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Can Natural Law ethics still be plausible today?

(In bold are the bits that are essential components of this essay!)

The revival of interest in practical reason has brought in it’s wake renewed philosophical attention to the theories of Natural Law. When examining the feasibility of Natural Law in our contemporary society, it is important to focus on the oldest form of Natural law from Aquinas, and its challenges from a new secular approach; The Grisez-Finnis theory. On the one hand, Natural law does manage to create a flexible and autonomous approach to ethics that addresses some of the issues faced by other normative theories such as Utilitarianism. However, on balance it seems that Natural Law cannot contain the same coherence as it once did. Natural Law presupposes belief in the divine which is not compatible with a less religious fundamentalist society as well as allowing for simple ethical questions to become complicated moral dilemmas. Consequently, natural law is not the most plausible ethical theory today.

When establishing whether Natural Law is still plausible if transposed to a modern day society, it is important to first focus on outlining the benefits of using the theory as an ethical guide. The classic form of natural-law thinking is from Thomas Aquinas, the first main advocate of Natural law, in his Summa Theolagie’s Treatise on law. Aquinas argued that humans have an essential rational nature that’s innate in us as we are created in Imago Dei. The benefit of this, as Aquinas then argued, is that we can use our reason or synderisis to work out what God has ordained human nature to be inclined towards and thus what is moral. These are in the forms of ‘primary precepts’ and from these, we are able to deduce secondary precepts. The appeal of this is that unlike other normative ethical theories; Natural Law provided a bridge between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that are both essential components of the human experience. Initially, this is a plausible approach when looking at ethics. This is because we can logically deduce our moral actions from our own senses and subjective experience of nature. Natural law developed out of a rejection of Utilitarianism which subordinates all goods to pleasure. The issue with Jeremey Bentham’s Utilitarianism is that it believes that pleasure is the sole basic human principle, and thus morality is dependant on this principle. Natural law appears to grow out of these incoherent foundations. It manages to create a less hedonistic, more rational approach to morality that also allows for the flexibility whereby an autonomous individual can deduce objective morals from their own rationale not simply based on pleasure.

However, despite at first seeming transportable to our modern world, the dependence on nature for morality is liable to criticism in a world where evolutionary theory is extremely popular. G.E Moore argues that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ occurs when humans derive ‘is’ statements about what is already there, to ‘ought’ statements about what should be there. G.E Moore claims ‘if he confuses good which is not in the same sense a natural object, with any natural object…this is the naturalistic fallacy.’ This is exactly what natural law aims to achieve which is essentially problematic. We should not assume, for instance, that because males are inherently aggressive by their nature that committing violent actions would be morally acceptable as a way of achieving their ‘telos’. In addition to this, I will use the example of the September 11 attacks to show that we could explain such acts; the destruction of the world trade centre without being forced to justify them. It seems that moral evaluation becomes too subjective and liable to irrationality on the premise that it follows a ‘natural order’. As evaluated above, Natural law contains incoherencies in a modern society which make it difficult to deem as plausible.

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