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Explain Aquinas' deontological ethical theory?
Natural law is a theory devised by the ancient Greeks and theologised by Thomas Aquinas in
the 13th century. Aquinas’ natural law is a deontological ethical theory. This means that
natural law looks at the action itself rather than the consequence of the action. Natural law
is also an absolute theory. This is due to the fact that it is fixed for all people and for all time.
There is no flexibility when it comes to ethical decision making and Natural law.
The concept of exterior and interior acts helps to explain Aquinas deontological theory, as
discussed in the Summa Theologica, as they look at the action itself. Acting in a good way
but for the wrong reason is to perform a good exterior act, but a bad interior act. An
example of this would be if I give to charity (exterior act) to make my business look good
(interior act),the charity is not good because I did it for selfish reasons. Moreover,
performing a bad exterior act for good intentions is also wrong. If I steal to feed a family, the
action is not made good by my intentions. Therefore, this helps to explain Aquinas'
deontological theory as its looking at the action of stealing rather than the consequences of
stealing as in the bible it states 'Do not steal'. This makes natural law a deontological theory
as it says the action of stealing is wrong in itself.
The idea of ‘Divine law’ also helps to explain Aquinas' deontological theory as it helps to
guide people on the rightness or wrongness of an action. The divine law is found in the four
levels of law. These are the eternal law, divine law, natural law and human law. The divine
law means that God tells humans how to behave through scripture. It's God's way of telling
us how to get into heaven. An example of this would be in the bible it states ' Do not kill'.
This means Aquinas would argue that this is wrong as it’s not using the reason that God has
blessed humans with and has not blessed animals and plants with. He would argue that if
we use our reason to make decisions we come to the same conclusions as those in the bible.
Therefore, this makes Natural law a deontological theory as it focuses on the legalistic
nature of Divine law, and there is no circumstance where it is right to go against these.
Moreover, the primary and secondary precepts explain Aquinas' deontological theory as
they are rules which apply to everyone for all time. The primary precepts are to live, to
learn, to order society, to reproduce and to worship God. Aquinas' believed that all humans
had to follow these rules in order to fulfil their purpose. He believed that all humans’ final
purpose was to get into heaven. An example of this would be having an abortion would be
wrong as everyone has the right to live, even a foetus who hasn't been born yet. Therefore,
if somebody has an abortion they are going against the primary precept ‘to live’.
The secondary precepts allow the primary precepts to be upheld. For example, in
Afghanistan polygamy is legal and a man can take up to four wives. This is a secondary
precept as its upholding the primary precept, to reproduce. This is because a man marrying
up to four wives would allow the man to have many children. Both the primary and
secondary precepts highlight natural law’s deontological nature as the primary precepts
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arefixed for all people and for all time and acts as a guide for people to act, regardless of the
consequence. The secondary precepts can change, but they must always uphold the five
primary precepts which are regarded as intrinsically good.
The cardinal and revealed virtues also helps to explain Aquinas' deontological theory. The
cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Aquinas outlined these as
being four human qualities which he believed to be necessary to form the basis of a moral
life. They are known as the cardinal virtues because the Latin term 'cardo' means 'hinge'they are of fundamental importance. To take prudence, this is of importance in natural law
because it suggests all humans have the ability to judge between actions with regard to
appropriate actions at a given time. The revealed virtues are faith, hope and charity. They
are revealed through scripture, ST Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. They differ from the cardinal
virtues as they cannot be obtained through human effort. Faith links into natural law
because it's a belief in God, in the truth of God's revelation and in obedience to God. An
example of this would be following the divine law as it's God's way of telling us how to
behave in order to get into heaven. The virtues againemphasise natural law’s deontological
nature as the virtues allow us to know which qualities are good within themselves.
Finally, real and apparent goods explain Aquinas' deontological theory as they look at the
action being right or wrong in themselves. An apparent good is thinking something is right
when really it's wrong. A person who is doing an apparent good is causing them to sin. A
real good is the correct use of reason, leading to an action which leads us to perfection. For
example Aquinas argued that'no evil can be desirable either by natural appetite or by
conscious will. This is sought indirectly, namely because it's the consequence of some good'.
This means that people who commit apparent goods think they are doing real goods. This
once more makes natural law a deontological theory as it is looking at the action of what the
people are doing rather than the reasons they believe they are doing it. In this sense, only
real goods are intrinsically good which means only real good actions are pleasing to God.