Discuss the concept of Natural Law with reference to the ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas.

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Natural law-Sophie Wright.

Aristotle believed that humans have a final cause or purpose. He said this was our supreme good; the ultimate goal which we desire for its own sake and to which all our other goals eventually lead. He believed the human purpose was to reach ‘eudaimonia’ (happiness) which includes the idea of flourishing and living well. Any object reaches its ultimate purpose by ‘performing its function with excellence’.

Aristotle considered that the human function is to live a life of reason; this is the highest and most distinctive of all human activities. ‘Reason is the true self of every man, since it is the supreme and better part. Reason is, in the highest sense, a mans self.’ Humans therefore fulfil their ultimate purpose of eudaimonia by following reason excellently.

Aquinas developed Aristotle’s ideas of the human purpose into his own; he was a Christians so therefore believed that humans were created in the ‘image of God’ thus arguing that the ultimate human purpose was not eudaimonia but perfection. This is the full development of God’s image within us, resulting in union with God. However, we cannot reach this perfection on earth, perfection will be attained in the afterlife and so we must work towards this on earth.

Our rational nature sets us apart from everything else in the world and enables us to have a unique relationship with God. Aquinas believed that God gave us our power to reason so we could share in his nature. He stated that “Man should not seek to know what is above reason” his argument was that men need reason to understand all of gods truths, yet there are certain truths that are beyond reason which men cant understand, we can, nevertheless see a reflection of these in the world that god created if we use our reason correctly.

Primary precepts are what Aquinas believed everybody knows instinctively and rationally, they are ‘written on our hearts’. God gave us natural inclinations to draw us towards our ultimate purpose, if we reflect upon these and use our reason excellently it allows us to work out the main rules; primary precepts of natural law from our natural inclinations. Our most fundamental inclination, as believed by Aquinas, is to live our lives so we achieve what is good and avoid what is evil. The five precepts come from our other inclinations. Like all things that exist we seek survival so must preserve innocent human life and we must reproduce and educate children to ‘preserve the species’. We must order society and worship god in order to live according to reason. These are only general principles but they apply to everyone. The Stoics argued that human nature is fixed and unchanging, Aquinas argued that since all humans have a common human nature, the primary precepts are ‘altogether unalterable’ this is because he believed God determined how people should behave and he was influenced by the Stoics.

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The primary precept ‘to preserve innocent human life’ leads to rules such as ‘do not abort’, ‘do not commit euthanasia’ etc. these are secondary precepts. Secondary precepts are derived from primary precepts; they are theoretically more open to interpretation than primary precepts. Aquinas accepted that the more detailed we make them e.g. to deal with a certain situation, the more exceptions there will be. Natural law also looks into the functions of individual body parts in relation to our overall purpose. Aquinas believed it was wrong to use things for something other than its function/purpose; the purpose of sex ...

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