Moral Theology

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Compare and Contrast Natural Law and Relativism as approaches to decision-making.

Morality serves two universal human needs. It regulates both conflicts of interest between people and those within the individual born of different desires and drives that cannot be satisfied at the same time (Wong, D. 1993). Natural Law and Relativism are two opposing approaches to morality. In comparing and contrasting the two approaches I will also briefly outline the background and principles of each. 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...
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