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Natural Law Theory | ETHICS

Introduction  | Natural Law Theory | ETHICS 

  • With this theory actions in conformity and support of natural laws are morally correct.
  • The summary would be , “What Is Consistent with the Natural Law Is Right and What Is not in keeping with the Natural Law Is Wrong .”
  • In this view humans have reasoning and the Laws of Nature are discernible by human reason.   Thus, humans are morally obliged to use their reasoning to discern what the laws are and then to act in conformity with them.
  • Humans have a natural drive to eat, drink, sleep and procreate.  These actions are in accord with a natural law for species to survive and procreate.  Thus activities in conformity with such a law are morally good.  Activities that work against that law are morally wrong.  As an example consider that to eat too much or too little and place life in jeopardy is morally wrong.
  • NLT derives from a rational deduction of what would be consistent with what appear to reason to be the laws of nature governing human behavior.  Humans are animals and as such are governed by certain natural drives and instincts, e.g., to eat, drink, sleep, procreate, survive. Thus ,there would be according to NLT a RIGHT to life and health needed for life.  Thus, any action that harms human life and health would be morally incorrect, i.e., morally wrong.
  • An operation that harms human flesh is morally correct if it is intended to produce benefits such as removing threats to life (cancer), correcting malfunctioning organs etc. Medicine and surgery intended to further health and life are morally good.

Variations Of Natural Law Theory

This theory has two major variations on it.

  • For the theists there is a deity that created all of nature and created the laws as well and so obedience to those laws and the supplement to those laws provided by the deity is the morally correct thing to do.
  • For atheists there is still the belief that humans have reasoning ability and with it the laws of nature are discernable.
  • For atheists who accept this approach to act in keeping with the laws of nature is the morally correct thing to do.

Identifying the laws under Natural Law Theory | Natural Law Theory | ETHICS 

  • What are the laws of nature that provide guidance for human actions?  These would include: the law of survival, the natural action for  living things to maintain themselves and to reproduce, etc.
  • It is a major problem for this theory to determine what exactly those laws are and how they apply to human circumstances.
  • The Roman Catholic Church understands natural law to be immanent in nature; this understanding is in large part due to the influence of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), often as filtered through the School of Salamanca.
  • It understands human beings to consist of body and mind, the physical and the non-physical (or soul perhaps) and that the two are inextricably linked. It describes human persons as being inclined toward the good. There are many manifestations of the good that we can pursue, some, like procreation, are common to other animals, while others, like the pursuit of truth, are inclinations peculiar to the capacities of human beings.
    • Drunkness is wrong because it injures the health and worse, destroys one’s ability to reason, which is fundamental to man as a rational animal.
    • Theft is wrong because it destroys social relations, and man is by nature a social animal.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked the natural law in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, stating that the man-made (positive) laws that he broke were not in accord with the moral law or the Law of God (natural law).
  • Hugo Grotius based his philosophy of international law on natural law. In particular, his writings on freedom of the seas and just war theory directly appealed to natural law. About natural law itself, he wrote that “even the will of an omnipotent being cannot change or abrogate” natural law, which “would maintain its objective validity even if we should assume the impossible, that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs.” (De iure belli ac pacis, Prolegomeni XI). This the famous argument etiamsi daremus (non esse Deum), that made natural law no longer dependent on theology.

Principle Of The Double Effect | Natural Law Theory | ETHICS 

The theory also utilizes the Principle of the DOUBLE EFFECT:

  • DOUBLE EFFECT This set of criteria states that an action having foreseen harmful effects practically inseparable from the good effect is justifiable if the following are true:
    • The nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral;
    • The agent intends the good effect and does not intend the bad effect either as a means to the good or as an end in itself;
    • The good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect and the agent exercises due diligence to minimize the harm.
  • Examples In Medicine
    • The principle of double effect is frequently cited in cases of pregnancy and abortion. A doctor who believes abortion is always morally wrong may still remove the uterus or fallopian tubes of a pregnant woman, knowing the procedure will cause the death of the embryo or fetus, in cases in which the woman is certain to die without the procedure (examples cited include aggressive uterine cancer and ectopic pregnancy). In these cases, the intended effect is to save the woman’s life, not to terminate the pregnancy, and the effect of not performing the procedure would result in the greater evil of the death of both the mother and the fetus.
    • In cases of terminally ill patients who would hasten their deaths because of unbearable pain, or whose caregivers would do so for them (euthanasia, medical aid in dying, etc.), a principle of “double effect death” could be applied to justify the deliberate administration of a pain-killer in potentially unsafe doses—not in an attempt to end life but to relieve the pain suffered as it is considered harmful to the patient. The U.S. Supreme Court has voiced support for this principle in its deliberations over the constitutionality of medical aid in dying.

