Religious Studies - Ethics: Natural Moral Law

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Joanna Lowe        Page         Miss Monyard

Religious Studies – Ethics

Natural Moral Law

  1. Critically examine what is meant by Natural Moral Law. (8 marks)
  2. Analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Natural Moral Law as a definitive ethical theory. (12 marks)

a) Natural Moral Law is the ancient belief that we can deduce what is right and wrong by looking at nature, this being the one moral code that is applicable to all people. The main features of Natural Moral Law as an ethical theory are that it is unchanging, universally applicable and relevant to all circumstances. The theory is absolutist, objective, deontological and thought to be God-given. Natural Law has also been interpreted to promote the idea that human law through government is an extension of divine law. Although Natural Law is consistent with Christian thinking and scripture, it is not reliant upon them and fundamentally, it is a system of morality based on human reasoning.

The origins of Natural Law can be found in the ancient world amongst the philosophers Plato and Aristotle who believed that there was a law within nature that could be applied to everyone. In the 4th Century BC, Plato presented the idea through a debate between ‘Nomos’ (human law) and ‘Phusis’ (natural law). Aristotle, who wrote ‘Nichomachean Ethics’, distinguished natural justice from human justice in his claim that human justice was subject to change according to culture and nation whilst natural justice was independent of this, emphasising this concept in his statement that “Fire burns here as it does in Persia”. The Roman Cicero also believed in the idea of an “eternal and unchangeable law…valid for all nations and all times” that was “right reason in agreement with nature.” This concept of an objective right and wrong was expressed in his work ‘De Re Republica’.

Though the seeds of Natural Law are in the ancient world, it was St. Thomas Aquinas who developed it and turned it into a formal ethical theory in the 13th Century, which was later adapted by the Roman Catholic Church and absorbed into Catholic Morality. Aquinas sought to establish a purpose to human life and in his development of Natural Law promoted the concepts of efficient and final causes and primary and secondary precepts. The key concept of Aquinas’ theory is that right and wrong is revealed in nature, and that naturally, humans are endowed with the inclination to do good and avoid evil. In his work ‘Summa Theologica’ Aquinas asserted the idea that Natural Law did not need scripture in order to back it up, as it was a theory based on human reason. From this, he believed humans were to make ethical choices based on these observations of nature.  

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Aquinas presented the idea of efficient and final causes; the efficient cause being what gets something done and the final cause being the end product, for example, an efficient cause could be sexual intercourse and the final cause would be a baby. Aquinas believed that humans could use their reasoning to work out what the final causes of there existence were, and by acting in accordance with them would be a good action whilst seeking to frustrate them would be considered a bad action.

Aquinas sought to work out what these final causes were along with the ...

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