Natural Law is defined as “any attempt to cement the moral and legal order with the nature of the cosmos and or the nature of human beings.” That is to say, we are naturally inclined towards certain objective principles that stem from our nature and can be discovered through reason. Natural law can be seen from both a religious and non religious perspective. The religious view would hold that these objective truths come from God and his will for creation; whereas the non religious view would substitute objective conditions for human flourishing as the source of constraint.
The idea of Natural Law first appears among the Stoics of the first century B.C. They believed that all humans possess a divine spark that leads them to discover the fundamental laws for individual and social happiness.
Natural Law can also be seen to some extent in Aristotle’s 4 causes. The Final Cause is the aim of an object or action, and every object and action has an aim. This aim is an action’s good, so activity that brings about the Final Cause is considered good, while activity that prevents the Final Cause is bad. For example, if one was to take the final cause of Man to be the use of rational thought, then certain actions that prevent this e.g. drinking, could be seen as wrong, as our nature is striving towards the Final Cause.
Thomas Aquinas elaborates on this by combining Aristotle’s ideas with Christianity. The Final Cause, according to Aquinas, is God and his purpose for us. This rests on the notion that God created the world with an established order, designed to bring everything to fulfilment. The objective principles are from God and therefore have divine authority over mankind. There is a two part explanation for natural law. From God’s perspective, it is humanity’s participation in eternal law (the rational plan by which all creation is ordered). For this reason, Natural Law is not compatible with agnosticism, as it requires commitment to God’s existence. From a human perspective, Natural Law represents the principles and laws laid out by God that are knowable by human nature through reason, and which contribute to individual and communal good. Animals follow natural law through necessity, but we as humans have been given not only rationality but the capacity for choice, and obey these laws because we recognise their reasonableness. Aquinas believed that the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude are perceivable in this way. As the truths of Natural law stem from human nature, everyone can gain knowledge of them even without knowledge of God.
Aquinas begins with the vague statement of “The good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided” as his first precept. For Aquinas, what is good is God’s purpose for us. This is the objective way of determining our purpose. The subjective way is to look at personal fulfilment, which a Christian may well argue can only be achieved by following the objective goal. Aquinas believed that we are naturally inclined toward the good, but we cannot aim for it directly as it is too abstract.
Instead, we should aim for concrete goods that are evident immediately, such as life, procreation, knowledge, society and reasonable conduct. This idea was developed by Finnis, who proposed seven basic goods: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness and spirituality or ‘religion’. These goods are our purpose and aim; however, sometimes the purposes can be ambiguous. One could condemn sex with contraception on the grounds that the purpose of genitalia is procreation, so using contraception would be preventing this good. However, if another purpose was to allow a couple to show their love and obtain pleasure while doing so, then it could be justified. This definition of purpose would rule out masturbation, but not sexual foreplay or even adultery. Using general principles applied to specific cases, ‘casuistry’, can lead to such problems in the interpretation of ‘purpose’. Indeed, some would argue that there is no purpose for the world, that we got here through chance and that we posses reason merely for survival.
With regard to ethics, Aquinas has a value based ethical theory. Rightness or wrongness is judged by whether an action contributes to or frustrates the good, as to understand the good is to understand God’s will for it. Using something against this will in an unnatural way is wrong. Non religious views of natural law see the good not as God’s purpose, but that which prolongs a healthy life and enables the species to play its part in the universe. In natural law, it is the action itself that is defined morally, not its consequences. As a result, an act can be justified even if its result is bad. Furthermore, natural law applies to everyone as it is based in human reason and is not dependant on a particular religion.
Aquinas asserts that certain actions are intrinsically flawed responses to the goods. He does not provide a master principle to judge whether an action is intrinsically flawed, but insists that prudence (practical wisdom) is to be used for the most part. Prudence is the most important of the cardinal virtues as it pertains to intellect and is considered the cause of all other virtues. However, for an act to be truly moral it is not sufficient to do a right action, the motive must be moral as well. For example, helping an old lady across the road is the right thing to do, but if the motive is for personal gain then it is wrong. The motive must coincide with the cardinal virtues and to lack any of them is to lack the ability to make a moral judgement. So, for an act to be moral it must be the right kind of action, in the right circumstance, involving the right people and with the right intention. If a married couple were to engage in kissing in front of young students, it is the right kind of action as it is expressing their love for each other, it is involving the right people and with the right intention, but the circumstance is wrong.
