#Explain the importance of laws and precepts in natural law
Rachel and Darcy
Explain the roles of laws and precepts in Aquinas’ natural law
Natural law is a theory grounded in the belief that morals are set ideas grounded in human nature.
This would mean morals never change and can be accessed by all humans using their reason. This
theory is absolutist as it believes certain actions to be either completely wrong or right regardless of
the consequences. It was originally conceived by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work
‘nicomachaen ethics’, and this argument was then developed and theologised by Thomas Aquinas
An important aspect of Aquinas’ Natural Moral Law is the four channels of law. This describes the
way in which natural moral law is filtered to us. The first of these channels is eternal- is the absolute
and never changing aspect of natural law. This is the idea that morals are always the same regardless
of culture, society or time. For example lieing should be considered wrong in 5th century India as it is
in contemporary Britain.
The second channel outlined in Aquinas’ book the “Summa Theologica” is the idea that morals are
God given and can be accessed through the scriptures. This is referred to as “Divine law” and usually
manifests itself in the form of rues or parables. An Example would be the 10 commandments, which
present explicit rules of behaviour in accordance with God. It is this channel that means Aristotle’s
and Aquinas’ theories differ. Whilst Aristotlebelieved in a never changing moral code that is
accessible through reason, Aquinas theologised this idea by professing these natural morals are God
It is the natural channel of law where Gerard Hughes in the Cambridge dictionary of Philosophy
believes humans differ from animals. This is the idea that morals can be accessed through reasoning
alone. As all humans are born with the ability to reason, this would mean that even those in isolation
without access to scriptures should realise the precepts and so still act in an ethically good way.
The final channel is human law, or the manifestation of natural moral law in reality. In ordered
societies, this is usually seen in laws or codes of conduct. For example we know killing is wrong
through the scriptures and our own reasoning so we have murder a crime in most humane societies.
Aquinas believes that whatever society we are living in, we will tend to create similar rules to govern
society, as this is what is “natural”. As we are following our “god given” natural morals then we are
pleasing to God and therefore virtuous.
From these channels of law, Aquinas inferred five primary precepts, or purposes, to life. This is also
where Aquinas becomes distinct from Aristotle who believed there was only one telos to lifehappiness. Whilst Aquinas believed happiness was a side effect of being ethical, our god given
purposes are to live; to learn; to order society; to reproduce and to worship God. Aquinas described
God as the efficient cause of human’s existence, which would mean all life, is holy and we all have a
right to live. Anyonepreventing the fulfilment of someone’s right to live (i.e. through murder or
suicide) would therefore be sinning. An example of how this has been incorporated into Catholic
doctrine is in their stance against abortion.
This idea is similar to the precept of reproduction. As we are God’s people, Aquinas believed we
have a duty to reproduce, and this is mirrored in the Old testaments plea to “go forth and multiply”.
Anyone preventing this precept is, again a sinner. This is where Aquinas’ view becomes
Rachel and Darcy
controversial,as this would make homosexuality immoral as it is preventing reproduction, similarly in
the case of abortion in extenuating circumstances such as rape.
For human law to manifest itself, it demands an ordered society in which to operate. This is why the
precept of ordering society was so important to Aquinas. He argued that it is natural for us to set up
governments and police forces to implement justice (one of the cardinal virtues) and keep society
ordered; therefore this is what God wants. This is supported by his idea that “an ordered society is a
This idea of reason is where the precepts of to learn and to worship God have derived from. As God
has blessed us with an ability to reason and therefore learn we are duty bound to use it. This would
also mean learning from your mistakes to become a better, more moral person. Aquinas’ idea has
been most prominently incorporated into Catholic doctrine in the form of confession in which
sinners can repent and learn from their sins. As Aquinas outlined in his concept of the human
channel of law, we should all be able to use our reason to realise what is right and wrong.
Worshiping God pleases him therefore it is definitely right. This would mean that human reasoning
should always lead us to realising that worshiping God is right, even if we live in a secular society.
Aquinas believed these precepts and laws provided rules and guidance on how to live a morally good
life, please God and therefore be accepted into heaven. In addition to the primary precepts, Aquinas’
natural law also contained the concept of secondary precepts. These are actions or laws which
uphold or support the primary precepts, for example free education for children is intrinsically right
as it upholds the precept to learn. However, these laws often change depending on the culture and
can be quite controversial. For example, under Aquinas’ ideology, polygamy should be legal as it
allows the precept of reproduction to flourish, but this is not acceptable in Britain. Anyone going
against this law would not be conforming to an ordered society, which is wrong. The secondary
precepts can be strongly linked to the human channel of law, as these are the manifestation of
morals in day-to-day life.