Understanding Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law is not simple task, and even by the time I get through this effort I will have only scratched the surface. Until now I have utilized two sources – a video overview and an extensive encyclopedia article. I introduce here a third:
Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory, chapter 4 of the book Ethics for A-Level: For AQA Philosophy and OCR Religious Studies, by Mark Dimmock and Andrew Fisher
I do not intend to integrate into previous chapters what I find of importance in this one; I will, instead, only review concepts that I have not yet examined in any meaningful sense or clarify concepts which I may have previously misunderstood. As I have a couple of other sources for Thomas and Natural Law after this one, I will continue in this same method.
Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? Thomas addresses this question:
For [Thomas], God’s commands are there to help us to come to see what, as a matter of fact, is right and wrong rather than determine what is right and wrong.
But then if it is not God’s commands that make something right or wrong, what does? His answer is Natural Law Theory.
Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory contains four different types of law: Eternal Law, Natural Law, Human Law and Divine Law.
Eternal Law means God’s rational purpose and plan for all things. As it is part of God’s mind, it always existed and will always exist – He did not have to write it or command it; it just is. For Aquinas, just as with Aristotle, everything has a purpose, goal, or true end – a telos. To the extents something fulfills the plan for it, it is good.
One can see this easily for an acorn, which has as its end an oak tree; or an eye, which has as its end sight. It grows more difficult when it comes to humans – and more controversial when it comes to some actions that humans are capable of taking.
What is the good for humans? For Thomas, the answer is reason, and to the extent humans act according to reason they are partaking in the Natural Law. We will recall that Jesus is referred to as reason, when in John 1:1 He is referred to as “the Word”; in Greek, logos, which translates to “reason” or “plan.” Thomas sees reason, it seems, only through God, with Jesus as the physical manifestation of God. Reason without God as its anchor is meaningless.
After Eternal Law comes Natural Law. Natural Law does not come to us in a set of written rules; it generates rules that any rational agent can come to recognize. Thomas identifies four such rules, or precepts, that are primary:
· Protect and preserve human life.
· Reproduce and educate one’s offspring.
· Know and worship God.
· Live in a society.
These precepts are primary because they are true for all people in all instances and are consistent with Natural Law.
Next is Human Law, which gives rise to Secondary Precepts:
Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they are imposed by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc.
Such precepts are morally acceptable if they are not inconsistent with the Natural Law. These secondary precepts – unlike primary precepts – need not be the same for all people everywhere, for example on which side of the street one must drive.
Finally, Divine Law:
The Divine Law, which is discovered through revelation, should be thought of as the Divine equivalent of the Human Law (those discovered through rational reflection and created by people).
An example is given of the Ten Commandments – specifically regarding adultery. It is wrong because God says it is wrong – He has deemed this so through His rational reflection. Or through the command to forgive others – again, revealed to us through God’s rational reflection.
On this I am a bit confused, as I can come to these conclusions even through the Primary Precepts: for example, it will be difficult to educate one’s children while dealing with the consequences of adultery; it will be difficult to live in society without the ability to forgive.
In any case…Thomas recognized that life often presented cases that were not so black and white, and for this he introduced the “Doctrine of Double Effect.”
One example: while one is obliged to preserve and protect life, there are circumstances where one is justified to take life – in self-defense. Any such act that on the surface violates Natural Law must be measured against the following principles:
· The first principle is that the act must be a good one.
· The second principle is that the act must come about before the consequences.
· The third is that the intention must be good.
· The fourth, it must be for serious reasons.
One can measure the act of self-defense against these principles in order to determine the good of the act.
The authors point to potential flaws in Thomas’s Natural law Theory: if God doesn’t exist, the whole system comes crashing down. However, the authors offer charity toward Thomas here as they have a more fundamental potential objection for both Thomas and Aristotle:
Namely, [Thomas and Aristotle] think that everything has a goal (telos).
We can easily recognize the goal, end or purpose for an acorn or an eye, but a human? There are those who suggest not:
There are certainly some philosophers — such as the existentialists, for example Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) — who think that there is no such thing as human nature and no such thing as a human function or goal.
It is a difficult concept to understand or accept: all things in the known universe have an end or purpose except for the most complicated thing known – humans. This most complicated and sophisticated being is also the only being that has no purpose. What a cruel joke to play on these sophisticated beings – if true, certain to lead to a life of meaninglessness and despair.
In other words, the answer to the question “why are we here” is “for absolutely no reason whatsoever; you have no reason to exist.” Difficult for me to buy.
Which does raise the question: who, or what, installed this purpose in humans? Which kind of gets back to the objection regarding God’s non-existence.