Natural law – “The strengths of natural law outweigh its weaknesses.” Discuss. (40 marks)

Colour code: 

  • Blue – Your argument  
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange – Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars/ key people

In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas used the work of Aristotle to develop his own system of natural moral law. Aquinas believed that our telos was not simply eudaimonia but instead to reach perfection in the afterlife with God. Natural law is discoverable through the use of reason and is accessible to every human being. Aquinas thought that reason was instilled in us by God to allow us to understand and fulfill our purpose.

Aquinas hypothesised that when we reason correctly, with use of prudence, we discover primary precepts that are binding to all humans. These are: preservation of life/defence of the innocent, reproduction, living in an ordered society, education of the young and worshiping God. It is through the further use of reason that we develop secondary precepts which help use to follow these absolute rules and therefore reach our telos of perfection in the image of God.

This method of normative ethics put forward by Aquinas can be said to have both strengths and weakness. I will be arguing that its weaknesses outweigh its strengths; using Kai Neilson, David Hume, Karl Barth and St Augustine.  

One strength of natural law is the factor of a shared humanity, with a common nature that is the same across the world. This means that we can uphold a moral standard that everyone has to follow, rather than falling into the possible pitfalls of moral relativism or subjectivism. If morality is completely subjective then horrendous crimes could be justified by any individual who is that way inclined. Similarly, if all morality is relative to a particular culture then what we think of as morally acceptable in this country could just be a social construct. As a result, natural law can state that murder of an innocent person is always wrong no matter the opinion, time, or place.

This argument, however, can be said to be guilty of the “is-ought” fallacy. David Hume proposed that if something is a particular way by “nature”, it does not logically follow that one ought to conform. Therefore, even if we have a natural inclination to act in a specific way does not mean we should always adhere to that precept. Kai Neilson states that natural law also presents a falsifiable view of human nature by claiming that we all share the same nature. Human beings can be born as homosexual in nature and consequently could not feel the same inclination towards reproduction. Following this, any secondary precept that denies homosexual sex might be going against their human nature.

To respond to this criticism a Christian may refer back to the divine law found in the Bible and confirm that homosexuality is a sin against the will of God. This can be found in Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Another strength of natural law is its use of reason and therefore it is a rational approach to making moral decisions. This is evident in that there is flexibility to the secondary precepts which do not need to be absolutist in their approach. Reason and practical wisdom should be applied to a situation and that means there will not always be the same rule applied to every situation of the same nature. There is also the principle of the double effect which allows for good acts to be done with the right intention even if there is an undesired consequence. This could be applied to the issue of abortion. If a woman’s life is at risk because of an ectopic pregnancy, then the good intention is to save the mother’s life not to abort the foetus.

On the other hand, it can be argued from a Christian perspective that natural law relies too heavily on reason. Karl Barth stated that human reason was corrupted and therefore cannot be fully trusted. We should instead rely more on the grace of God and revelation in the Bible. It can also be stated that natural law ignores the fall of man which implies that we now have an inherently sinful nature which we must overcome. This is made apparent in the theological works of St Augustine.

Furthermore, from a secular perspective, Aquinas’ view of human reason could be flawed because there is no verifiable proof of an ultimate purpose which we aim towards. There is also a misunderstanding of humans as fundamentally rational beings. For many people, reason is too often clouded by emotional response and what we think is reasonable could just be our egocentric perspective of what we desire out of a situation.

This line of reasoning could be wrong however. There is no way for us to truly know if there is an ultimate purpose to this world or our purpose within it. We might not have the capacity to understand the eternal law as Aquinas suggests. It is also possible that what we think is reason is actually wrong reason; we think we are behaving in a correct way but we are only pursuing apparent goods. 

In conclusion, I would argue that while natural law has positives it cannot be viewed as a strong case for normative ethics. There is a leap of faith that needs to be made before you can accept any precepts. This is also the case with the belief in an ultimate purpose within the universe which human beings aim towards. This cannot be proven, and therefore, following secondary precepts that could affect communities such as the LGBT community or women who want to have abortions (particularly if they do not believe in God) could be seen as irrational.

Word count: 919

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