Natural Moral Law is an absolutist ethical theory which means that there is a moral command that is true to everyone all of the time, so it is universal and hopes to achieve absolute morality; “As fire burns both here and in Persia” Aristotle. Cicero stated that humans have the ability to reason and follow an intended purpose so that “true law is right in accordance to nature”. It is based on deontology which originates from the Greek word ‘deon’ meaning duty. This means the motivation of an action is defined independently of its outcome and the action must be intrinsically good rather than instrumental. As it is concerned with reason Mel Thompson expressed the theory as “the rational understanding and following of God’s final purpose”. It is a deductive theory because it starts with the basic principles and from these the right course of action in a particular situation is deduced.
The theory is a pre-Christian idea which was first introduced by Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. Aristotle believed that there is an efficient cause which allows us to fulfill our Final cause (telos or purpose). For example we plant seeds and water them as an efficient cause to reach the final cause of a flower blossoming. The efficient cause is a statement of fact of descriptive ethics (saying what is there) however the final cause moves to normative ethics (statements about what we should and shouldn’t do) because it evaluates the intent. He believed that the human purpose in life was to seek happiness through general all round well-being and everything we do is aimed at achieving that happiness which enables us to thrive and flourish and he called this final cause Eudemonia.
Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century monk, who studied the work of Aristotle furthered his work and developed it from a Christian perspective. As a Roman Catholic he believed that it was God who created everything with a sense of purpose and as humans we need to fulfil this purpose of achieving union with God through the natural law (the final cause). We use as a moral code and are intrinsically inclined towards. This can be understood through the natural world and studying the Bible and because humans have been given both reason and freedom they can choose absolute morality and good. St Paul said natural law “is written on the heart of gentiles” so it is accessible to all and those who have conviction of faith will know its importance and reach heaven – Aquinas’ interpretation of Eudemonia. We use our talents as expressed in the parable of the talents to achieve this final cause.
To develop the work of Aristotle, Aquinas defined 4 Cardinal Virtues which all humans should follow if they are to “do good and avoid evil” and fulfil their individual telos. In this way we are working on our efficient cause to reach our final cause. These cardinal virtues are Prudence (careful or sensible), Justice (fairness), Fortitude (courage) and Temperance (self control). He then introduced 3 theological virtues which all humans should hope to achieve which are Faith, Hope, Charity (Agape). By having these virtues humans will be able to fulfil their purpose however Aquinas also provided guidance of ‘the 7 Deadly sins’ which should be avoided because they will take humans away from God. As he said “to disparage the dictate or reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God.” These included; pride, avarice (greed and jealously), lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.
Aquinas maintained that there are also 5 primary precepts which should be established and followed in order to achieve natural moral law. These are to worship God, live in an ordered society, to reproduce, to learn and to defend the innocent (self-preservation). Many of the rules we live by in a civilised society work in accordance with these primary precepts, for example; the commandment ‘do not murder’ upholds the precept of self-preservation. These precepts are set in stone and are immutable. “The first principles of natural moral law are altogether unalterable.” Each of these primary precepts can be upheld with secondary precepts which are the practical human rules that govern our daily behaviour and are more flexible. “It’s secondary precepts …though they are unalterable in the majority of cases…can nevertheless be changed on some particular and rare occasion”. Reason should always be the guide in balancing those desires which conflict, as Peter Mullen said “reason and the regularities of the natural world should be your guide.” For example, whilst reproduction and self-preservation is good, abortion may be acceptable to preserve the mother’s life. This combines with the doctrine of double effect which refers to situations where there is an intended outcome which results in an unintended negative outcome. It is claimed that it is sometimes permissible to cause such harm as a side effect of bringing about a good result.
The idea of law was also proposed by Aquinas who identified 4 types of law on 4 levels which will help a human know what God wills for them. These are eternal, divine, natural and human law. Eternal law is the most important and is formed from the mind of God and forms the structure and rational ordering of the universe. Divine law is given in scripture through the Bible and in Church which is the revelation of the word of God. Natural law is our unborn sense of right and wrong discovered through our conscience. Aquinas believed that our conscience is what distinguishes humans from animals as we are made in the image of God ‘imago dei.’ Human law are the rules that are made by human societies in order for them to work successfully. This is the least important therefore if this conflicts with the other laws it can be dismissed. Each of the laws is dependant on the one more superior to it therefore each of the laws needs to be considered when making decisions.
Aquinas also distinguished between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ acts because he believed that it was important to consider the intent of an action rather than the consequences of an action, therefore supporting interior acts. So long as an action is intrinsically good and there is a good intention behind it then it is acceptable, appealing to a deontological approach. However if it has a selfish or wrong intention then the action is not justifiable. He believed that all humans should act selflessly and virtuously in order to flourish and live a moral life. For example; giving to charity should not have a bad intention such as to seek attention. As the Bible says “give so that your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing.”
Another key distinction was made between ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ goods. Aquinas holds that following a real good will result in a preservation or improvement of oneself however he accepts that there are many apparent goods which are morally wrong actions carried out by an individual in the mistaken believe that they are real goods. This provides the reason behind an immoral action despite their fundamentally good nature. They are pleasurable but will ultimately lead to a fall short of our potential. These include adultery, binge drinking, overeating and sex. “A fornicator seeks a pleasure which invokes him in moral guilt.”
