Explain what is meant by a natural law approach to ethics.
Lenae Frazer L6A
Explain what is meant by a Natural Law approach to Ethics.
Natural law is an absolutist theory. According to said theory there are easily definable moral absolutes; both right and wrong discovered through reason and observations. These codes are the same in all religions, cultures and times. The laws do not take into account relative situations and do not change to fit the circumstances in which they may be more helpful. The natural order is determined by a supernatural power-most commonly referred to as God. The laws are independent of public opinion and are unchangeable. The natural law exists to assist humans to direct their actions in such a way that they will reach their final purpose and eternal destiny with God.
The natural law theory was developed by St Thomas Aquinas. He was an absolutist and deontological theorist. This means that he believed that actions were intrinsically right or wrong, irrespective of their consequences. He worked through the 12th century bringing different ideas from different cultures together. His work was heavily influenced by a Greek philosopher Aristotle. The mediaeval church rejected Aristotle’s ideas, as they believed he was trying to replace religion with reason, which the natural law’s basic ideas lie on. However Aquinas showed that if human reason is acknowledged to come from
God then faith and reason can provide people with the best tools for living. He said that our reason could be a guide to our virtues and if we follow our reason, others would not suffer, or would suffer less.
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Aquinas believed that everything existed for a reason, and had a purpose. He believed that something could be called ‘good’ if it fitted its purpose. If there was a knife, then its purpose would be to cut. A blunt knife would have little reason to survive as it did not fulfil its purpose, however a sharp knife would cut well and its reason for being in the world is to do so. He said that ‘something is good if it does whatever God wanted it to do’. Aquinas distinguished his causes as the ‘efficient cause’ and the ‘final cause’. The efficient cause is that which gets things done and the final cause is the product or the outcome. Aquinas believed that the world has God’s ultimate purpose as its final end or good. A human’s purpose of existence does not just lie in this life; we have been given reason and freedom and can choose to follow Natural Law.
Aquinas presupposed that humans were created by God on purposefully. They have to work out what their purpose is and then aim to fulfil it, if we do, then we are good. Aristotle said that everyone was born with the potential to do something, but many fail to realise it. ‘Potentiality’ refers to the possibilities of change that something has. For example, someone may not be good at the piano but after many years of lessons they could become a brilliant concert pianist. This is turning potentiality into actuality which is the essence of goodness.
Today the Roman Catholic Church uses the views that were adopted from Aquinas. They believe that Christian faith could be shown to be not just a matter of blind faith, but reasonable and logical, fit for intelligent people. For example the church reject the idea of abortion, as although the baby is not fully developed there is the potentiality of life and we should not be allowed to stop the actuality of it. The church believes that our final purpose is to live harmoniously in society, reproduce, educate children in suitable religious teachings and worship God; these are Aquinas’ primary precepts. They believe that a moral life is one lived in accordance with reason, and an immoral life is one that is lived at odds with reason. Reason determines that the ultimate purpose and destiny of human life is fellowship with God. Aquinas’ precepts are the natural laws, by which the church believe we should all live by.
Aquinas believed that there were four levels at which the law works:
- Eternal law-this is the order which is the mind of God, and which forms the whole structure of the universe with its purposes.
- Divine law-this is the law which is given to the people form God through the bible and trough the teachings of the church.
- Natural law-this is our inborn sense of right and wrong, discovered through the conscience.
- Human law-these are the rules made by human societies in order for them to work successfully.
Aquinas believed that natural law was inside everyone, and so every human was essentially good and in the pursuit of perfection. However actions that were not in the pursuit of perfection were in the pursuit of an apparent good-something which does not fit into the human perfect ideal. These apparent goods are not deliberately pursued, but accidentally showing how easy it is too fall into evil. To choose an apparent good is an error of reason. For example a child will want to watch hours of TV (the apparent good), not knowing that they are wasting their time and should be doing the right thing instead, such as learning. It is often hard to choose between these decisions, but natural law is there to help us make the right choice.
Acting in accordance with moral law is very important. There are interior and exterior acts which must both be good for the action to be good. For example to give money to charity just to look generous is a good exterior act but as it is done for the wrong reason so is a bad interior act. Natural law can cause many problems like this. People can often not tell the difference between a good act and a bad act and so many of the acts are accidentally bad. For example using contraception is going against moral law as it is not following Aquinas precept of reproduction. Many would think that contraception is a good idea as it prevents the birth of a child who may have parents who could not look after it properly. Natural law would say that it is wrong however and should not be done.
Natural law enable there to be common rules in society which everyone should adhere to. This makes it possible for one society to judge another and tell them what is right and wrong. If a nation commits an act of terrorism against another, then they can clearly state it wrong and wipe that nation out without any guilt. Natural law combines the churches view of faith with that of reason and respect human rationality. The laws allow equal treatment for everyone that follows it. It gives guidance on day to day questions of how to live and links them to the fundamental principles of life.
Although natural law claims that God created all humans for a purpose it is often hard to tell what that purpose is. Many through no fault of their own are unable to find their purposes in life and are classified as wither immoral or not in unity with God. Natural Law implies that humans also have many different purposes to fulfil. As everyone cannot fulfil all their purposes this means that one or more may have to be sacrificed-showing that God did not take into account humans limited abilities. This is also true of the Christian teachings. There are many rules which ‘should’ be followed, but from a relativist point of view they are often not a good idea and should not be done. This shows us that the natural laws are not always very helpful.
All humans have different natures and this is shown by the different sexual orientations of today’s society. It is often claimed by the Christian Church that it is unnatural to be homosexual. However tests have shown that some people are genetically predisposed with homosexual genes and did not choose their sexual orientation. This disputes Aquinas’s theory that God created us perfect and for a purpose as he would not have created us gay if the Church was against it. The concept of Natural Law has been accused of being based on a mistake known as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ by G.E.Moore. David Hume says argued that what is and what ought to be the case is logically different. Although sex is used for reproduction that is doesn’t mean sex is only for that outcome.
Natural Law is an approach to ethics in which absolutist ideas are followed through, and the natural laws are followed without any modern day intervention from society or machines.