Natural Law can be traced back into the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds. In Sophocles’ play ‘Antigone’, Natural Law is very apparent throughout and the writings of the Greek Philosopher; Aristotle. In his works – ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ – he wrote;
“The natural is that which is everywhere, is equally valid, and depends not upon being or not being received…that which is natural is unchangeable, and has the same power everywhere.’
The Ancient Stoics emphasised the importance of Logos, or rationality, that governs the world and sees human nature as one natural order.
They considered natural law as a law of ‘right reason’. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote about a law that is ‘written in the hearts’ of Gentiles. It is therefore clear that throughout the ancient world, although there is differing terminology, there seems to have been a consensus over the existence of a natural moral law, which dictated the rightness or wrongness of an action that was not dependent upon the laws created by society.
St. Thomas Aquinas developed a fuller account of this ‘natural law’ in the thirteenth century. This theory is both deontological and absolutist and so his resulting work is focused upon the ethicacy of actions. In his work ‘Summa Theologica’, Aquinas described natural law as a moral code, which exists within the purpose of nature and was created by God. He says that it is present in every human being. Natural Law exists to aid humans, directing their actions in such away that they might meet their eternal destiny.
He argued that there was a basic law, from which all the other natural laws derived. This was to pursue good and avoid evil.
For Aquinas, both the intention and the act are important, this is because his theory is based on a mainly deontological view. The only end that he values is God as He is intrinsically good. He believed that acts are intrinsically good or bad because when human beings act in accordance with their ultimate purpose, God is glorified. Aquinas followed the line of thought that human beings are intelligent and therefore should be able to direct him or herself, this therefore meaning that they can take responsibility for knowing and doing what God intends for them.
Whether or not an act leads towards God depends on whether it fits the purpose that humans were made for. For Thomas Aquinas, the main purpose of human life is to preserve the self and the innocent, to reproduce, worship God, acquire knowledge and live in ordered society.. He names these the primary precepts – acts that are in accordance with these precepts are good and those, which do not, are bad. He also names them the secondary precepts – which are rulings about things that we should or should not do because they uphold a primary precept.
The theory of Natural Law as put forward by Aquinas, is based upon the religious view that God created the world, establishing in it a sense of order and purpose, which is a direct representation of His will. In the natural law approach to ethics, the action itself can either be natural or unnatural, and is judged on that basis. It does not depend for its moral law justification upon any results. Therefore, according to natural law, an action can be deemed good in itself, even if it brings about suffering.
In conclusion, Natural Moral Law enables to establish rules in order to structure a community. It gives a concrete reason to be moral and a firm basis from which to refuse to step over moral boundaries. It provides justification and support for certain core ideas and it judges actions, irrespective of consequences. Natural Moral Law isn’t just simply a set of rules, but a way of living. It gives guidance on everyday questions on how to live and links them to the fundamental principles of life. It provides a complete system of moral living in step with what it is to be human.