Natural Law Ethics (Part 2–Conclusion)

(continued from yesterday’s post.) – (This article was reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 19, 2015.)

3. St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) synthesized  Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Christianity to give the natural law its classic formulation. In addition to Aristotle’s natural virtues, he added the theological virtues faith, hope, and charity. And to earthly happiness he added eternal beatitude. For Thomas, action in accordance with human nature fulfills God’s eternal plan, and Scripture’s commandments. Thus, the natural law is God’s law known to human reason. Unlike the lower animals, we have the ability to understand the laws of our nature, and the free will to follow or disregard these laws. But how do we attain knowledge of the natural law? It is not innate, intuited, or easily derived from sense experience. Instead, we use reason to determine the conformity of moral conduct and nature. Since fulfilling natural needs makes us happy, the natural is the good. What then constitutes the law? While all mature individuals know its most general principles like do not kill the innocent, controversy surrounds reasoned conclusions about its specific applications.

The fundamental principle of natural law ethics is that good should be done and evil avoided. This general principle may be specified into moral axioms like: “Do not kill!” “Be faithful!” “Preserve your life!” “Care for you children!” “Do not lie or steal!” “Life is a universal human good!” All of these axioms are both natural and good. We further specify these axioms by rational analysis and by reliance on Church, scripture, or revelation. As Aristotle pointed out, natural inclinations and tendencies are good, and we fulfill them by acquiring the elements which constitute human happiness such as: life, procreation, friendship, and knowledge. Nevertheless, within the boundaries set by human nature, the specific way one satisfies natural inclinations may differ. So a range of activities might satisfy, for instance, our aesthetic or intellectual needs. However, we all need the universal human goods. Thus, morality demands that we follow the laws of our nature which are the same for all on the basis of our shared humanity.

Still, we need not satisfy all of our natural tendencies. For instance, we must curb aggression and dishonesty, so that friendship and society thrive. In this way, we see how reason makes value judgments and imposes moral obligations upon us. The moral law demands that we develop our reason, and act in accordance with reason’s imperatives. As we have seen, nature directs us to live well, flourish in human communities, and, finally, to experience the beatific vision. Therefore, beginning with human nature and using reason to determine the goals nature sets for us, we determine what we ought to do.

Perhaps a simple illustration may help. If we want to become nurses, then we ought to go to college and study nursing. Employing our rational faculties, we impose a non-moral obligation upon ourselves, given an antecedent goal or purpose. Analogously, reason imposes moral obligations upon us. If we want friends and friendship demands justice, then we ought to be just. Of course, the examples are very different. Moral obligations may not depend upon self-interest in the same way that non-moral obligations do. But the basic idea is the same, without goals nothing is obligatory. If we don’t want to be nurses or don’t want friends, then we probably have no obligation to study nursing or be just. And if there are no ultimate purposes in human life, then there probably are no moral obligations either. On the other hand, according to the natural law, the complete actualization of human potential demands that we develop our talents and be just. If we fail to do this, we violate the natural law.

4. Some Philosophical Difficulties

Natural law theory derives values about what we ought to do from facts about our human nature. This is a major philosophical difficulty. When we derive what we ought to do from what is the case, we commit what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy. This fallacy involves the derivation of ethical conclusions from nonethical facts. Isn’t there a logical gap between what is the case and what ought to be the case? Even if it is true, for instance, that humans are naturally aggressive, does that mean they should be? Though a conception of human nature is relevant to morality, it seems unlikely that one could explain morality by appealing to human nature. Yet, if values don’t come from facts, where do they come from?

A second difficulty with the theory is that modern science rejects teleology. Explanations in science don’t refer to goals, values, or purposes. Rocks don’t fall because they desire the earth’s center, as Aristotle thought, nor does it rain in order to make plants grow. Rather, physical reality operates according to impersonal laws of cause and effect. Evolutionary theory rejects teleology and all of cosmic evolution results from a series of fortuitous occurrences. This brings to light another difficulty. Natural law theory traditionally maintains the immutability of human nature, which contradicts modern biology. Furthermore, technology transforms human human nature. What happens when gene splicing, recombinant DNA, and genetic engineering become normal? For various reasons then, natural law as traditionally conceived and modern science are at odds.

5. Final thoughts

Of course the fact that, with the exception of the Catholic Church, the theory of natural law has fallen into disfavor doesn’t mean it is mistaken. If we believe that we can philosophically demonstrate the existence of a source of values and purposes for human beingsand believe also that knowledge of this source is accessible to human reasonthen one may rationally defend the theory. Furthermore, without such presuppositions, moral thinking is likely futile. A number of contemporary philosophers suggest that without some ultimate, objective source for morality, notions like obligation, duty, right, and good make no sense.

Nevertheless, natural law theory does rest upon a number of dubious philosophical propositions. We should not forget that, at least in the formulation of the Catholic Church, the natural law ultimately comes from God. Like the divine command theory, natural law ethics is open to all of the objections of philosophical theology. Is there a God? Are there any significant proofs for God’s existence? Why is God so “hidden?” How do we know our reason is sufficient to understand God’s natural moral laws? Moreover, a nontheistic natural law ethics must answer the challenge of the naturalistic fallacy. Why is the natural, good?

Whatever the conclusion, the gap between a nonteleological, factual, and scientific account of human nature and a teleological, ethical, and religious conception constitutes the central dispute in contemporary culture. We do not know how to reconcile the two poles, or if one or the other is bankrupt. But, as the historian of philosophy W.T. Jones asserts: “The whole history of philosophy since the seventeenth century is in fact hardly more than a series of variations on this central theme.”

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