – he said that when humans act in accordance with their true nature, they act in accordance with their final purpose, and so both the interior act (intention) and the exterior act (actual act) are important.
A big difference between Aquinas’ theory, and that of Aristotle, was that Aquinas’ beliefs were a lot more deontological, and also more absolute. Aquinas believed that acts were good or bad in themselves, and that we ought to use our reason to discover these. Therefore, he stated that there were five Primary Precepts: to preserve life, to reproduce, to educate the young, to live peacefully in a society, and to worship God. He said that they were a direct reflection of God’s Eternal Law, and that they applied to everyone in that they helped everybody achieve eudaimonia. Aquinas once said: ‘Natural Law is the sharing in the eternal law (God’s law) by intelligent creatures’. It is clear that they are all valid even in modern society (except for the one referring to God). The Primary Precepts were absolute, but Aquinas claimed that Natural Law was flexible because the Secondary Precepts were applications and adaptations of the former, and are therefore more teleological. An example of a Secondary Precept is ‘Abortion is wrong’ – this is a direct application of the Primary Precept of reproduction.
The Secondary Precepts certainly made Aquinas’ Natural Law much more flexible, but many people mistakenly think that Aquinas’ theory was wholly absolute – this is not the case. He believed his Secondary Precepts to be rather relativist, and in fact it was the Catholic Church that turned these Secondary Precepts into absolute rules. The Catholic Church states: ‘There are acts which in themselves, independent of their circumstances, are always seriously wrong by nature of their object.’ For example, ‘Abortion is wrong’ is a fixed statement in the Catholic Faith. However, many argue that Aquinas would not always think this the case – for example if having a baby would prevent somebody from flourishing in a particular situation.
However, Aquinas’ beliefs were also quite deontological – he believed that it is wrong to do a ‘bad action’ even though it produces good consequences. He stated that it was better to do a good action and produce bad consequences – this is known as ‘The Doctrine of Double Effect’ (e.g. if one produces bad consequences, they are not to blame). For example stealing would be wrong, even if it was for the poor, but saving somebodies life would be right, even if it risked the lives of others.
‘Natural Law is not the best approach to morality.’ Discuss.
Aquinas’ Natural Moral Law is not the best approach to moral questions, simply because it has a significant number of flaws.
Natural Law completely relies upon the premise that humans are morally good, and that they all try to comply with the Synderesis Law (‘Do good and avoid evil’). Aquinas had a great amount of trust in the goodness of human nature. However, this is a huge weakness – Aquinas doesn’t know whether human nature is good or not, and if he is wrong, then the whole of his theory is wrong. Many theologians, particularly John Calvin, the 16th Century French pastor, as well as Augustine, would have criticised Aquinas’ argument, claiming that human nature is one of greed and selfishness, rather than goodness. Calvin once said that if man were to listen to his own mind he would ‘forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain’.
However, many would argue against this, saying that Natural Law is flexible and relative. Natural Law focuses on human character and its potential for goodness and eudaimonia (flourishing) and its trust in the morality of humanity, rather than focusing on the rightness or wrongness of particular acts. Therefore it is flexible, and a good approach to any moral situation. This is because it can be applied in many different ways, and can be made subjective.
Nonetheless, because Natural Law claims that there is one single human nature, it is clearly flawed. Kai Neilsen, a Canadian philosopher, pointed out that because of cultural differences and the natures of different people (e.g. homosexuality), it is very hard to apply Natural Law, and that it is now very out-dated. With the rise of Cultural Relativism, the idea of a common natural law is challenged.
Another significant flaw in Natural Law is that its values can conflict. The five primary precepts can often contradict each other, and as they are not in order of importance, it is sometimes hard to know what is better to do, or what is right or wrong in any given situation. For example, if one was to believe the five Primary Precepts they would automatically assume that rape is more acceptable than masturbation. This is because rape is a method of reproduction, whereas masturbation goes against this precept – however, this is clearly not true, and could also lead to very unsatisfactory outcomes. Overall, Natural Law finds it difficult to relate complex decisions to basic principles in practice.
However, it is a clear strength that Natural Law is based on reason and uses reason to make moral decisions. The five Primary Precepts are very instinctive, and are very hard to question (unless you do not believe in God). This is a strength because Natural Law does not simply dictate what is right or wrong, but allows people to use their reason and logic to come to conclusions, again making it flexible. Aquinas supported this by saying: ‘The human mind may perceive truth only through thinking.’ He is saying that we will know what is right by using our reason.
Some would say that this is a good thing, and that Natural Law gives us a lot of autonomy – however, philosopher Karl Barth would say otherwise. Barth believed that Natural Law trusted too much in the reason of human beings, which is often flawed and unsatisfactory when making moral decisions. This is apparent when we see people committing immoral acts, such as murder. He also believed, along with Calvin, that human nature was too corrupted, and that we ought to rely more upon the grace of God and revelation in the Bible. Barth even went so far as to say: ‘Men have never been good, they are not good and they never will be good.’
Many scholars (such as Charles Darwin) have also pointed out that nature does not have ethical teleology. Aquinas states that humans, as well as nature, have a specific function, or purpose. However, Darwin insists that the Laws of Nature show no intention of moving towards a particular purpose, and he believes that God has no involvement. Nature is just simply the way things are, and he even said: ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering…work of nature.’ He argues that Natural Law is based on the assumption that Nature has a purpose, which he thinks is false.
However, Aquinas, as a Christian, would argue that nature performs well, and does have a purpose – to help humans to flourish. He would also argue that, for example, our bodies helps us to achieve eudaimonia. They show specific purposes (e.g. to live or to procreate) and upon this he based the Primary Precepts.
But Aquinas’ five Primary Precepts sometimes contradict nature, and this is a definite flaw in Aquinas’ theory of Natural Law. There are many times when the purpose of nature leads to bad results. For example, although contraception is not ‘natural’, it does preserve life (one of the precepts), as it prevents the spread of diseases such as HIV. This is another example of when the rules contradict, and can lead to immoral outcomes.
Overall, Aquinas’ theory of Natural Law is significantly flawed because of the contradictions in the Primary Precepts, and also Aquinas’ faith in human morality and reasoning, which are not necessarily perfect.