Aquinas’ position and the natural law tradition in general is absolutist. Certain actions are always wrong, e.g. the indiscriminate killing of innocents. Our rational nature allows us to discover the right action in every situation by following an appropriate exceptionless principle. However, there are times when we come across moral dilemmas in which good cannot be done without bringing about an evil consequence. How do you reconcile the bad effect with the desire for moral rightness? In response to this, the doctrine of double effect was devised for solving such moral disputes. According to the doctrine, it is always wrong to intentionally do a bad act to bring about good consequences. So the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not be justified, as the supposed good of ending the war early was brought about by the death of tens of thousands. Nevertheless it is sometimes permissible to do a good act, knowing that bad consequences will result.
There are four conditions that must be satisfied before an act is morally permissible in a moral dilemma. (1)The Nature of the Act condition states that the action must be either morally good or indifferent. (2)The Means-End condition states that the bad effect must not be the means by which the good consequence is achieved. (3)The Right Motive condition states that the motive must be the achieving of the good effect only, with the bad effect being only an unintentional side effect. If the bad effect is used to obtain the good consequences, then the act is immoral. Furthermore, the bad effect may be foreseen, but not intended. Finally, (4) the Proportionality condition asserts that the good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the bad effect.
To demonstrate the doctrine, let us apply it to abortion. Is it morally permissible for a woman to have an abortion to save her life? The doctrine of double effect forbids this because the act of abortion is intentionally killing a human being, which is always wrong; therefore it is always wrong to have an abortion even if a good consequence follows. This means that abortion fails both condition (1) and (2). However, if the mother’s uterus happened to be cancerous, she is allowed to have a hysterectomy, which will result in the death of the foetus. This is because the removal of the cancerous uterus is morally good (satisfying the first and second condition, as it is not the foetus’ death that is saving the mother’s life) and the death of the foetus is unintended (condition (3)). Condition (4) is passed as the saving of the mother’s life is at least as good as saving the foetus.
Natural Law is not without its problems. It could be argued that morals are made for human good, and that Natural Law gets this the wrong way round, with humans following rules for their own sake. Furthermore, the doctrine of double effect implies that there is only ever one right answer to a moral dilemma, which imposes an artificial rigidity onto human existence. A utilitarian argument against the doctrine would also be that sometimes a small evil must be done for a greater good, e.g. torturing an innocent person to save thousands of lives. Once the principle of natural law is broken in such cases, then it is vulnerable in all cases.
David Hume argued that Natural is based on a false premise as ‘is’ cannot lead to ‘ought’. What is the case is different from what ought to be the case. For example, it may be the case that a man feels the urge to kill in anger, but just because this is the case does not mean he ought to kill. A natural urge may lead to rape or murder. However, Aquinas would counter that natural inclination refers to the inclination of humanity as a whole, thereby condemning such urges.
Natural Law holds that reason can discover correct moral principles and that we will not flourish without adherence to them. Of course, the debate over Natural Law’s validity is fundamentally rooted in the discussion of objectivity/subjectivity. It provides rules that apply to all of us, that transcend any particular religion or culture and that can be accessed by all of us.
Every adult has the right to become a parent. Discuss
Becoming a parent is a major landmark in the lives of human beings. According to proponents of natural law, in particular Aquinas, procreation is one of the aims of humanity. It is God’s will for us and therefore good to follow it. Non theistic adherents to natural law would say that procreation brings about flourishing in mankind and is therefore good. In this way it can be argued that every adult does have the right to become a parent, as following it brings about the good of procreation. As natural law is rooted in human nature, this can be argued for any human, regardless of culture or religion.
For an act to be moral it must be the right kind of action, in the right circumstance, involving the right people and with the right intention. The act of creating life is a good one, so long as it is between the right people (a loving couple), in the right circumstance (where the child will be cared for) and with the right intentions. Wanting a child in order for material gain (such as benefits) would be wrong because of bad intentions.
