Natural law refers to the ethical theory that solid, indisputable moral values can be obtained through a reasoned examination of human nature. Many philosophers have argued for it over the years, a prominent figure amongst these being Thomas Aquinas (who I’ll be focusing on in this post). It is an approach taken towards the problem of subjectivism which is, naturally, quite evident in the world of ethics, and seeks to show that we can find absolute moral values (laws, in other words) on which we can base our ethical and – consequently – justice systems. It is related to deontological ethical theories like the categorical imperative in that it seeks to tell us exactly what we should and should not do, and contrasts with theories like utilitarianism, where the emphasis is on the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. In the case of Aquinas, it is viewed in the context of three other levels of law; Eternal, Divine, and human law. Natural law is a way for us to participate in the Eternal law (the law of God), which is otherwise inaccessible to us. Basically, natural law can be understood as something which we all “have in our blood”.
Thomas Aquinas, being a Christian philosopher, naturally related his version of the natural law theory to God. He said that the world has a natural order to it, with God placed at the top, and that in accordance with this natural order humans instinctively seek to avoid bad things and pursue good things. Amongst these good things he included life, reproduction (not sex, mind you; the distinction between the two is important here), education and being a part of society. He also stated that natural law comes from God, and is thus sacred and unchangeable. He said that following the natural law is a way for us to achieve union with God (which he saw as the ultimate goal of any human life, much like Buddhists with their concept of enlightenment and nirvana). Furthermore, he made a distinction between reason and revelation, the latter being something that “happens to us” and the former being something that we actively do. Reason is what we use to understand natural law, which he thought was evident in nature.
The theory sounds perfectly rational, though only to a certain extent. It is of course very true that most humans tend to pursue good things and avoid bad things. This can’t be denied. The problem lies in the fact that different people have different ideas regarding what is good and what is bad. Some people, for instance, despise learning and avoid education in all its forms, and others are opposed to the very idea of society. And what about masochists, or fakirs? These people seem to refute or at the very least damage the validity of the natural law theory. The theory’s basic premise “all men pursue good and avoid evil” is undermined by them.
However, Aquinas does have a response to this objection. He introduces the idea of “real gods” and “apparent gods”. Apparent gods, then, are false gods or, if you wish, “goods” that people come to believe in. The fact that these other-minded people exist does not weaken the natural law theory – they are merely examples of humans who have been misled in some way. The problem with this counter argument is of course the simple fact that there is no way we can establish with any real certainty which people follow real gods and which follow apparent gods. Perhaps the anarchists or the fakirs have it right, and Aquinas had it wrong.
Finally, Aquinas is very firm regarding what makes an act ethically sound according to the natural law theory. He claimed that it is not enough for an action to follow the principle of the law (to promote good in avoidance of bad, in other words), but that a person’s intent was also important. He stated that there were two basic parts to an act; the internal part and the external part. The internal part is the reasoning and intent behind an action, and the external part is the action itself. So, according to Aquinas, both of these are important, thus contrasting his ideas with those of, for instance, the utilitarianists who, as said, thought that one should focus entirely on consequences and didn’t really care what a person’s intent was.
This concludes my brief examination of natural law theory. There is more to be said specifically about Aquinas’ version, and much more to be said of the other versions out there. Still, this should give you a concise and fairly deep understanding of his theory.
- Thomas Aquinas, part 6: natural law | Tina Beattie (guardian.co.uk)