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The doctrine of natural law has its deepest foundations from Greek philosopher Aristotle but upholds the strongest dictation in the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The underlying ethical basis of Roman Catholicism also stems from his writings based around the premise that God created all things ‘good’. This includes man, the highest aspect of his creation of whom he made in his own image;
“Then God said: “let us make man in our own image, in our likeness, let them (man and women) rule over the fish in the sea the birds in the air, over livestock, over all earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.
One of the major aspects of natural law is the concept that everything and everyone is made with a predetermined purpose. And the starting point of all advocates of natural law is to work out this purpose akin to human life. Following ones rationale, Aquinas claims, leads us to a realisation of our ‘purpose’- reason is used to find out Gods intention and the purpose of human existence and this will enable one to arrive at the principles of natural law.
Focusing firstly on the word ‘natural’, it is synonymous with reason. Contrary to what one may assume ‘natural’ does not mean our natural predispositions or inclinations but rather mans ability to reason. In fact natural law is founded upon mans ability to reason. Aquinas considered that natural law was the moral code which humans are naturally inclined towards. In his work Aquinas established three ideals that should govern our moral principles it is comprised of precepts of the eternal law that govern the behaviour of beings possessing reason and free will. The first precept of the natural law, according to Aquinas, is the somewhat vacuous imperative to be good and avoid evil. Here it is worth noting that Aquinas holds a natural law theory of morality: what is good and evil, according to Aquinas, is derived from the rational nature of human beings. Good and evil are thus both objective and universal
He argued that mans first priority laid down by natural law was self preservation and that on the basis of this first axiom man puts forward the ideal that life is to be preserved. Thus man has an empathic desire to respect and preserve life beyond his own. If man gives in to non-rational desires or ‘apparent goods’ as Aquinas so calls them then one becomes imprisoned. According to Aquinas if we follow our rationale it would lead to a perfect moral state… which lives up, not only to one of the bibles most salient features, but a principle which Christ himself promulgates in his teachings,
“Love your neighbour as yourself”.
It upholds what one can identify as natural virtues- prudence, temperance, and justice.
Procreation is the second ideal of which Aquinas quotes so strongly as a moral code. This way of thinking corresponds well with the teachings of St Paul. It is not merely sex to make children but the whole ethical side that goes with it. For instance it is not promiscuity that they denote but monogamy. They believe that it is the only successful way of procreation of the species. Otherwise there would be a generations of dysfunctional relationships. It leads to an ordered society. St Paul exhorts the Corinthians,
“…Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way the husband’s body does not only belong to him but to his wife.”
(Corinthians ch6 v 2-4)
Lastly the significance of faith in God has considerable significance in his writings. Unlike some philosophers that share similar ideas to Aquinas, he did not consider that human nature was totally corrupted. He suggested that the ultimate function of reason leads us to postulate the existence of a creator i.e. God. To find completeness one must listen to ones reason where one will find a spiritual union with God. This will naturally project all things moral.
Having identified the three main functions that Aquinas establishes within natural law it would be of importance to go on to identify other key aspects. Firstly I would be inclined to recognize what Aquinas referred to as ‘apparent goods’. Apparent good is a term given to an action, which on the face of it appears to be a ‘good’ action but actually isn’t. Reason enlightens man of the peculiarity between good and evil. Man is subject to temptation because of our ancestral history; Adam and Eve. From this we as a human race can be seduced by ungodly desires (apparent goods). An apparent good can pervert reason. For instance, one may feel good taking drugs and drinking heavily but really it is self destructive and perverted from reason, which tells us that it is not good to take drugs or drink heavily.
Reason links in well here; good intentions stem from good will and good will is the product of mans reason. If we listen to our reason it exemplifies that good outcomes cannot be the gilding light to morality…if we concentrate on good outcomes it may lead to the perusing of apparent goods. An example could be a bomb that’s about to explode. Does one torture the terrorist captured to save the lives of a whole community or stand by the premise of the rule not to torture? Torturing the terrorist is an example of an apparent good or a secondary ideal (a primary ideal being the three ideals established at the beginning of essay).
