Student Essay – Explain the main principles of the Natural Law approach to ethics. (25)

Natural Law is an absolutist theory because it doesn’t vary its primary precepts with circumstances. Natural law is a mixture of teleological and deontological because it has primary precepts which are to do with duty, and secondary which apply to circumstances.

Thomas Aquinas based Natural Law on Aristotle’s teaching about causality. In Aristotle Final cause and purpose are important when trying to give an explanation of a thing. Eg. the final cause of a knife is to cut. Aristotle thought this is what made a good knife. Something is good inasmuch as it fulfills its purpose. (The most important cause is the final cause which when achieved by an object it reaches perfection – because it has moved from potentiality to actuality eg. a potential A grade student becomes an actual one through application of hard work. )

The contrast with other senses of the word good can be brought out if we consider that a good knife can be used to perform a bad deed – ie. to stab a person. However, if it cut cleanly it would be good in the sense of doing what it was made for. This use of the word good is taken up in Aquinas and used in his theory.

What is clear for a knife is not so clear for humans – what is our purpose? Ultimately, God Himself is the final purpose of human beings – our goals are not merely temporal, but eternal, because we have an immortal soul. However, we also have temporal purposes, which could be summarised as to live and flourish in certain ways discoverable by reason.

Thomas Aquinas believed that Natural Law was part of a hierarchy of laws that are part of the cosmos created by God. God created everything via the Eternal Law. As God is the ultimate cause of all being, he has the highest qualities in respect of his creation, therefore it follows that he is the ultimate lawgiver. Through the Eternal Law God creatively directs all beings to a common end by endowing them with spontaneous natural inclinations to move toward their own perfection.

Aquinas thought that humans have an essential rational nature established by God. We are to apply reason to know our purpose and that allows us to choose to follow our final goal. Thus, unlike non-rational animals who just follow natural inclination unknowingly towards their good, humans can freely and knowingly co-operate with the eternal law through the use of reason. These laws are discoverable by humans to give the goods appropriate to humans such as food, shelter, knowledge, friendship etc. This discovering ‘from within’ of the eternal law by reason is called natural law – not something extra to the eternal law. Aquinas says: “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law”. 

Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia is useful here. Seeking happiness and all-round well-being – all aim to find this in life and it enables us to thrive. Aquinas thought however, that there was a difference between apparent goods and actual goods. Apparent goods are things which we desire and think will be good, but which actually take us away from our final purpose – eg. drink, drugs, gambling and so on.

To be continued…..



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