Application of the theories to one behavior:  HOMOSEXUALITY | Natural Law Theory | ETHICS 

  • Under the Natural Law Theory two people of the same sex interacting to produce orgasms will be morally good or bad depending on whether or not such actions are in accordance with natural laws or not.

Atheistic Natural Law Theory:

  • If there are species on earth in which members of the same sex physically interact to produce physical pleasure then homosexual couplings amongst humans would be morally good. The purpose of orgasms would be more than to produce offspring.
  • PROBLEM: the physical record may not be all that clear and open to interpretation. There is evidence of same sex couplings in species other than human. How many cases or species are needed to conclude that such behavior is natural among mammals and fulfilling a basic physical drive in a non-harmful manner to the species is what is debatable.

Theistic Natural Law Theory:

  • God made Nature. God made the Natural Laws. God made humans. God gave humans reason by which they are to learn of the natural laws. God also provides revelation concerning god’s will and wishes. In the scriptures there are passages dealing with human matters and they are interpreted to have been given as a guide for the moral life. So in addition to the physical universe which is provided for the study of humans there is also the word of god.
  • There is a passage in the bible where Onan is condemned because he did not go into the tent of his dead brother’s wife and have sex with her so as to produce more children. (see two accounts below) . At that time it was the custom in the tribe that when a man died his brother would be responsible for his wife and take her as another wife in order to continue the tribe. Onan went into the tent had sex with the dead brother’s wife but pulled out of her and spilled his semen on the ground.
  • He was condemned for doing so.
    • Was Onan condemned for entering into sex for a purpose other than having children? If so then all sexual acts other than intercourse between a man and a woman who are married and preparing to have children would be immoral. These acts would include: Premarital sex, extra marital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex, use of birth control.
    • Was Onan condemned for not being willing to father children by his dead brother’s wife? If so, then sexual acts entered into for a purpose other than procreation would be morally acceptable.

Problems For Natural Law Theory | Natural Law Theory | ETHICS 

  • One of the difficulties for natural law theory is that people have interpreted nature differently? Should this be the case if as asserted by natural law theory, the moral law of human nature is knowable by natural human reason?
  • How do we determine the essential or morally praiseworthy traits of human nature? Traditional natural law theory has picked out very positive traits, such as “the desire to know the truth, to choose the good, and to develop as healthy mature human beings”. But some philosophers, such as Hobbes, have found human beings to be essentially selfish. It is questionable that behavior in accordance with human nature is morally right and behavior not in accord with human nature is morally wrong. For instance, if it turns out that human beings (at least the males) are naturally aggressive, should we infer that war and fighting are morally right?
  • Even if we have certain natural propensities, are we justified in claiming that those propensities or tendencies should be developed? On what grounds do we justify, for example, that we ought to choose the good?
  • For Aquinas, the reason why nature had the order it did was because God had put it there. Other thinkers, such as Aristotle, did not believe that this order was divinely inspired. Does this alleged natural moral order require that we believe that there is a God that has produced this natural moral order? Evolutionary theory has challenged much of the basis of thinking that there is a moral natural order, since on evolutionary theory species has developed they way they have out of survival needs.
  • 5  It is doubtful that one can infer moral principles forbidding adultery, rape, homosexuality, and so forth, either from biological facts about human nature or from facts about the inherent nature of Homo sapiens.
  • Critics of natural law theory say that it is doubtful, however, that the inherent nature of Homo sapiens establishes laws of behavior for human beings in the same way as it may establish laws of behavior for cats, lions, and polar bears. It is especially difficult because so much of human behavior is shaped by the environment, that is, by deliberate and non-deliberate conditioning, training, and education.
  • Two philosophers (Aquinas and Aristotle) integral to the theory have different views about god’s role in nature, which confuses the issue, especially when trying to decipher if the theory relies on the existence of god.
  • The intrinsic nature of humans as it pertains to establishing laws of behavior may not be the same for animals, which presents difficulties within the theory.
  • Human behavior may be solely reliant upon the environment that one is exposed to, which includes social classes, education and upbringing, this opposes the theory.




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