In this essay, I will discuss the theories behind Natural Law, as well as the qualities it is seen to possess. I will explain Aquinas’ concepts and theory on Natural Law, discussing eudaimonia and the doctrine of the double effect. Finally, I will reflect on some of the positive and negative aspects, in summarising Natural Law theory. It is important to highlight that Natural Laws differ from acts which occur naturally. There are many aspects to Natural Law, the first being the concept that it is absolute; therefore it includes set rules to follow. Thomas Aquinas believed that these rules were the primary precepts, along with the secondary precepts, which are obtained from natural morality within humans. Natural Law is also seen as absolute for atheists, as they believe, through the ability to reason, humans can determine the most ethical thing to do. The second aspect of Natural Law is that it is considered deontological; therefore it focuses on the intent behind an action, rather than the final outcome.
Although Natural Law’ has a deontological focus, it also involves aspects that are teleological, because one of the main concepts behind Natural Law theory, argues that everything has an end purpose to be fulfilled. In Natural law the ultimate purpose for humans is to reach eudaimonia, which is the highest state of happiness, and this must be done through all activities. Although some followers of Natural Laws are in fact atheists, the main theology behind Natural Law is that God created the universe with a specific order and that everything has an objective to satisfy in life. The belief is that in order to live a morally ‘good’ life, humans must follow the Natural Law, and that it would be unethical not to do so. The foundation philosophy for Natural Law was put forward by Aristotle; however this theory was later developed by Thomas Aquinas, who merged his religious beliefs in God with Natural Law. Aquinas thought every human was naturally born with certain moral values, which derive from our natural moral code, derived from God. This means humans have an innate understanding of the concept “That good is to be done and to avoid evil”.
This natural reasoning, helped to form the basic principles for how to determine the right action within a situation. As previously mentioned, Natural Law was originally based upon the idea that all humans strive for eudaimonia, although Aquinas had his own interpretation of this concept that upheld Gods satisfaction should be the true purpose of life for humans. In order to achieve eudaimonia and follow Gods plan, Aquinas observed five main aims that he felt were inbuilt in humans, due to God creating us with the ability to reason, these were named the Primary Precepts. The Primary precepts are: ‘Worshiping God’, ‘Fulfilling an ordered society’, ‘Reproducing’, ‘Learning’, and ‘Defending the innocent’. It is from following these five rules; we derive the concept of Secondary precepts. These rules cannot be broken, and are absolute, as well as being universal. The secondary precepts are there to set out a pathway for the primary precepts to be implemented. As an example, the Primary precept ‘worship god’ may be supported by the Secondary precept ‘set one day a week aside for worship.’ When actively applying Natural Law theory to individual situations, the word Causistry is used.
If Natural Law is followed, then for a doctor, terminating a patient wishing to be euthanatized would be morally wrong. However, if the doctor injects the patient with a large amount of pain killers, with the intent to make them more comfortable, but accidently causes the patient’s death due to an overdose, then the doctrine of the double effect is present. The doctrine of the double effect is when there is a good intended outcome, as well as an unintentional outcome that is not good. Thus, as Natural Law is deontological, it is our intentions that are considered important, therefore if there is a significant unintended outcome because of persons actions, they should not be held responsible. On occasion though, if the unintentional effect is grossly disproportionate to the intentional effect then it would be considered morally unethical. Thus for example, a person intent on saving an individuals life that unintentionally caused the death of many others would be said to have behaved unethically.
There is much strength to Natural Law theory, such as the fact it offers a universal moral code which is accessible for all people, anywhere and any religion. Furthermore, Natural Law theory is also flexible, enabling it to be applied anywhere and in most situations for differing cultures. Another positive aspect of Natural Law theory is that it supports human rights, through the primary precept ‘Defend the innocent’, which many people will consider an important role for Natural law followers, as it benefits humanity. As Aquinas combined his faith with his reasoning, Natural Law is very easy for religious people to follow, because they will not have to abandon any beliefs in order to accommodate Natural Law theory in their lives. The final positive aspect is that Natural Law theory helps people reach their “Telos” – also known as end result. Through the concept of reasoning, Natural law will help Thomist’s complete Gods plan, and for Atheist’s help them lead a good moral life.
There have also been many criticisms of Natural Law theory, such as the argument put forward by Kai Neilson that all humans are not born with a basic moral nature and this varies across cultures, and differing societies. Another weakness associated with the Natural Law Theory, by some critics, is that it is very difficult to apply the basic precepts to a very complicated situation, as it can be hard to judge what precept is applicable. It is also assumed that the reasoning that humans have is the right things to do; therefore it can be difficult to know what to do when opinions conflict, as either party could be morally correct. Finally, it is debatable whether humans are actually in fact motivated by reason, as many humans do not consciously think through all the options before they complete actions.
Therefore it would be arguable as to whether people who do reason are always moral. In conclusion, Natural Law theory is absolute, deontological and teleological. The main concept is that humans should aim to reach eudaimonia, by following moral rules, and Gods plan, which we know through human reasoning. Eudaimonia may mean different things to individuals dependent upon their religion or culture. Natural Law is followed both by religious people, as well as atheists. There are many strengths to Natural Law such as its universal application that can enable people to reach their ‘telos’ but equally there are valid criticisms centred upon the difficulty of determining the right course of actions in complex situations.