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Natural moral law refers to a set of objective guidelines to apply when faced with ethical decision-making. It is an absolute, deontological, normative ethical theory that can be applied universally. It assumes there is an unchanging normative order that is part of the natural world. Aquinas proposes this model code in his ‘Summa Theologica’ and he calls it natural law. He sought to present a rational basis for Christian morality using natural moral law influenced by Aristotle. Aquinas described natural law as ‘the sharing in the eternal law by intelligent creatures.’ This suggests that it is morality that human beings are naturally inclined towards.
Aristotle distinguished four causes for why things are as they are. The causes are material, formal, efficient and final causes. Material causes are what something is made out of. Formal is what makes one thing rather than many things. Efficient causes ask what did that - if your eye sees, it sees because light from the object strikes your eyes. Final causes ask why efficient causes do what they do and why formal causes do what they do. Furthermore, he believed that the greatest good for humans was human flourishing (eudaimonia). Everything has a final good, which is achieved by fulfilling the purpose for which it is designed.
Aquinas assumes that God created the world and that we are all are rational beings with the capability to work out God’s purpose for his creation. We can work out order and purpose using our reason. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that fulfilling perfection is not simply eudaimonia, but rather views it as attaining eternal life with God. When saying ‘our ultimate end is an unrelated good, namely God, who alone can fill our will to the brim because of infinite goodness,’ Aquinas explains that no amount of material wealth can make people happy. This is due to the fact that they have not completed their inner sense or purpose (to be at union with God.)
As compared to ‘divine law’, natural moral law is within us whilst divine law is revealed by God. Humans must work out purpose and respond to it, they can then act towards desires, moving towards ends that will satisfy their desires. If we obey the civil law ‘An ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community’ it will take us some way to achieving our goals. We become aware of the idea with which God made us by being ‘intelligent creatures’ and we come to appreciate God’s eternal law.
Humans have a tendency to mistake apparent goods for real goods. Real goods are those which are natural whilst apparent goods go against God’s intentions. An apparent good is the explanation for why people do wrong. Aquinas explains that sin is the falling of a short good; no one will seek evil for itself, just that the motive is an apparent good and thus a mistake. For example, euthanasia is an apparent good, as the motive is to fulfil the person’s desires; however, it goes against the law ‘do not kill.’ When ‘a fornicator seeks a pleasure which involves him an a moral guilt’ - Summa Theologica means what a fornicator thinks is good, is only an apparent good as it diminishes a human being’s nature.
To perform a right action, one must use reason e.g. one should help an old woman cross the road in order to help the women. It would be wrong if the motive was to help the old woman in order to gain credit from performing an act of perceived kindness (an exterior good). One reason should be in accordance with nature and upon principles that conformed to the primary precepts. If the intention was good then we can forgive a poor outcome as long as it is in line with natural moral law (thus an interior act).
Working out universal principles of what we ought to do (synderesis), we then work out God’s law. The basic law is that ‘desire good and shun evil,’ if humans act following primary precepts, then we can achieve good universally. Primary precepts give an absolutist quality, as they are self-evident, and must be obeyed. The primary precepts are to conserve life and protect health, to reproduce, to learn, worship God and live in an ordered society, and using these precepts, we can develop secondary precepts. We can develop the secondary precept of banning contraception, banning abortion and banning same sex relationships as they all prohibit the primary precept of reproduction. Secondary precepts hold in most circumstances but are not absolute as humans may make an error; instead, they require knowledge of human condition. Aquinas, like Aristotle, emphasises the need for ‘perception’ .This is the ability to look at a particular situation and make a rational decision in accordance to which precept applies.