Natural Law

StPaul

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

C S Lewis Doodles

On Sexual Morality by C S Lewis.

I was introduced to these excellent doodle videos recently by another RE teacher who uses them with her A Level classes. The one above would be great as an introduction to A Level Sexual Ethics.

There are other good ones for other topics in the Philosophy and Ethics modules – just find C S Lewis Doodles on Youtube.

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

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.

Aquinas makes the presumption that people will choose good and avoid evil. This inclination is called synderesis, which actually has the sense of an intuitive grasp of first principles. What this means is that, to Aquinas, certain basic precepts are self-evident to anyone with a functioning reason and some experience of the world. For instance, ‘bodily health is a good to be sought after, and bodily illness to be avoided’.

(Then explain the five primary precepts and the secondary precepts and you’re done)

 

 

Last minute exam tips

Over at Philosophical Investigations they have some very useful tips on answering specific questions, including some useful tips on Natural Law, about which I have a student answer on here .

I would be surprised if a question about either the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument from Aquinas and Hume’s criticisms of them didn’t come up this year. Then again, I’ve been wrong before, so we shall see! Just remember, never skip revision on any area – you must be prepared for any question on any individual point of the spec. Eg. a question such as ‘Explain the relationship between the Forms and the Form of the Good (25)’ , or ‘Explain the relationship between concepts and phenomena (25)’. If that kind of question came up how much could you write? Equally in Ethics, if a question such as ‘Explain the concept of moral relativism (25)’ came up, you would need to know about these fairly abstract areas of the course. Don’t just go “Oh Plato, yeah I know the Cave; I’m fine.”!

Finally, good luck for tomorrow AS students! I will try and post some more last-minute revision stuff on here today.

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…..