Bernard Hoose and Richard McCormick have developed natural moral law in recent years in order to simplify it so that it is more applicable in the 21st century. They proposed the idea of Proportionalism which suggests that natural moral law is not just a strict set of absolute laws but a system of guidelines for us to use and navigate ourselves. Hoose said “it is never right to go against a principle unless there is a proportionate reason which would justify it.” Proportionalism can be used to justify an action such as not treating a terminally ill person because the treatment being suggested may cause more pain for the person as a result and the pain would be disproportionate to the outcome of the treatment not going ahead.
Evaluate the view that Natural Moral Law fails to be a practical theory in the 21st century (12)
Christians, in particular Roman Catholics, still value Natural Moral Law and use it for guidance because it is an example of absolute morality and provides a set of clear cut rules. There is no need to look at each individual situation because it is unchanging and universal. It is also made accessible by our reason and it makes God’s reason accessible to a believer because humans and God share rationality. It is “accessible to all men” and therefore crosses the barriers of pluralism. Catholic teaching on sexual ethics arrived from using natural moral law and these teachings are enforced by the Pope today. Therefore they would disagree that Natural Moral Law fails to be a practical theory in the 21st century because they still use it for guidance today. It attempts to establish a law which can be accessed by all and was the foundation for human rights. Many find it an attractive in a relativist era suffering a breakdown of traditional social structures and moral certainty.
However in a modern society where many people are no longer religious and do not dedicate their life to God, natural moral law does fail to be a practical theory because we do not have a purpose in life to achieve union with God. Aquinas made an assumption that God created the world for a purpose however many people would reject this premise in the 21st century. Richard Dawkins claims that the universe is ‘brute fact’ and doesn’t have a reason or purpose but came about by chance. Therefore there is no fundamental purpose to our lives. There are also many other religions other than Christianity and many people worship other deities such as Allah and Buddha but Aquinas assumes our final cause is to achieve communion with God. As Jean-Paul Sartre said ‘man creates his own values and determines a meaning to his life, for in the beginning the human being does not possess any identity or value’, there is no need for a God to give us a purpose in life. Even if we do have a purpose we have no way of knowing exactly what that purpose is and whether we should judge it according to nature.
Adding to this point, Aquinas also assumed that every individual has a particular function to fulfil and a specific purpose however this goes against the thinking in the 21st century that we recognise the variety of functions that people can fulfil. His understanding on human purposes is also limited as he claims there are only 5 primary precepts which we should live by, but there are many individuals who do not these precepts but still live a moral and fulfilling life. For example; a women may choose to achieve success in her work rather than become a mother and reproduce and not follow this primary precept. Her life is surely not more immoral? This shows that the theory fails to be practical when there are specific moral injunctions which conflict with the more general principles. There are no guidelines for judging these situations except by advising the use of reason.
It is assumed that the theory is accessible to all because we have the ability to reason however is not the case for those who are mentally disabled. These people would be held accountable for their immoral acts according to the theory however this does not seem fair or justified. Therefore this is a clear weakness of the theory.
It fails to be a practical theory in the 21st century because since the proposal of natural moral law by Aquinas, ideas about what is natural have changed due to cultural changes between generations. In society we define what is morally right and natural according to what is culturally acceptable. For example in the past it was not natural to be homosexual or for women and men to be considered as equals however society has changed their views. This highlights that there is not one common universal moral law for mankind. With such an absolute theory which is inflexible it is hard to apply in modern society with its frequent changes and developments. Kai Nelson supports this criticism as he says ‘there is no such thing as an essential human nature which makes a man a man.’ He cites the example of the Inuit community who believe it is acceptable to kill an elderly member of the community if they know they will not survive the winter.
Another criticism which makes the theory impractical is the point that it is a Naturalistic Fallacy. This is also known as the IS/Ought Gap. Hume argued that you can not go from an objective and descriptive statement, e.g. Sexual activity is the means by which humans reproduce, to a prescriptive statement, e.g. People ought to engage in sexual activity only for that purpose. Hume wrote about the ‘illogical copulations of propositions’ used in ethical statements. This is based on the idea that our observation of what people are like or what is ‘naturally good’ gives a clear indication of how people ought to behave. Yet we could say that cancer is natural, but should we allow cancer to kill us naturally? This is challenged in the 21st century as people have become more independent minded and it is not logically legitimate to take the fact of our human nature and derive from it the values that determine human conduct.
Some of these criticisms are combated with the use of Proportionalism in the 21st century which provides a reason to justify going against natural moral law. However many believe this is not practical because it in no longer an absolute and immutable theory but becomes closer to Situation ethics. The doctrine of double effect and casuistry are also often seen as a way of introducing exceptions to the rules. The leniency which Aquinas applies with the idea of real and apparent goods many allow people to unintentionally commit evil acts because they can justify an act by a good intention because they do not need to consider the consequences of their actions. This shows serious flaws in the practicality of the theory in the 21st century and could potentially justify Hitler’s actions of killing the Jews because he strove for the apparent good of ethnic cleansing.
Overall it is really ‘a threshold of your own conviction and a matter of personal taste’ as Paul Davies said, as to whether you accept the practicality of this principle in the 21st century. It is still practical for many Roman Catholics and provides a definite theory which can be applied universally, however in my opinion it is far too impersonal and impractical when dealing with situations of complexity such as those which we see in the modern world and 21st century, including Euthanasia, Abortion and homosexuality therefore I agree with Bertrand Russell who argues that the theory “appeals to the respectable middle class.” These have conflicting precepts which make them difficult to determine with an absolutist theory. Personally I prefer the relativist stance which takes each individual situation into account and is more personable and flexible which allows the cultural diversity which we see in the world today. I would agree with Kai Neilson that “the idea of human natural is a culturally constructed concept, not a scientific one.”