It promises an immediate benefit, but the act itself is degrading an immoral. Natural law would dictate that torture is irrational and goes against the first ideal to preserve the lives of others. One can start to picture the difficulties with natural law- does one let a whole community die for the exception of the torture of one man? Mans purpose is not follow apparent goods! The ironic concept is, is that natural law claims if one follows one reason and purpose at all times then it will achieve a morally just world! This is because if purpose isn’t reversed then there is no chance of apparent goods. Examples could include abortion, euthanasia or even homosexuality (!) Which all go against one of the three ideals.
Previously mentioned was that of the word ‘purpose’. Purpose to Aquinas was the assumption that everyone has a divinely devised purpose in life. According to Aquinas reason can illustrate this but only faith assures man of his choices. God did not make man like robots to merely choose the ‘right’ thing but if he listens to his reason, there will be an unavoidable tendency towards goodness.
“All beings tend towards the actualisation of the potentialities of their natures”
Simply, if we follow what reason dictates we will, ‘strive to fulfil are particular gifts’. St Paul in his letters to the Romans stated also that we have particular gifts and that we should follow them. He uses the idea of prophesising; if ones gift if prophesising then let him use it in proportion to ones faith. If ones gift is to teach then teach….and so one.
The problem is of course what happens when one thinks their eschatology is that of an ‘ apparent good’? They might consider that their personal goals are that of power or like the suicide bombers think that their eschatology is to end their live ion aid of attacking the enemy. Obviously here we have a perversion of ones eschatology. Natural law claims that reason illustrates to us their limitations. ‘Apparent goods’ are destructive to one and others and disgrace or degrade man. So the question arises that why do so many of us follow an ‘apparent good’? Aquinas would argue that it is in opens weak nature that it is far easier to follow what one desires and gets pleasure out of, and once tempted, one is stuck in the intoxication.
2) analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of natural law as a definitive ethical theory.
The premise of natural law states that morality is based on reason alone, but surely if we look around us it is actually based on our emotions? David Hume (1713-1776) was a philosopher that disagreed with the notion that morality is based on reason alone. As we have seen, Aquinas believed that natural law was synonymous with mans reason; Hume powerfully argued that if this is so then why do people have such a diverse perception of what is right and wrong, good and bad? Surely if morality is reason based then we would all have the same ideas of what is good and bad?
If, as Aquinas believed, morality is based on reason then why is it that in a moral predicament we actually act on our emotions? For instance if one is in a crash and one has an option to save ones child or a doctor that is about to crack a cure for cancer, which is one likely to choose? I would say that 99% of mothers and fathers would go against what reason dictates and save the life of their child.
I would also question the fact that if morality derives from reason then it should comprise of a set of ‘a prori’ rules that should be completely universalised. Why is it then that we invent these ‘rule’ and find excuses to break them or even feel it is moral to break them? For instance, if we have a rule or a secondary ideal as Aquinas would put it, that is ‘do not steal’ should it be applied even when it seems hell of a lot more moral to break it.
If there is an axe murderer who is going to use his weapon to kill someone, to break the rule ‘does not steal’ to get his weapon seems totally incoherent. According to natural law however, the rule ‘do not steal’ should be universalised and therefore never broken. Aquinas did come up with an idea of proportionalism. Proportanalism states that when there is a proportionate reason to break a rule i.e. to get the weapon off an axe murderer then it is ok to do so. I feel as though this is a complete cop out. In effect he is coming up with a set of rules that have to be universalised and they are based on reason, and then comes up with a set of excuses or exceptions when it doesn’t work!
