“True law is right reason in agreement with nature, it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting… one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and rule, that is God.” – Cicero, De Republica III, XXii
Natural law theory is one of the most important theories in the philosophy of Classical Realism. The theory tries to convey that everything is created for a purpose and fulfilling that purpose is the ‘good’ to which everything aims. It is, therefore, an absolute or universal theory as it is applicable to all human beings, situations and places. The quotation above written by the Roman Lawyer, Cicero, formulates the classic description of natural law in his work “On The Republic”.
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The concept of natural law has taken several forms. The idea began with the ancient Greek and Roman conception of a universe governed by an eternal, irreversible law and their distinction between what is moral by nature and moral merely by convention. These ancient stoic ideas can readily be seen by looking at the literature of the time, specifically “Antigone” written by Sophocles in the 5th Century BCE. In this play, Creon, the ruler of Thebes, forbids the burial of Antigone’s brother as punishment for treason. Antigone breaks Creon’s law and buries her brother, arguing that the state cannot overrule the law of the Gods, which requires the dead to be buried.
The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in “Nicomachean Ethics” also wrote that although laws may vary from place to place, natural justice is independent and applies to everyone, solidifying the statement that natural law is an absolute ethical theory. The ancient Stoics emphasized the importance of rationality and reason that governs the world and sees human nature as part of one natural order.
Aristotle believed that everything in the universe had both an ‘Efficient Cause’ and a ‘Final Cause’. The Efficient Cause is the agent that brings something about or gets things done. For example, if I were to take a piece of wood and carve a statue from it, the efficient cause is the knife that I use. And in the case of a child growing into an adult, the efficient cause of the child’s growth would be food and water. The Final Cause is the final aim or purpose of something, in other words, the end result. Returning to the example of the statue, the final cause would be the image I seek to create. The end result of the statue would fulfil the aim I had in my mind at the start. Both the purpose and the aim explain why the statue is as it is. In the case of the child growing into an adult, the final cause would be the adult that the child grows into.
Aristotle also believed that everything had a final ‘good’ which is achieved by fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed for, i.e. the final cause. “A Good knife is one which cuts well”.
Christian philosophers readily adapted and developed Stoic natural law theory, identifying natural law with the law of God. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275), a Dominican Priest and an important Christian philosopher and theologian believed that natural law was the reason of divine wisdom. This is evident by means of their powers of reason. Law is the application of natural law to particular social circumstances. Like the Stoics, Aquinas believed that a positive law that violates natural law is not true law. The beliefs and writings of Aquinas were adopted by the Roman Catholic Church.
Aquinas claimed that God created the universe and that everything has a design and a purpose that can be understood through examination of the natural world and a study of The Bible: “Everything is created to a particular design and for a particular purpose, and fulfilling that purpose is the ‘good’ towards which everything aims’. He believed that human beings are given reason and freedom so to hopefully choose to follow the good, moral way, which is God’s purpose for them. This, Aquinas, called ‘Natural Law’, the understanding and following of God’s final purpose.
Aquinas believed that within the universe, there is a moral code given by God, which is universal and relevant to all situations and circumstances. In the ‘Summa Theologica’, he identified the four cardinal virtues associated with natural moral law. These are prudence (carefulness), justice (righteousness), fortitude (courage) and temperance (restraint). In contrast, he highlighted the seven deadly sins, which would lead people astray: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.
Natural moral law, unlike many other ethical theories offers just one clearly defined universal rule: “an action is right or wrong in itself, without reference to the consequences”. Therefore, the theory is not a consequentialist philosophy. This means that it does not look towards the final consequences, but breaks the situation down into various actions and tries to establish the moral rightness of each one. The theory is based on the religious belief that God created everything for a particular purpose and end. People are required to understand that purpose and that end and act towards it. That is the right thing to do.
Aquinas maintained the idea that the purpose of natural law is to enable people to worship God, order society, reproduce, learn and defend the innocent. All things must operate in accordance with these principles, to which mankind is humanly inclined. God gives us reason to accomplish these purposes. He believed that rational people desire communication with God and therefore, an action that brings someone closer to God is morally right.
He also developed Aristotle’s idea that all existing things have ‘potentiality’ and ‘actuality’. Potentiality refers to the possibilities of change within an existing thing; for example, a caterpillar had the potentiality to become a butterfly. Actuality is existence or the way something actually is. For Aquinas, the more something’s potentialities are realised, the better it is. For example, an educated man who had developed his health is better than one who is ignorant or sick. Fulfilling purpose, or turning potentiality into actuality, according to Aquinas, is the essence of goodness.
Aquinas believed that the whole idea of law works at four different levels: eternal law, divine law, natural law and human law. Eternal law is the order which is in the mind of God, and which forms the whole structure of the universe with its purposes. This is God’s will and wisdom. Divine law is the law, which is given to people from God through the Bible and through the teaching of the Church. Natural law is our inborn sense of right and wrong, which is discovered through the conscience. Human law is derived, they are rules made my human societies in order for them to work successfully.
Each level, according to Aquinas, depends on the levels above it, which are superior. There is, therefore, nothing on which eternal law depends because it is part of the nature of God and self-sufficient. The natural moral law is, therefore, a universal guide for judging the moral value of human actions. It is a precise ethical theory and is not based on personal preferences or on guessing the consequences of an action. It is based on a simple examination of what is from God: what is natural.
To conclude, we can say that natural law is not made by human beings, is based on the structure of reality itself, is the same for all human beings and at all times, is an unchanging rule or pattern which is there for human beings to discover, is the naturally inevitable moral law and is a means by which human beings can rationally guide themselves to their good.
