Natural law can be defined as a set of principles, based on what are assumed to be the permanent characteristics of human nature, that can serve as a standard for evaluating conduct. It is considered fundamentally unchanging and universally applicable. Natural law holds that the basis for moral law, for what people should and should not do, is to be found in our nature as human beings. This means that what we are as human beings contains indications of how we should live (Harrington, D. 2009).
Although the concept of natural law has been expressed differently by various philosophers all descriptions have a common thread; that man must live according to his true self (Varga, 1978). Although Aristotle did not use the term ‘natural law’ many medieval philosophers considered him as one of the first exponents of the fundamentals of natural law. Stoic philosophy was the first to introduce the term ‘natural law’ with the Stoics emphasising nature and the moral requirement to accept and conform to what is given in nature.
This Greek philosophy spanned several centuries and greatly influenced the Roman philosopher Cicero. Cicero (d. 43BC) was a strong advocate of natural law and spoke of natural law as the innate power of reason to direct action. Catholic natural law theory was formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas over seven centuries ago. He identified one fundamental norm of natural law: do good and avoid evil. Doing good in this context is following reason’s lead to actualise human potential. According to Aquinas, law arises from man’s participation, via his reason, in the divine wisdom of God.
In Catholic teaching, faith is presumed to assist reason in determining what is right and wrong, good and evil. A fundamental aspect of natural law is the belief that humans are essentially good. Therefore, the rationality which we employ in order to make moral judgements is also good. To live according to the law of nature is to live in accordance with what reason commands. However, Harrington notes that to say that natural law begins with reason reflecting on nature does not mean that everything is already written into our nature. If this were the case there would be no room for creativity, only for applying a formula.
Natural law is the fundamental principle underpinning Roman Catholic morality, the Church uses natural law as the basis for its moral teachings pertaining to a just society, sexual behaviour, medical practice, the relationship between morality and civil law. According to natural law there are moral codes that are ‘universally applicable’. This is a major difference to moral relativism, discussed below, as relativism holds that morality is relative. Before taking a particular course of action, natural law advocates reflection on what the nature and purpose of human existence might have to say on the course of action.
Harrington notes that this does not mean that every decision must be preceded by a prolonged reflection on what it is to be a human being, but that there is an underlying stream in our thinking that concerns how we understand what it means to be a human being in the world. Any potential decision can be assessed in light of natural law to determine its morality. If a planned course of action is immoral there can be no mitigating circumstances strong enough to render it moral. For example, according to natural law it is always wrong to kill another human being.
It contravenes the first inclination to the good, the tendency to persevere in being. Under natural law abortion is an immoral act regardless of the circumstances. This immorality results from both the first inclination to the good and the second, i. e. the tendency towards procreation and education of offspring. Relativism takes a different stance; in certain circumstances abortion may be a moral act. To take an extreme example, the Catholic Church would not condone an abortion even in such circumstances as those of the 1992 case of Attorney General v.
X, in which a fourteen year old girl was pregnant as the result of rape. The Supreme Court refused to apply the natural law in ruling that the girl had a right to an abortion, a decision condemned by the Catholic Church. Similarly, assisted suicide is an immoral act according to natural law irrespective of the benevolent intentions of those involved. Arguably assessing the morality of a decision under natural law is more straight forward than assessing morality applying relativistic principles, however grey areas do exist within natural law.
The Catholic Church’s recognition of the role played by conscience and prudence is an acknowledgement of this. Harrington notes that “when morality is viewed from the perspective of the person, conscience is a central consideration”. The Church’s teaching on contraception derives from natural law. According to the Church contraception is wrong because it’s a deliberate violation of the design of God. The natural law purpose of sex is procreation, with the pleasure that sexual intercourse provides an additional blessing from God, intended to strengthen the bond between husband and wife.
God’s gift of the sex act must not be abused by deliberately frustrating its natural end, procreation. Relativists would argue that natural law is wholly inflexible and takes zero cognisance of the culture or era in which it operates. However, if natural law is reason reflecting on nature then we do not reflect in a vacuum but our reflections are affected by culture; culture impacts out moral sensibility. This view allows natural law to be applicable in an ever-changing world. Our nature as human beings acts as a bedrock for continuity among all the changes in our situation.
In the words of Harrington “there is no ‘objective’ formulation of the natural moral law, set in stone for all times and places and requiring nothing more than simple acquiescence on our part”. There is no formulation of right and wrong that can be advanced to end all debate. Opponents frame natural law in terms of a very rigid kind of moral thinking; however the definition of natural law as reason reflecting on nature implies that balance exists. It allows factors such as culture to have an impact on morality and in this way is similar to relativism.
