Natural law or the law of nature has been described as a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore is universal. As classically used, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behaviour. Philosopher, Aristotle stated that everything has a purpose. If we are to find something new of which we had no prior knowledge of we can always ask four vital questions. 1) What is it? 2) What is it made of? 3) How did it come to exist? 4) What is it used for? These questions enable us to prove that everything in the universe has purpose. He also discusses the hierarchy of purpose: Humans, Animals, Plants, Rain – everything in this hierarchy has a proper place and purpose.
Philosopher Cicero famously said: ‘The law will not lay down one rule in Rome and another in Athens…There is one law eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times on all people.’ This quote shows Cicero’s beliefs that there is one universal law which applies to everyone. The stoics taught that the world was ordered according to this law. Cicero believed that Humans have reason and therefore can understand nature. He also believed that the greatest evil is emotion. Emotion goes against Natural law; such example would be the love between one man and one woman (natural). However, if one of either party was to have an affair, they will be acting on their emotions to go against nature. Overall, the stoics believed that we should fit in the world or fight against it in some futile way.
Philosopher John Locke saw the importance of living in an orderly way. He believed that there are natural rights to life and liberty, which can be explained as ‘survival of the fittest.’ Locke focused on individual rights. He believed that we should all look after ourselves and thus our duty to one another is not of importance. He also disagreed with the notion of paying taxes – he believed in justice, where our role is to survive – not to make sure our neighbour survives.
Thomas Aquinas developed his views on Natural law. He stated that everything in the universe had ‘efficient cause’ and a ‘final cause.’ This belief combined with Christian concepts begins to mean that God bought everything into existence for a reason. He then goes on to say that something is only ‘good’ if it does its job properly. For example, a good knife cuts. In the context of the world and God Aquinas states that – for something to be good, it has to do what God had intended at the creation of the world. For example, at creation God intended for humans to procreate, thus contraception is bad as it intervenes with God’s intentions. So from this we can conclude that a ‘good’ person is one which has lots of offspring and a ‘bad’ person doesn’t.
Aquinas also states that all things have potentiality and actuality. Potentiality refers to the things something can change into for example, a tadpole can potentially turn into a frog and an accord can potentially turn into an oak tree. Actuality is the way something is – the more potentials that are realised, the better it is. For example, a developed oak tree is better than a stunted one. We can then go on to apply this theory to humans. A healthy educated person, who has developed their conscience, is better than a sick, ignorant or vicious one. Fulfilling purpose, or as Aquinas would say – turning potential into actual is the essence of goodness. However the problem lies at how humans are supposed to no their purposes. Aquinas stated that we needed to be ‘good’ humans, but what is the definition of ‘good.’ He was an ethical naturalist and thus believed that it was possible to look at the things around us to see what we ought to do (Naturalistic Fallacy – drawing ethical conclusions from empirical observation). Aquinas tells us we should obey natural law. A seed planted in fertile ground that receives daylight and water will grow, therefore obeying natural law. However, humans are different from other things as we have free will. We should try and reach our potential by deciding what we think is right.
In conclusion, the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creatorin the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of NML?
There are many strengths and weaknesses to Natural law. This essay will discuss both and reach an informed conclusion. I will begin with the advantages:
The first advantage to Natural law is that it appeals to the intrinsic idea of right and wrong. From a young age we have all remarked the phrase, ‘it’s not fair’ – this is because we know an unjust action has taken place. And thus since an early age we are aware of right and wrong , however life ‘batters’ this out of us as we grow older.
Secondly, Natural law combines what is said religiously in the Bible with human morality. These both acknowledge that humans are not perfect and do things which are wrong.
Thirdly, Natural law is based purely on deductive, rational reasoning. This makes it an objective theory, it is not open to interpretation – should everyone reason correctly we should all come to the same conclusions about what is right and what is wrong. We can see this in action around the world, with many societies sharing common beliefs about morality – this is a strength of the theory since there is evidence of a common system of morality in place, although that is not to say the universal theory is natural law.
Furthermore, Natural law is absolutist. This means that is does not change with opinion. They are laws of nature and they all apply equally to everyone.
The strengths to Natural Law are somewhat limited. However, the disadvantages are numerous. Firstly, Aquinas stated that everything lies in actual and potential states, and if you fulfil your potential it is ‘good.’ However, the potential is not always great things. For example the elderly have the potential to live deaf, blind and senile.
Secondly, it is fair to say that some natural laws are ridiculous. For example, human teeth are a mixture of canines for flesh and meats as well as incisors for vegetables and plant like foods. According to natural law we should fulfil or potential and use are teeth to eat both meat and vegetables – if you fail to eat meat (e.g. vegetarians) you go against natural law.
Thirdly, Natural law states that there is a universal law for everyone, but is there? We are meant to live, grow, reproduce and die. However there are people such as Mother Theresa and St Thomas Aquinas who have both failed to reproduce – does that mean that these two are wrong bad bad people ?
Furthermore, how do we know what we are really supposed to do? We are told to fulfil our potential – but what is it? Do we have children or not have children? These choices are subjective and are ones individuals choose on their own accord – therefore our potential is chosen by us.
Also, it is key to note that as humans reproduction is not our sole purposes. If this was true, we would then be no different to animals. Therefore, we have a variety of purposes, which can be tricky to follow – especially all together, as some may contradict. For example, a woman has the potential to have lots of babies; however, she also has a brain and thus has the potential to have a successful career. But how could you possibly follow both potentials – they contradict.
Additionally, Natural law is heavily reliant upon Aquinas’ statement that everybody will always know what’s right and wrong. However this is incorrect – in Natural Moral Law God has different purposes for different people – so what is natural and what isn’t? Even if we did know – not everybody would follow it. Some people acknowledge that they are doing wrong but are apathetic.
Finally, it is key to note the problem between NML and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Evolution, does not talk about NML – you do not act how you should, there is no sense of right and wrong. You simply act to survive. This follows Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory.
In conclusion, the weaknesses clearly outweigh the strengths to Natural Moral Law. It is clear to say that the theory has many flaws and little strength. Modern portfolio thinking tends to suggest that we have changing function, so just as laws and society changes, so does our purpose (and thus our morality). In this sense natural law is very inflexible and perhaps even pretentious is suggesting it has a theory which is universally applicable, eternal and accessible to all.