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Ben Wright

Explain the Natural Law Approach to Moral Decision Making

‘True law is right reason in accordance with nature.’ This is Cicero’s

definition of what is good, and this is essentially a definition of natural law.
According to natural law, all humans know what they should and
shouldn’t do, it is in their nature. St Paul wrote that the ‘law is written in
the hearts of the gentiles.’ This means that right and wrong don’t need to
be learnt, as they are already known. Therefore when making moral
decisions, according to natural law, you should use your reason to figure
out what to do.
Aristotle was the first person to say reason could be a way of making
moral decisions, and was one of the first proponents of natural law.
Aristotle believed that everything has a specific nature, purpose and
function, and supreme good is found when that thing’s purpose is fulfilled.
A human’s supreme good is eudaimonia, which can be translated as
happiness but includes the idea of living well, thriving and flourishing with
others in society. Humans can achieve eudaimonia by living a life of
Thomas Aquinas also concluded that humans have a supreme goal or
purpose, but he does not see this as eudaimonia. Aquinas thought that as
humans are made ‘in the image of god’ the supreme good must be the
development of this image: perfection. Although Aquinas did not think
that this perfection was possible in this life. He believed that we could
begin perfection in this life and continue it into the next. He developed a
fuller account of natural law than those before him. His ethical approach is
absolutist and deontological, which means that it is focused on the
ethicacy of actions. He said natural law is ‘a moral code existing within the
purpose of nature, created by God.’ The natural law exists in order to help
humans reach their ‘supernatural end’ which is heaven and eternity with
god. Aquinas maintained that there was a basic law and all other natural
laws are based on it. This is ‘that good is to be done and pursued, and evil
is to be avoided.’
The main purpose of human nature is to preserve your life and
those of the innocent, to reproduce, to educate and learn, to live in an
ordered society, and to glorify god. These are called the primary precepts
and for an act to be good it must be in accordance with these rules,
otherwise it is bad. These rules weren’t created by Aquinas; they are
atemporal. They have always existed and will continue to exist forever.
People don’t need to be taught them as they are in our nature. We know
that these are the right things to do without reading about Aquinas’
natural law theory.
Secondary precepts are rules deduced from the primary precepts,
and we must work them out through our reason. For example, if self
preservation is a primary precept, then not committing suicide is a
secondary precept, as killing yourself is clearly not self preservation. But
doing exercise and eating healthily are good because they are using your
body for the purpose for which it was intended, which is in accordance
with the primary precept of self preservation, which leads towards god as
an end, and the action itself glorifies God. In order to glorify god you don’t
necessarily have to actually be a Christian and believe in God, because
natural law must be accessible to everyone, as it is contained within
human nature. To glorify god you merely have to keep to all the primary
precepts, reason well, and be a good person. The secondary precepts are
more teleological than the primary precepts, as Aquinas realised that you
could not have a rule to govern every aspect of life, as things around us
change. So the secondary precepts themselves can change.
No human can do something with the intention of doing evil, but
some things which are not in the pursuit of perfection can be explained as
the pursuit of an apparent good. This is something which doesn’t fit into
the perfect human ideal: ‘a fornicator seeks a pleasure which involves him
in moral guilt.’ An apparent good is an error as it does not adhere to the
primary precepts. It is something we think is good, but isn’t really good for
us. Apparent goods prevent humans from getting close to what god
intended. To distinguish between real and apparent goods we must
reason well and choose correctly. This can be difficult, as some things we
like doing may not actually be good for us. So in order to decide what we
must do, we must stop and think about what will benefit us in the long run
and bring us closer to god.