It is interesting to note that virtually everyone seems to have some knowledge of natural law. Even young children demand that things be ‘fair and square,’ and older children and adults often apply the ‘golden rule.’ When doing so, they are spontaneously invoking the natural law. This is why many proponents of the natural law theory say it is the law, which is “written upon the hearts of men”.
2B. Analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of natural law as an ethical theory. [12 marks]
So, the Natural Law principle is used to arrive at a conclusion regarding the morality or a particular activity. There are several strengths and many weaknesses of the theory. A key strength of natural law is that it is a simple, universal guide for judging the moral value of human actions. Unlike many other ethical theories, natural law offers just one clearly defined universal rule: “an action is right or wrong in itself, without reference to the consequences”. The idea that there is a natural law of morality, just as there is a law of gravity is reasonable.
Even though different cultures and individuals may reach different conclusions on the rightness or wrongness of a moral action, there is a general sense that some things are of intrinsic value. For example, taking drugs is, in most cultures considered morally wrong and is human law and although some people choose to take drugs, it is clear that the action is still morally wrong. The theory gives guidance on day-to-day questions of how to live and links them to the fundamental principles of life.
Natural law appeals to the sense we have that morality is more than just a matter of what people’s personal preferences and inclinations might be. GJ Warnock argues that the conditions of life are likely to go bad unless the moral virtues are encouraged; therefore, for example, without moral virtues, egoism (self-centredness) is likely to outweigh altruism (selflessness or in other words, the good of others). As stated in the essay above, even young children have a concept of what natural law is, as in their games, they always want people to play ‘fair and square’. The theory appeals to people’s instinctive conviction that right and wrong depend upon more than just personal opinion. Our instincts, therefore, even from childhood, often seem to tell us that there is an absolute right and wrong.
Natural law is an absolute theory rather than a relative approach to ethics. Therefore, it is possible for one nation to judge another and for one set of standards to be superior to another. For example, an act of terrorism by a country can be condemned and Suttee (a former Indian tradition where the newly widowed woman throws herself on the fire after her husband at his funeral) is absolutely and universally morally wrong. If morality is purely subjective, one societies moral code can be no better than another. Therefore, without absolute morals, one could not condemn terrorism or prevent Suttee. Natural law enables people to establish common rules to structure communities.
The Christian version of the theory of Natural Law is seen as a way of combining faith with reason. A desire to follow the will of God, and the commandments of the Bible, is combined with an appreciation of humanity’s ability to reason. Morality, according to this theory, is not just obedience to the will of God but uses and respects human rationality as well. The theory, therefore, places a high value and respect on human life. Natural law maintains the belief that life is a gift from God and the theory, therefore, encourages people to believe that quality of life is integral. Supporters of natural law consequently consider actions such as abortion and euthanasia to be morally incorrect. Not only this, but unlike other ethical theories, it also respects human beings’ choices and actions.
Supporters of natural law would state that another strength of the theory is that in a world where human rights are very important, natural law has something to say. There are absolute rules that should apply to everyone everywhere. This is how we should be, aim for it. This belief is similar to the UN Convention on Human Rights, as that states that although there are laws that everyone should follow, everyone has free will and reason to act as they wish, within reason, so to become a better person.
However, although evidently there are many strengths of natural law theory, there are also several weaknesses. One key weakness being that Aquinas assumed that all human beings wish to worship God and reproduce etc. He took it for granted that God created the universe for a purpose. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist would claim the universe to be ‘absurd’ as he believes that it does not have reason. This belief would completely reject Natural law, as it does not agree with the starting point of the whole ethical system.
By saying that reproduction is one of the common universal aims of mankind, Natural Law opens up difficult for homosexuals because, if this is true, does that make homosexuals un-natural deviants? What about scientific evidence that suggest homosexual tendencies may be genetic? And those who are biologically incapable of having children, or choose not to, are these people un-natural or immoral people?
How can we establish the nature of human beings? Aquinas believed that it was possible to derive moral principles from facts about human nature. Critics would say that human nature is too diverse, as stated in Peter Vardy’s book ‘The Puzzle of Ethics’: “There may be assumptions that govern the law which may not generally be accepted”.
Another integral point when it comes to analysing Natural Law is that the liabilities of the theory are well known. It has been claimed in the past as the justification for practises that nearly everyone now recognizes as evil, for example, slavery – slaveholders and the like claimed that natural law was the basis of their beliefs that it was morally right. Aquinas stated that natural moral laws are universal and unchanging. However, it is evident that opinions when it comes to slavery have changed dramatically. How can this be? Aquinas makes no room for evolutionary change, but maintains the belief that humankind and creation have remained the same since creation. There is no room for situationism, relativism, consequentialism or individualism. Surely one needs to look at the situations that they are in or the consequences of their actions at some point in their life. Does that mean looking at the consequences is morally wrong even though their actions are morally right?
Most importantly, Aquinas commits the naturalistic fallacy. He maintains that moral law comes from God. He considered this a fact. Therefore, we ought to obey it. For example, Aquinas believes that caring for others is in our nature and because it is, therefore, a natural property, it must therefore be good. However, it may be a fact that I have a natural inclination within me to care for others but this does not mean that I ought to care for them. This point is put across by GE Moore in ‘Principia Ethica’ where he argued that one can actually ask the question ‘is caring for others well?’ and not just take Aquinas’ opinion as fact, after all, Aquinas himself did state that reason and rationality is very important.
To conclude, Natural Law theory has been incredibly influential in ethics, particularly in the teaching of the Catholic Church and many people, even non-Christians continue to base their understanding of right and wrong around the concept of what is natural.
However, several problems arise when people try to define exactly what is natural, and those who do not believe that the universe had any kind of purpose, for example, Richard Dawkins, will not accept the principles of Natural Law at all.
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