Although traces of relativism can be found in ancient Greek philosophy modern relativistic thought can be attributed to a response to imperialism and colonialism. In particular, the outbreak of World War One led to a questioning of the correctness of imposing norms and values on other cultures. Nietzsche, a German philosopher born in 1844 summed up the essence of relativism in saying “There are no facts, only interpretations”. Taken to the extreme, a moral relativist believes that there are no rights and wrongs.
Therefore, if a person is a polygamist in a society where polygamy is permitted that practice is acceptable because it arises from that particular culture. Wong, D. (1993) gives the example of a society which contains more men than women due to war. Those who oppose moral relativism say that unless global society clearly defines right and wrong, for instance by prohibiting polygamy, we head down a treacherous path. Moral relativism broadly holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture, thereby denying that any single moral code has universal validity.
This represents the fundamental difference between natural law and relativism. Whereas natural law posits that there is a bedrock of morality that is constant, moral relativism holds that morality is relative; different truths hold for different people. The implication for decision making is that the morality of a decision should not be assessed in the abstract, but within the specific context in which it occurs. Morality in this form is perceived as a subjective social creation of particular people in a certain place and time. For the ethical relativist, there are no standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times.
The only moral standards against which a society’s practices can be judged are its own. The doctrine of meta-ethical relativism states that moral truth and justifiability are not objective, but relative to factors of culture and history. Another type of relativism, normative relativism is a doctrine about how one ought to act towards those whose values are very different to your own. According to normative relativism there is no universal moral standard and one ought not to pass judgement on those who have different values, or to try to make them conform to one’s own values, as their values are equally valid.
Arguably this position is incoherent, as it is unclear how meta-ethical relativism can lead to ‘ought not to’ statements. Cultural relativism holds that morality is relative to culture. What is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs. A cultural relativist could not strictly condemn the treatment of women in areas of fundamental Islam and practices such as female circumcision as they are norms within those cultures and accepted.
Moral relativism does not see ‘good’ or ‘bad’ existing in the abstract; there is only goodness or badness within a specified context. Thus, an act which is bad when performed by a particular person in a particular set of circumstances may not be bad for another person in a different set of circumstances. For example, while it might be immoral to torture someone for information most of the time, if that information is withheld by a terrorist and could save the lives of many people (such as the location of a bomb) relativists would take account of these circumstances in assessing morality.
This is in contrast to the natural law where some acts are objectively bad. Relativism does not merely say that what is believed to be right differs by cultural group, but that what actually is right differs. The problem with this argument is that if interpreted strictly it gives rise to a norm of absolute tolerance. Although the concept of tolerance is appealing on first glance, when given deeper consideration the problems therein become clear. For example, if genocide was happening in a country, absolute tolerance would not allow other countries to intervene.
The demonstrates the need for some kind of universal moral principles such as those provided by natural law. Critics of moral relativism include Pope Benedict XVI, who has spoken out vehemently against relativism, describing it as “the most profound difficulty of our time. ” Benedict XVI believes that Western society is firmly in the grip of moral relativity. He warned: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires. It is true that morality in Western society is generally thought to be up to the individual, with each person’s morality their own concern, a type of informal relativism. It follows from this that what is true for one person may not necessarily be true for another, and each person can decide what is true for them. Extreme normative relativism holds that no-one should ever pass judgment on others with different values, or try to make them conform to one’s own values. This ethic of non-judgemental olerance would self-destruct as it requires self-condemnation by those who act according to it. According to this viewpoint, if you pass judgment on someone who passes judgment then you must also condemn yourself. Wong points out that opponents of moral relativism usually address its most extreme versions, which hold that all moralities are equally valid. Relativism is sometimes associated with nihilism and a lack of any moral conviction under which everything is permitted. However, there are different shades of relativism.
Wong goes on to say that a moral relativism that would allow for constraints on what could be a true morality might not fit the stereotype of relativism, and might be a reasonable position to hold. More moderate versions of relativism might be tenable. World War Two highlighted the necessity of sometimes passing judgment and acting upon it. The more reasonable form of relativism mentioned by Wong would allow us to pass judgment; to call evil or bad what contradicts our most fundamental moral values.
He gives the example of human sacrifice, this could result in the value of tolerance being outweighed, and a person might intervene to prevent it. In looking at the merits of natural law versus relativism the question arises; are there such things as moral absolutes? Personally, I believe that there are a small number of acts that are fundamentally morally wrong, regardless of circumstances and culture. However, in the case of most moral acts some cognisance of the surrounding circumstances, era and culture should be taken in assessing morality. Bibliography: Harrington, D (2009) Is There a Natural Law?