Ethics – Natural Law

Hey! I hope you’re all having a great day, and if not, here’s some Natural Law to cheer you up hahaha! Have fun with it!

Natural Law


  • Aristotle developed his Theory of Causes to explain why something exists.
  • The final cause is the most important cause. It is asking about the purpose of things.
  • Aristotle asked the question: “what is the purpose of a human?”.
  • Aristotle’s answer: Eudaimonia. This is happiness, through general wellbeing.
  • Aristotle argued that everything we do in life is aimed at finding this happiness which enables us to thrive.
  • Aquinas built on these ideas about natural purpose to develop a Christian theory of Natural Law.

Aquinas – purpose and perfection

  • Aquinas was a Christian and so believed, as the Bible says, that God created the world. Using Aristotle’s Theory of Causes, Aquinas could argue that God is the Efficient Cause of the universe (i.e. God causes the universe to happen).
  • In answer to the question posed by the Final Cause – what is its purpose? – Aquinas said that an object achieves its Final Cause when it does as God intends it to do.
  • What God intends for humans is the ultimate union with Him (to go to Heaven and be there with God).
  • Union with God is perfect.
  • Therefore, for Aquinas, Aristotle’s Eudaimonia means that perfect happiness is achieved by union with God.
  • However, it is important to note that this can only happen in the afterlife and so we can never truly be happy in life.

What is the Natural Law?

  • Aquinas said that there is a moral law which God has given the universe.
  • This is called a ‘natural’ law because it underpins and is built into everything in the universe. It is not a law which was added on afterwards; instead, it is a part of everything in nature. In a sense, following the Natural Law could be described as doing what comes naturally.
  • The Natural Law is absolutist because, as Aristotle wrote, “that which is nature is unchangeable and has the same power everywhere.”
  • The fundamental and basic law of the Natural Law is: do good and avoid evil.
  • He called this the Synderesis Rule.
  • Aquinas argued that this law was self-evident (completely clear and obvious).

Comparison of Aristotle and Aquinas

Similarities Differences
Both are based on the teleological philosophy that humans have a purpose. Aquinas argued clearly that this purpose is God-given since God is the Efficient Cause of the universe.
Both argue that the purpose of humans is Eudaimonia (perfect happiness). For Aquinas Eudaimonia is union with God in the afterlife, whereas for Aristotle union was a complete happiness to be achieved in this life.
Both argue that the Natural Law is fixed and unchangeable. For Aquinas the Natural Law was given by God and should be used in conjunction with the moral teachings given in the Bible (Divine Law).

Use of Reason to Discover Natural Law

  • The use of reason can be defined as the ability to analyse an argument, to criticise it and to calculate logically its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Aquinas believed that human beings have this ability; i.e. we are rational creatures.
  • Aquinas believed that humans are rational for two reasons:
    • Because humans are created in the image of God – God is rational and so therefore, so are we.
    • Because this is what Aristotle
  • Aquinas argued that we must use our reason to discover the Natural Law and so achieve our purpose (union with God).
  • Reason is particularly needed to work out what the Secondary precepts are in Natural Law.
  • We must be careful not to have faulty reasoning. When we think something is good when it really isn’t is known as an apparent good. We must use proper reasoning to discover the real good.
  • Both intrinsic acts (the thought behind it/motivation) and extrinsic good (the action itself) need to be good.

Four Laws

  1. Eternal Law – God’s ultimate wisdom, largely unknown to humans, but can be glimpsed.
  2. Divine Law – God’s laws revealed in the Bible.
  3. Natural Law – God’s laws are revealed through nature and interpreted by reason.
  4. Human Law – laws made by society.

Roles of Christianity in discovering the Natural Law

  • Aquinas said that you don’t have to believe in God/Christianity to discover Natural Law and so achieve your final purpose.
  • However, it is easier if you do.
  • Believers have extra help through the Bible and by following the example of Jesus.
  • In other words, believers can use Divine Law and Natural Law (God and reason) and so it is easier for them to reach God (their final purpose).
  • It is more difficult for non-believers to achieve their final purpose, but not impossible.

Primary and Secondary Precepts

Precept = rule/law.

Basic Law – Do good, avoid evil

Primary Precepts and their Secondary Precepts:

Preservation of life – e.g. suicide is wrong.

Human Procreation – e.g. homosexuality is wrong.

Advancing knowledge and learning – e.g. refusing to educate girls is wrong.

Order (Living in a peaceful and harmonious society) – building more homes is right.

Worshipping God – e.g. setting one day a week for worship is right.

  • It is important to understand that the primary precepts are descriptive (they describe what human life is like), whereas the secondary precepts are prescriptive (they say what we ought to do).
  • The five primary precepts are clear and already established.
  • It is up to each society to work out through reason and argument what the secondary precepts are i.e. what the practical human rules will be to govern our daily behaviour.
  • The primary precepts are therefore set in stone (absolute), but the secondary precepts can vary from place to place.
  • Because it can vary, precepts are not completely absolute, they also have some relativism.

Strengths and Weaknesses on Natural Law

Point Strength Weakness
Natural Law is absolute and objective. Provides a firm moral foundation with clear guidance. Not totally absolutist – secondary precepts can vary.
Aquinas believed in God the creator and drew on Aristotle’s teleological theory of Causes to argue that humans have a moral purpose (Final Cause).    
Our Final Cause is Eudaimonia, which for Aquinas was union with God in the afterlife. He argued that to achieve this we need to find the moral law within.   Aquinas’ view of Eudaimonia is based on his belief rather than on reason.
Natural Law is one of four moral laws.    
Natural Law can be discerned through the use of reason. We can do this because we are ‘made in the image of God’ and so are rational like God. Code is based on reason and so is open to everyone, not just the religious. But our reason can be faulty.
The basic law is: “do good, avoid evil”.   Assumption that this is self-evident. E.g. animals doing what comes naturally to them often doesn’t seem good.
There are five Primary Precepts which are general rules inbuilt into humans as a consequence of being made by God. Offers a universal moral code because most people believe in preserving life, building a good society, educating the youth, etc.

Protects the vulnerable.

Human beings have an obligation to create general laws to reflect these moral goods and to abide by these las. Our reason should be used to move from what is to what ought to be.   Naturalistic fallacy: cannot move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’.
This leads to the Secondary Precepts which are prescriptive rules about how we should behave. Flexible to accommodate different cultures because the Secondary Precepts are reasoned by the society in accordance with their practices. Difficult to reach a clear answer on complex decisions. E.g. when precepts conflict: should we allow a foetus to continue to grow if this is at the possible expense of preserving life of the mother.

And there you have it – Aquinas! Hope you enjoyed it as always, please do follow, like and share it, it’s for your use. Have fun with it! Please comment anything that’s missing so other people know it too. See you soon!

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