Thoughts on Natural Law

Observation and reason allow us to know about the natural world.

Some people believe that morality follows the same pattern. Good and evil follow Natural Law.

One could argue that God puts these rules in place – or one could believe that they are just part of the total scheme of order.

Natural Law is independent of public opinion.

This is an absolutist or universal unchanging approach to ethics. It may be compared to the Hindu understanding of dharma, which deals with standards and the right way to behave.

THOMAS AQUINAS 1224 – 1275

Hewas influenced by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s teachings…

St Thomas Aquinas

He encountered opposition from the church because many believed that he was trying to replace faith with reason. Aquinas tried to show that reason come from God.He assumed that mankind was created on purpose by God.

People have to work out what that purpose is and then aim to fit it. Humans must behave appropriately and do what we are put into the world to do.


The starting point of Natural Law is to work out the purpose of human life

Aquinas worked out that the first priority laid down by Natural Law was that the immortal self should be preserved. In order to achieve this mankind had to live to reproduce, to learn to have an ordered society and to worship God.

  • The preservation of life
  • To reproduce
  • To live in an ordered society
  • To worship God

These could be discovered by using reason


Aquinas, like Aristotle before him believed that all people wanted to be good.

The fact that they looked for the good urged Aquinas to state that there were things called

Cardinal Virtues.

Guess what – Aristotle had listed Natural Cardinal Virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

To these Aquinas added faith, hope and charity from the writings of St Paul

So Aquinas’ list of virtues looked like this

  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Fortitude
  • Justice
  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity

All worked out in accordance with reason.

The importance of these virtues will be seen later on – for the moment, back to Natural Law.

Aquinas believed law worked on four levels

  1. ETERNAL LAW Order which is in the mid of God.
  2. DIVINE LAW Given to people by God through the Bible and the Church.
  3. NATURAL LAW Our sense of right and wrong discovered by conscience.
  4. HUMAN LAW Rules made by human choices.

Higher levels take priority


  1. It is the law which can be detected by mankind through reason. It is in accordance with the will of God. It is supported by God’s eternal law and by the teachings of the Bible and the church.
  2. Because humans wish to fulfil their purpose and do good, they try to act in accordance with Natural Law. We tend to call this process our conscience.
  3. When humans fall short of the good – that is sin. If a person does something that is morally wrong, he or she will do this because they think that they will benefit – it will do them good. Their mistake means that they are less than they are intended to be by God and that is sin. Sin is falling short of one’s real potential.
  4. Aquinas also made the distinction between Exterior and Interior acts. For Aquinas both the act and the intention are important. Both have to be good. To do a good act for a bad reason is wrong and to do a bad act for a good reason is equally wrong.
  5. On each ethical issue there is a general statement which aims to show that good is the intention and that evil should be avoided. Sometimes though we may feel that life isn’t as simple as that and there may be more than one issue at stake. So he talked about Primary and Secondary precepts.
  6. Aquinas believed that humans have a fixed uniform nature and this led him to believe that there was a fixed Natural Law.
  7. Natural Law is based on the action alone and takes no account of the consequences.

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