What is meant by a Natural Law approach to ethics

In the modern world people within society that have some ability or knowledge of reason know that there are certain laws which govern the way in which the world works. An example of this in the world can be observed in the form of the laws of Gravity or that the angles of a triangle will always add up to 180 degrees. We know these things because as soon as we are able to think for ourselves we accept that there are certain rules which are just part of our universe. We can also know that these rules are certain as we can observe them working in the world in our day to day lives and see for instance how objects react when dropped.

We work out these answers or observations with our reason and also compound our beliefs by talking to others who have also reached the same conclusions. The origins of these rules does not matter as some might believe they just exist without reason or some might believe that God put these rules into place but whatever their origins we believe these rules we expect them to continue to apply to objects in the world in the future as they have done in the past. Some people believe that the same can be applied to morality.

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They believe that good and evil, right and wrong, all follow a Natural Law which we can discover through our observations and our reason, they also believe that morality works in the same way for every nationality and at every time in history. Natural Law can be seen as an invisible measure, which never changes therefore everyone in the world could believe that a certain action is right but it could still be deemed wrong as Natural Law is independent of public opinion therefore a Natural Law approach to ethics is seen as absolutist or universal.

The eternal law of divine reason is perceived through revelation in the form of the Word of God or the Bible and through the use of human reason. A moral life is a life lived according to and in accordance with reason. Aquinas deduced that fundamentally humans should do good and avoid evil. As a Mediaeval Scholar Thomas Aquinas set out to show that if human reason is believed to have come from God or given by God then both faith and reason together can provide people with the best tools for living their lives.

In matters of Ethics Aquinas believed that people should not have to choose between blindly following either their common sense or following the commands that are written in the Bible. Natural Law attempts to show how the two can be brought together which is both rational, intelligent and the person involved in making the decision whether it is ethical or not can also be faithful to God at the same time. Another part of Aquinas’s theory, which is relevant to the Natural Law theory is Aquinas’s views of conscience.

Aquinas believed that conscience was a device for distinguishing right from wrong actions. Aquinas thought that in general people tend to try and do good and avoid evil in life he called this the “synderesis rule”. Rather than being a voice that commands one thing or another, conscience is the reason making decisions as conscience deliberates between good and bad. Synderesis is right reason, the awareness of the moral principle to do good and avoid evil.

Conscientia distinguishes between right and wrong and makes the moral decision. Aquinas believed that human nature was essentially good as natural law is within everyone and he also believed that humans were focused or aimed towards the achievement of perfection and that they could never knowingly pursue evil. Therefore in Aquinas’s opinion any human actions that are not in the pursuit of perfection can be explained as the pursuit of an “apparent good”.

Aquinas also thought that by choosing an apparent good a person is making an error because it isn’t really good for us for example the adulterer or adulteress commits adultery because he or she believes that it is good but this is an error in the eyes of Aquinas as it is preventing the human from drawing closer to what God intended. In order to distinguish between apparent and real goods Aquinas suggested we should use reason rightly and to choose the right thing to do even though we are sometimes tempted to do what we like but it’s not always good for us.

For Aquinas both the intention and the act are important as to act in a good way for the wrong reason is to perform a good exterior act but a bad interior act. For example giving to charity (a good exterior act) to impress another person (a bad interior act) is wrong as the deed should be done out of charity not out of the admiration or approval of others. But looking at it from the other side good intentions don’t always lead to good actions for example if I steal money to give it to a friend who really needs it doesn’t make the theft right by my intention to help my friend.

The only end that Aquinas values is God, as he believes that physical pleasures can’t be the final end as animals can experience them. Aquinas believes that acts are intrinsically good or bad because when human beings act in accordance with their ultimate purpose, God is glorified. Therefore giving to charity is good in and of itself because it accords with the code of how humans should be and glorifies God. In order to determine whether an act leads towards God Aquinas said that it depended whether the action fits the purpose that humans were made for.

Aquinas believed that the main purpose of human nature is to preserve the self and the innocent, to reproduce, to acquire knowledge; to live in an ordered society and to worship God these are called the Primary Precepts. Acts that are in accordance with human purpose are good and those acts, which are not in accordance with human purpose is bad. Secondary precepts are rulings about things that we should or shouldn’t do because they uphold or to fail to uphold the primary precept.

A Natural Law approach to ethics can be seen in certain ethical issues such as abortion which is seen as bad if a Natural Law opinion is taken as the action breaks three Primary precepts as it prevents furthering the species and doesn’t preserve the species or preserve the innocent and doesn’t allow children to be educated. Issues such as contraception, abortion and euthanasia can all be seen as preventing us from fulfilling our purposes in life and doesn’t follow the Primary precepts and therefore they are all wrong in a Natural Law view.

One of the main criticisms of the Natural Law theory is that the theory goes against people’s common sense. The reason why this is a major criticism of the theory is that it is easy to find examples of ethical decisions in life, which can be seen as going against our common sense. Depending on the person everyone can find an example whereby his or her common sense would tell them that they what they are doing is right but a strict application of Natural Law would tell them they are doing wrong.

For example preventing a woman to have an abortion but became pregnant, as a result of being raped would be seen as going against society’s ideal of common sense as if the woman doesn’t want to raise a child after being raped then society as a whole would probably not see this as a problem or wrong. But if a person were to lead their life according to the strict code of Natural Law then they would say that to abort a life whether the woman has been raped or fallen pregnant consensually is wrong as it goes against the primary precept that we should strive to continue the species through reproduction.

Abortion would also be called a secondary precept, which we shouldn’t do so no matter the reason for the pregnancy abortion is always seen as wrong in the eyes of a person who follows a strict application of Natural Law. Although there are some examples of ethical problems, which Natural Law directly contradicts with peoples common sense, but there are also some decisions in life whereby Natural Law can be seen as a theory, which is ludicrous in its application.

For example suggesting that vegetarians are immoral and aren’t fulfilling their purposes as humans as they don’t use their meat-eating canine teeth as God intended, this would be seen as not only moral as they aren’t eating the meat of animals who they might believe deserve to live just as we humans do. But the application of Natural Law foes against common sense also brings up other contradictions raised by the theory as Natural Law relies on the theories of Aquinas as its backbone.

But Aquinas was celibate, so is this made acceptable as long as a majority of the rest of the population were reproducing then according to Natural Law homosexuals can then also continue to have non-reproductive sex. The principle of “double effect” seems to suggest that a strict application of Natural Law is not always required as this doctrine says that it is always wrong intentionally to do a bad act in order to bring about good consequences but that it sometimes permissible to do a good act in the knowledge that bad consequences will result.

Finally it is seen as “ruductio ad absurdum” to take Natural Law so literally in life as sometimes our common sense should be listened to, as it is sometimes better than following Natural Laws precepts unconditionally. But Natural Law theory can also be seen as appealing to many peoples instinctive conviction that right and wrong depends on more than just personal opinion and social convention.

By looking at the ways in which societies come to the same conclusions about the existence of a natural law of morality support the idea that it is part of human nature to recognise this law through both reason and intuition and that it is self-evident. From the moment of childhood children seem to have a strong sense of justice and will know when something wrong has been done by someone else or themselves indicating a strong intuitive belief that the same rules should apply to everyone and that exceptions should not be made no matter who the person involved is.

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