Natural Law Part II

One criticism aimed at natural law is that it falls foul of the naturalistic fallacy, but as we will see there are good reasons both for doubting the validity of this very term, and that it could be applied to natural law.

John Finnis, in a conversation with Peter Vardy, says that the neo-scholastics were confused by the order in which we come to know nature and the ontological order itself. We understand human nature by understanding human goods, BUT these goods do depend on the way we are. We look to objects, act, capacities and therefore to nature. The failure to make the distinction between these two ways = the naturalistic fallacy.

Vardy says:

“Controversially, Finnis starts with the argument that Aquinas, properly interpreted, was an ethical non-naturalist. He argues that the ‘basic goods’ of natural law appeal directly to reason without any need to make particular observations of nature”

But Finnis is simply noting that Aquinas’ first principles are axiomatic. If they were derived from some prior observations then those observations themselves would require further underpinning.

Thomas Storck says in the post I linked to from here, that:

“Moral goodness is in fact a subset of ontological goodness, a part of ontological goodness applicable only to creatures with intellect and will”


“Moral goodness and badness are simply that part of ontological goodness or badness which is more or less subject to our free choice. And because our possession of intellect and will is what specifically distinguishes us from the other animals, who lack those endowments, the goodness or badness which depend upon our intellect and will mark out a human being as good or bad more clearly than any mere ontological deficits, deficits which have absolutely no moral aspect. Thus a bad man is not someone who is blind or lame, but someone who steals or cheats and so on.”

Finally, Phillipa Foot, in her commentary on ‘thick concepts’ argues that some terms such as ‘rude’ ” undermine the is-ought gap: calling something rude is evaluative because it expresses condemnation in the same kind of way as bad and wrong do, but this evaluation can be derived from evaluative description. “


In summary, criticisms of natural law which rely on some version of the naturalistic fallacy should be used with care.


Natural Law


Image: Sir James Thornhill, St. Paul preaching in the Areopagus, 1729-31

Natural Law at A Level is often treated as one more ethical theory which can be applied to an issue such as pre-marital sex and placed alongside Kantian ethics, Utilitarianism, or Situation ethics. Of course the spec requires this sort of approach, but a simple historical look at the development of each of these ethical approaches shows how different Natural Law is from the rest.

It will help students to bear this in mind when writing essays. It would be easy to get the impression that Natural Law is the theory of Aquinas rather than seeing it, more helpfully, as a set of related but remarkably diverse ethical frameworks stretching back over 2000 years. It has its roots in an Aristotelian conception of telos and flourishing which also gave rise to what is known as virtue ethics. It has been articulated in various forms by people like the Stoics, Cicero, St Paul, Aquinas, Suarez, and in the modern era John Finnis.

By contrast, the other ethical theories studied in the OCR spec all date from the Enlightenment period onwards. The most recent theory, situation ethics, was formulated in the 1960s and grew out of liberal Biblical scholarship by people like Rudolf Bultmann.

Anyway, I am going to link to Thomas Storck’s account of Natural Law, which should help you to get an idea of the richness I am talking about:

An Approach to Natural Law

Possible DCT Questions 2019

There have been a few areas that haven’t come up over the last two years – From the year 1 modules:

Augustine – original Sin and Grace

Death and the Afterlife – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

Knowledge of God – Natural Theology

Christian Moral Principles – Bible/Agape

The Year 2 modules:


Gender and Society

Liberation and Marx

This makes it rather tough to have any kind of an educated guess as the field is so wide. I would be surprised though, if Pluralism didn’t come up, as that is essentially two topics. Perhaps also a question on Liberation. You could do worse than do some practice questions in these areas anyway. In future posts I will attempt to write some exemplar answers for the three modules.

Possible Ethics Questions 2019

Ethics is the least easy area to guess at possible questions. Most of the topics in it have already come up. However, situation ethics and utilitarianism are possibilities, as they have come up the least. I would guess perhaps something on the rejection of absolute moral rules by situation ethics, and maybe something on whether it is possible to measure good. In the year 2 Ethics topics, sexual ethics has not come up yet. Therefore a question on whether religious beliefs should have a bearing on sexual morality might come up. You might want to have a go at doing an essay on each of those topics to practise.

Possible A-Level Exam Questions 2019

Having had a look at the questions which have come up in the last two years for both AS and A Level, I have arrived at a list of topics and sometimes questions for each area which could possibly come up. Some of these are more likely than others to do so.


Two topics have never come up at all – Plato and 20th Century approaches to religious language. I think it is likely that one of the year 2 questions will be on either falsification, verification or Wittgenstein. A question on Plato’s understanding of reality or his theory of Forms is possible.

Other areas in philosophy might be Mind body and soul – materialism, Anselm’s ontological argument or one of the theodicies.

Edit: I’ve decided to add some possible questions:

To what extent does Plato’s theory of the Forms make sense of reality?

‘Religious texts are best interpreted non-cognitively’ Discuss.

‘Aquinas view of religious language is no longer valuable’ Discuss.

Critically evaluate soul-making theodicies.


Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on Ethics questions.