Natural law assumes that we have a ‘uniform’ human nature,
“god made man in his own image’ Genesis 1:27. Basically, this conjures up the supposition that if we humans were all created in the same way then realistically we should all therefore be able to identify what our purposes are. Our sexual organs are formed for procreation, thus, homosexuality becomes unnatural. The question is who is Aquinas to delegate what is purposeful? One could go as far to say does man as a whole have a purpose? Philosophers such as Neitche or Sartre that would greatly disagree with Aquinas and human nature.
Their ideas are governed by existentialism, which entails that there is no fixed human nature that man has no purpose, life has no broader meaning. The only reality is the chooses that we make; indeed, these choices are spontaneous and individual. They do not delve into the concept any of these choices are rules that should be universalised. If one looks at society today it really has been influenced by such proposal, and we are unsympathetic to the idea that we have a fixed human nature and fixed purposes. Because there is this idea of no human nature there can consequently be nothing unnatural, so inevitably homosexuality and such like is not a problem.
Aquinas is compelled with the idea that we are made from a purposeful creating benevolent creator. He presupposes that faith in such being will lead to utter moral peace and satisfaction, and will lead to a perfect moral society. The problem is, is that in contemporary society the popular assumption is that there is no god or it is questioning such conceptions.
We are broadly agnostic. Many people’s lives run without orientation to god or religion, thus emasculating the natural law theory. Essentially what is being said is do we necessitate god to feel moral or spiritually whole. Can we be moral without religion? According to many, indeed we can. Aquinas postulated that we can exist morally without god but would lack the assertion of his moral choices prone to doubt and temptation. Whether morality requires god is inconclusive from a reason based argument.
There is a predicament also with Aquinas’s idea of purpose. For instance he postulates that that the main function of genital organs are for procreation and therefore denounces homosexuality, masturbation or even the enjoyment of sex! However, in observation bodily organs generally have many a function. Mouths are not just for eating but also for kissing, talking…they are limitless. So why does he adopt a denunciation to the sex between homosexuals? It seems contradictory and inconsistent. Thus, I would say that he is imposing his desires and claiming that these are the basis of morality or these are what reason dictates to us. His views on purpose are limited and could be completely different to what he considers- all in all why does he hypothesize what our purposes is.
When looking at the strengths of the natural law approach one finds that they seem to be born from the limitations of the weaknesses. Firstly there might actually be human nature despite existentialist beliefs to the contrary. For instance, we are all filled with horror at murder or child abuse. Of course there are always exceptions to the general rule such as suicide bombers who kill themselves and others but what one stating is that human nature is an open question. Some humanist’s may believe in human nature like Dawkins or Russell who say we all want to belong to a ‘herd’. It suggests that we have something in common we interact with others.
Aquinas said that spiritual completeness is only synonymous in union with god. Although a large percentage of the population are secular, I would say that it is true that most of us still don’t like to think of the end as being nothingness. There is a desire to believe in something beyond bodily death. The existence of so many religions seem to prove this point. It could be looked upon like this; are we, as Sartre says condemned to be free, or does existence really have an underlying purpose and meaning? Like I mentioned earlier, we now live in a secular age. However we cant seem to get away from ‘god’ or ‘gods’. We basically invent gods like science and medicine. Surely this seems to indicate that our existence requires some foundation beyond our own means?
In regards to ‘apparent goods’ Aquinas claims that they are self destructive despite the ‘miracle’ cures of modern society. The questions arises that will society ever create an earthly paradise where all pleasures are catered for. Will we ever make the ‘paradise’ that temps us away from reasoning or will we find that it’s not enough. It would be that if paradise can never be created then it reinforces the idea of ‘apparent goods’
In conclusion I would be inclined not to follow natural law. Although it raises many valuable and appraisable points (after all it does strive for what’s moral) I feel as though it is far too orthodox and strict for my liking. It seems to have too much of Aquinas’s desires and seems irrelevant for today’s society. As a definitive ethical theory I suggest that it doesn’t uphold what I would determine or expect a definitive ethical theory to be. I feel it has too many gaps that have un suggestive answers, the fact that it hasn’t made me feel as though I can relate to it as a moral theory says it all.