Aquinas: Natural Law

A) St Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

“True law is right reason in argument with nature.” – Cicero (a Roman). Cicero claims it is valid for all nations and at all times and God is the master and ruler.

Aquinas was very influenced by Aristotle. His claims about Natural Law are:

  • Natural Law is the moral code which humans are naturally inclined towards.
  • God commands develop Natural Law. E.g. males and females procreating.
  • Procreation was the purpose of physical unison. We were made in the image of God.
  • The moral life is that which is lived “according to reason” and acting in this way, as a Christian would act. E.g. Emotivism – giving money to a television appeal.
  • Human beings are immortal and the purpose of human existence does not lie entirely in this life.
  • The “self” has to be preserved beyond the grave, therefore giving in to non-rational desires (sinning) means the self would be enslaved in this life only.
  • By reason alone, you can arrive at the virtues:
    • Prudence
    • Moderation
    • Fortitude – strength
    • Justice
  • The Decalogue (10 commandments), with the exception of keeping the Sabbath holy, are the examples of natural virtues. Example:
    Lying Þ lack of trust Þ never believing what people say Þ economy breaks down  Þ people can not lend or borrow money.
  • Natural law was expanded by St. Paul to include faith, hope and charity – 1 Corinthians 13:13.

B) The Purpose of Life

  • The purpose of life was to live, reproduce, learn, to have an ordered society and to worship God.
  • Reason is to be used to discover God’s intention for humanity.
  • Aquinas, unlike Calvin and Augustine, did not believe that human nature was totally corrupt. It was imperfect but still a reasonable guide to want God intended humans to be. People are made in the image of God.
  • Human beings are equal and there is a link to their happiness and their moral behaviour.

C) What is Goodness and how it is Achieved

  • Humans see God as good.
  • Natural laws show humans how to be good. St Paul claims that Natural law is written in the hearts of all men. (Romans 2:14)
  • God represents the goal and destiny of all humans. They follow God and he is their creator and must be the means by which happiness will be found.
  • Aquinas did not consider that morality was based no commands from God but other scholars, William of Ockham, claimed that because God commanded it, it must be right. Aquinas said God makes humans with a certain nature and it enables them to use their reason and their experience to understand what is right.
  • There is an “ideal” human nature that we all have potential to live up to or fall away from.
  • A human may think that what he is doing is good, (e.g. pleasure of adultery, excessive drinking). It is only an apparent good because it diminishes his human nature.
  • Sin disobeys and separates you from God. For the relationship to be restored, you have to ask for forgiveness. It falls short of what God intended humans to be. Aquinas said,

“No one seeks evil for itself, they fall into evil because they are trying to achieve apparent goods.”

  • Sin is acting against reason. Aquinas says by using your will and reason, humans are able to make deliberate moral choices. He calls these human acts. These are opposed to distinctive acts. Human reason must be used correctly and he called this the right use of reason. Although there are genuine differences of opinion of what is right if a person uses their reason correctly to determine what is right, and then wills to do this, you have achieved free choice.
  • Aquinas distinguished between interior acts, that is taking your moral decision and exterior acts. You may do a good act like giving to charity but not for the right reasons such as to get praise. The motive is important. In other words, the end does not justify the means.
  • The will aims to an end and for Christians, that end is God. The purpose of life is not just related to what happens to a Christian after death, as people have a purpose in this life to use their talents and abilities.

NB: Aristotle and the 17th century philosopher, Hugo Grotius, who claimed that even without God, Natural Law was valid. If God did not implant Natural Law in humans, why should anyone not religious follow it?

D) Alternatives to God as an end to good actions

  • He claimed non-believers would still aim to fulfil their potential.
  • Seeking power and money, as ends are a mistake.
  • He then considered whether sensual pleasure is an end in itself. He argued that these are appetites that even animals can achieve.
  • Is scientific knowledge an end in itself? But only few can achieve it (Einstein)
  • He asks, “Is knowledge an end?” and decides that not everyone can gain it.
  • He therefore concludes that humans were created to be in fellowship with their god. They are of a single nature and should have a single aim and that aim is a vision of God that is promised in the next life. It is available to us all.

E) Criticisms of Aquinas

  • Aquinas deplores excess of any kind – You should live according to the mean. This raises difficulties in the light of Christians such as Mother Teresa who appeared to be excessive in her giving of all her worldly goods. Aquinas may say this is fine if Jesus inspired it but then we would have to examine religious fanatics who also claim loyalty to Jesus.
  • Humans according to Aquinas, and Natural Law, have a duty to keep the species going. This raises the problem of celibacy of Catholic monks, nuns and priests, he says in his defence that this Natural law applies to the race as a whole and therefore it is okay if some are celibate in order to give themselves “to the contemplation of divine things“.
  • It is not clear in Aquinas’ teachings which “ends” must be fulfilled by the individual and by the group. Therefore, we assume it is okay for some to be gay because as a whole, the group, the rest of mankind, will still procreate.
  • He claims from a general principle, i.e. the need to procreate, detailed rules can be worked out. He sees monogamy as one rule. Peter Vardy in his book, “The Puzzle of Ethics”, to look at the function of the mouth and takes eating and kissing as his examples. He says in themselves they are good functions but should be kiss everyone or would that become evil? We have to make some assumptions. Aquinas’ theories are then weakened.
  • He fails to consider the human being a psycho-physical unit. Vardy says we are not an accumulation of bits and when we make judgements, we should take out whole being into account. (Instinctive, emotional and rational)
  • Aquinas argued that all humans have a fixed and uniform nature and therefore Natural Law is also fixed. Moral law may vary over a period of time.
  • St. Paul did not condemn slavery – it kept the Roman Empire going but he did want the slaves to be treated well. Aquinas likewise was not against the Feudal System.
  • Michael Langford in his book, “The Good and the True”, claims that Natural Law is more flexible than generally thought. He suggests that there are primary precepts for a Christian. Two of which would be to worship God and to love your neighbour. Secondary precepts are, for example, telling lies. They can be interpreted in the context of the situation and there must be some flexibility.
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