Natural Law Theory

Here is a small video I created explaining Natural Law Theory (Below is transcript):

In this video I explore the strengths and weaknesses of Natural Law:

Transcript of Natural Law Theory

St Thomas Aquinas developed Natural Law theory from Aristotle and the Stoics in the 13th century. Natural Law is an absolutist and deontological theory. To believe and use Natural Law theory, one has to believe in God because Natural Law believes there is one Natural Law which has been issued by God. This means that what is wrong in one situation is wrong in ever situation and to determine what is right and wrong we look at the action itself, not the consequences. There is emphasis on innate human reason to work out how you should be living. Natural law is useful on issues where is the Bible is silent e.g. IVF.In order to use Natural Law correctly we need to identify what is known as the primary precepts. These are the basis of the theory. We need to first agree that these are the main function of life. The primary precepts are the five purposes of human life. The five primary precept are: (i) reproduction (ii) life – to live/ the supreme good (iii) education – makes people independent and fully adult (iv) worshipping God and (v) law and order – upholds justice. These precepts are immutable; they cannot be changed. From the primary precepts, secondary precept form. For example if we examine the principle of life and it is there to ensure that all actions which are life threatening are in the moral law as wrong e.g. murder, abortion, euthanasia, suicide etc are all wrong because the involve going against the precept of life.However, in reality it is not as easy as one action is good and one is evil. Some actions lead to both good and bad consequences which ever way you try and deal with it. For example, a pregnant women finds out she has cervical cancer. If the doctor performs a hysterectomy the baby dies and the mother survives. On the other hand, if she gives birth both the mother and the baby are at risk of dying. So whatever action the doctor takes there will both goos and bad consequences. This is called the principle of double effect. In these situations, two criteria need to be met to make it a permissible action. Firstly, the act itself must not be wrong and secondly, the person doing the action must not directly intend the evil outcome. So he doctor would do the hysterectomy with good intentions of saving the mother. This justifies his action.Casuistry is what applies these primary precepts to individual circumstances. These makes Natural Law quite flexible. It ensures that a solution can be produced from any situation. However, many consider this to be a weakness of the theory.They use the term casuistry pejoratively. This is because on one hand it states it is an absolutist theory and on the other it is allowing room for flexibility.

Natural Law allows us to know the divine and moral law through reason and revelation. Following Natural Law helps us perfect our virtues; both natural and theological. Natural virtues include prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Theological virtues include faith, hope and charity. For example, the primary precept of life means that life is extremely important. Therefore, the natural virtue of fortitude is perfected because no matter what happens, one is encouraged to stand strong and take care of our life and as mentioned before suicide will be considered immoral. 

Natural Law is based on five assumptions: (i) everything in nature has a purpose, (ii) nature was created by God, (iii) failure to develop this nature to the fullest is an imperfection, (iv) nature and its moral laws are knowable through reason and (v) natural law is part of some divine plan. Thats why for some people the theory fails. However, it has worked well and influenced the Roman Catholic denomination. For example, Roman Catholics believe abortion is wrong based on that it destroys the purpose of life: to live.

As mentioned, at the beginning Aristotleʼs philosophy influenced the Natural Law theory quite a lot. Aristotle in his theory of causality distinguishes between four causes which helps to explains something fully. Two of the four causes, efficient and final cause, Aquinas used to formulate the Natural Law theory. The efficient cause is what gets things done and the final cause is the end product. Hence, Aquinas goes on to say with us the accomplishment of the final cause/end product that equates to ʻgoodʼ we are doing the correct thing. If we can understand the final cause of an organism we can then work out the efficient cause/ the necessary processes to get the final cause done.

Natural Law is part of the branch of normative ethics. This is different to descriptive ethics. Natural Law is part of normative ethics because the impact of Aristotle’s causes moves it from being a theory that deals with what the population actually think it is right and wrong (descriptive ethics) to what they should think is right and wrong (normative ethics). This is because the natural processes required to fulfill the final cause are what should be right, not necessarily what is right at any given time. 


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