Natural Law

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Natural Law is an absolutist theory most commonly associated with St Thomas Aquinas (1224 -1274).

It relies on Aquinas' basic understanding that humans innately try to do good and to avoid evil in order to find fulfilment and happiness in life (Synderesis Rule).

Primary Precepts

Following on from the Synderesis Rule, Natural Law is based on five primary precepts.

These primary precepts are fundamental principals revealed to us by God.

They are:

1. Self-preservation/preservation of the innocent
2. Continuation of the species through reproduction
3. Education of children
4. To live in society
5. To worship God

Secondary Precepts

Humans are then to use their reason to establish rules that will fulfil the requirements of the primary precepts. These rules are known as secondary precepts.

Some examples are:

  • Do not murder (fulfils the primary precept of preserving the innocent)
  • Do not abort the unborn (fulfils the primary precepts of preserving the innocent and of continuing the species)

Key aspects of Natural Law

Reason is used in order to establish how we should live our lives. We use our reason to fulfil the requirements of the primary precepts and therefore to achieve our aim of doing good and avoiding evil.

At times humans use their reason incorrectly because they are following apparent goods rather than real goods. An example of an apparent good is taking drugs - it seems like we are doing a good thing but in reality we are not!

Aquinas also noted that God knows the secrets of our hearts and so our actions must be interior rather than exterior - the motive behind an action counts. For example we should help an elderly person cross the road because it is the correct thing to do not because we want to impress a boy/girl who's watching nearby!

Advantages of Natural Law

  • There is a fair set of rules for everyone.
  • However, it is not just a large number of rules dictating what we should do.
  • All the things that are good for us are celebrated, rather than focusing on negative things.
  • Humans are at the centre of this ethical approach, not rules.
  • It allows us to use our reason and so feel in control of the secondary precepts.
  • It allows people to establish common rules in order to structure communities.

Disadvantages of Natural Law

  • In modern forms Natural Law does not allow for negotiation because the Church has made the secondary precepts into absolute rules.
  • It is based on very complicated notions and doesn’t ask everyday questions such as 'should hospitals get more money than schools'?
  • It could be argued that we have gained our natural instincts through evolution, not through God and so we do not need a God-based theory.
  • We can observe differences between cultures, which rejects the notion of a single natural purpose for all humans.
  • Natural Law could even be seen as a relativist theory - because the secondary precepts might change as we use our reason differently, perhaps because of the different circumstances we find ourselves in. This could be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage! Indeed, some say that we should not rely on our reason but on teachings from the Bible, the Church or from God's revelation.
  • Vardy and Grosch in The Puzzle of Ethics said that Aquinas gives too simple a view of human nature. (E.g. is sexuality just about reproduction?)