That an adult has the right to become a parent seems clear cut, but issues such as In Vitro fertilization (IVF) complicate matters. IVF is the creation of an embryo by putting eggs and sperm together in a liquid culture medium in a glass or plastic laboratory dish. This allows couples who could not normally have a baby to have one. The debate over IVF is whether they are justified in doing so and so is closely linked to a discussion on the right to be a parent. There are many arguments for and against IVF treatment as a means to have a baby. An argument for would be that God created us with a natural inclination to want a child. This echoes Aquinas’ view of our purpose. Moreover, it is often a distressing experience to be infertile, which can lead to despair, isolation, anger and envy. It is argued that because of this, removing such anguish must be seen as a good act. Those who are opposed to IVF and other methods of artificial conception are sometimes criticised for being against such methods purely on the basis that they are new. Supporters of IVF point to the benefits that new technology brings, such as avoiding the birth of a disabled baby when the couple are the carriers of a genetic condition. This can be seen as giving the best chance possible for a happy life to the child.
Another argument for IVF is that everyone has a right to a child. However, it could be argued that while there are fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, having a child is not one of them. Furthermore, questions are brought up about the suitability of certain people to have children. For example, older couples, same sex couples, people with criminal tendencies and (in extreme cases) paedophiles. Older couples may not be able to ensure their presence to care for a child for as long as it needs it. Some would object to same sex couples having children on the grounds that they would be deprived of a chance to live in a ‘traditional’ family. People with criminal tendencies and paedophiles evidently pose a danger to children. It would be hard to argue for these people having children after considering the implications of such a thing happening.
To argue against IVF, it is asserted that separating procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act is morally unacceptable. Procreation involves engaging with each other, which IVF removes. The fact that IVF treatment often leads to spare embryos is perhaps one of the greatest reasons for objections. The spare embryos are either destroyed or used for scientific research, which many find unacceptable, as it reduces embryos to simple ‘biological material’ to be freely disposed of. However, if one were to apply natural law to the situation, specifically the doctrine of double effect, it could be argued that this is morally permissible. IVF passes the Nature of the act condition because creating a baby is a good action which fulfils human purpose. It also passes the Means-End condition because it is not a bad act that is achieving the good consequence. The spare embryos are only an unintended side effect of producing a baby, so the Right Motive condition is also passed. Finally, the creation of new life which can flourish can be seen to be equally as good as the bad effect of the loss of spare embryos. A counter to this could be that the loss of several potential persons is worse than the creation of a single person, thereby making the act immoral.
The idea of devaluing embryos into commodities, mixed with the controlled scientific nature of IVF has led to fears of the technique being used for eugenics. IVF practitioners accept life only under certain conditions and reject it when is affected by a handicap or illness. IVF facilitates such practices as exterminating ‘undesirable’ traits from our genetic makeup. It is also argued that the medical ethic (of alleviating a situation) is by-passed because the infertility of the parents is never actually treated. They are merely given a way to circumvent the problem. As the embryos are made in a laboratory, the medical ethic is replaced by the ethics of production. They are essentially ‘manufactured’ irrespective of their rights.
Finally, the high failure rate of IVF has led to criticism as it means many embryos die. The argument against this is that many natural embryos die as well, and that the embryos would never have existed if not for IVF so they are no worse off if they are used for experiments or are destroyed. This argument is flawed. Firstly, there is little evidence that a high proportion of naturally conceived embryos die. Secondly, we can apply the logic that the embryos would ‘never have existed’ to children of any age, yet parents do not have a right to destroy their children.
Surrogacy is an issue that is closely linked with IVF. It involves a woman who agrees to become pregnant and deliver a child for a contracted party. The reasons for surrogacy are the same as those for IVF, but surrogacy has its own problems which stem from what it entails. For example, in surrogacy the parent’s rights are considered over the child’s. This goes against the Declaration of Helsinki which states that “concern for the interests of the subject must always take precedence over the interests to science and society”.
It is also argued that depriving a child of the right to know its natural parents can lead to identity problems. This highlights a bigger problem, who are the ‘real’ parents? In surrogacy there can be multiple ‘parents’: the woman carrying the child, the couple wanting the child and in some cases, the sperm or egg donor. This situation can lead to severe psychological complications, as the surrogate mother can sometimes form a bond with the child, resulting in trauma when having to give it away, or even refusal to do so.
This can be further exacerbated by the feelings of jealousy that may arise with regard to using someone else’s sperm or egg. Couples naturally feel a sense of belonging to each other and surrogacy sometimes requires these to be put aside to have a baby. However, the jealousy will not necessarily go away and the relationship of the couple can be threatened.
While the idea that every adult has the right to be a parent seems quite clear at first, certain issues mean that the answer is not so easy to arrive at. Issues involving those who cannot naturally conceive but want a child lead to problems with ethics of science and (particularly in surrogacy) profound emotional consequences.