Part I: Theory
Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
– “Moral Injunctions,” in T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien
They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.
– Paul of Tarsus, Letter to the Romans 2:15, NRSV
Religion and Ethics
A great many people around the world are religious and look to their religion for moral guidance. See the graphic “Religions by a Percentage of Population” to get a sense of how many people are religiously affiliated around the globe. If this many people are religious, then it is worth taking a moment to look at how their religion informs their ethics. We can only speak in the broadest of strokes here. Consider these next few sections as representative artifacts rather than a systematic, thick description.
A Common Ethic?
Religion scholars will sometimes claim that the only thing all the religions have in common are their core ethical principles. To a certain extent, this is true. In all of the major religious traditions, there is the principle of reciprocity, the idea that one should treat others as one would like to be treated. We might attribute this to Jesus’ golden rule, but Jesus himself was paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, as he sometimes did.
But this commonality is not limited to Judaism and Christianity. Below is a table that lists the principle of reciprocity in a variety of sacred texts belonging to various religious traditions.
Table: Principle of Reciprocity in the texts of World Religions
|Buddhism||Look where you will, there is nothing dearer to man than himself; therefore, as it is the same thing that is dear to you and to others, hurt not others with what pains yourself.||Udana-Varga 5:18|
|Daoism||Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.||“Moral Injunctions,” in T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien|
|Hinduism||This is the sum of duty: do not to other what would cause pain if done to you.||Mahabharata 5:1517|
|Christianity||In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.||Matthew 7:12|
|Islam||Not one of you believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.||Hadith 40 of al-Nawawi 13|
|Judaism||What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.||Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a|
|Sikhism||No one is my enemy, and no one is a stranger. I get along with everyone.||Guru Granth Sahib, Page 1299|
|Jainism||Indifferent to worldly objects, a man should wander about treating all creatures in the world so as he himself would be treated.||Sutrakritanga Book 1, Lecture 11, Verse 33|
Religions also seem to be united on the subject of human worth and the corresponding duty we have towards others. They describe us as having immense value and our value corresponds to an obligation to look after one another. The answer to Cain’s question to God is “Yes, we are our sister and brother’s keeper.” In some religions, humanity reflects the divine. For instance, in Hinduism, at the core of a person is an atman, or a drop of Brahman. In the Western monotheisms, humans are made in the image of God, sometimes called the imago dei. In Buddhism, there are multiple prohibitions of killing persons, from the third pãrãjika to the fourteen precepts of the Order of Interbeing. In that order, we see stark imperatives, including
11) Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans or nature.
12) Do not kill. Do not let others kill.
In Islam, the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights declares that all human beings are loved by God, have equal worth, and that no one is superior to another on the basis of religion or deeds. In other religions of the world there are also directives to ensure the poor and other vulnerable members of society are taken care of.
Additionally, many religious texts and traditions also see the Earth as something which needs to be tended as a garden. This is most clearly stated in the “Islamic Declaration on Nature”:
For the Muslim, humankind’s role on earth is that of a Khalifah – vicegerent or trustee of God. We are God’s stewards and agents on Earth. We are not masters of this Earth; it does not belong to us to do what we wish. It belongs to God and He has entrusted us with its safekeeping.
And so, in the major religious traditions there is an ethical demand to treat other adherents and all of humanity with dignity, respect, and compassion. We also see humanity as the stewards of the Earth.
So far, so good, right?
Ethical theories allow for violence in certain situations and religious ethical systems are no different. Within each of the religious traditions above, there are occasions, primarily in the defense of innocents, where violence against another person is allowed, either by individuals or by agents of the state.
Additionally, human history is rife with religiously tinged violence. And so, some claim that because of
- the theoretical allowance of violence and
- the history of violence by religious adherents;
that religion is fundamentally violence-inducing and therefore should be excluded from serious ethical consideration. However, humans are plenty violent outside of religious considerations. Additionally, there is a tendency to mask political, ethnic, class, colonial, post-colonial, nationalist, and other strife under the guise of religious pretenses. Today this is seen most starkly in the reciprocal, but dramatically uneven, political violence between the state of Israel and various Palestinian groups. But we can also see this in the violence towards Muslims by Hindu nationalists in India in the name of Hindutva. We also see this in the Buddhist mob violence against Muslims in Shri Lanka and state sanctioned religiously and ethnically coded violence in Buddhist Myanmar.
Given the human tendency to find self and group worth through the creation of and subsequent negation of the Other, we should not be surprised to find these moral-political moves justified in certain instances of religious logics. For instance, Christian colonial Europe (the Occidental world) constructed (through literature, paintings, colonial records, armchair anthropology, theology, contracts, missionary accounts, ethnography, et cetera) what they called “the Orient,” a great swath of lands and peoples extending from North Africa through the Middle East, onto India, Persia, and finally China. All of the individual cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and so on were flattened into the Great Other and ascribed all of the character and cultural traits Europe wished it did not have. In naming the Orient as evil, hyper-sexual, immoral, deceitful, exotic, Europe was named as good, pious, moral, trustworthy, and so forth. Such moves were not unique to Christian Europe during the colonial era, but this is a representative sample of the process occurring with religious difference as a core component.
Theo-Political Religious Violence
Direct violence by religious groups can be discussed from at least two perspectives:
- Theocracy and
- Agent Apocalypticism.
In both of these perspectives, religious groups morally map the world according to their religious stories and see it as imperative that they either usher in the divine restoration of the world or police the world to maintain the divine order. For these groups, violence is one useful tool among others. State violence in theocratic societies are often fascistic to some degree. They hold that the organic harmonious whole is threatened by impiousness or the Religious Other and the social fabric then needs to be policed — violently if need be.
Agent Apocalypticism is almost the inverse of theocratic societies. Here there is a persecuted minority (or a perceived persecuted minority) that sees themselves as agents in the divine plan to radically reorient the world. When apocalyptic groups see themselves as powerless to effect change (as is often the case), they are commonly pacifist in practice. It is God alone who can wield violence for God’s own ends. — “Vengeance is mine, says the LORD.” God is justified in using whatever violence is necessary to achieve the radical reorientation of a world fundamentally rebelling from God. However, when the apocalyptic group sees themselves as agents of either instituting or triggering the start of God’s cleansing the Cosmos, then nearly any action, violent or nonviolent is justified. A great many of the instances of religiously motivated terrorism is rooted in apocalypticism. We see this in Jihadi-Salafism (vs. quietist Salafism and political Salafism) and Christian Reconstructionist terrorist groups. Perhaps the most dramatic and extended example of this process is found in the leadup to and aftermath of the Münster Rebellion.
Religion and Sexual Violence
So far, we have talked about theo-political violence. We also want to look briefly at sexual violence. Note that structures we describe as allowing sexual violence to exist and persist are not innate to religion. They are true for any insular and opaque group. The paradox is that the more conservative a religious group is on sexual mores, the more likely the group is to have cases of sexual abuse go unchecked. We have seen this in Judaic, Christian,, Muslim, and Buddhist communities. What these communities seem to have in common are
- hierarchical power relations,
- strict sexual mores, and
- opaque power structures.
These attributes do not cause sexual abuse, but they create spaces and power disparities that allow abuse to happen and incentivize the hiding of abuse when it does occur.
Conclusion: Embodied Religion and Morality
In this brief survey, we’ve seen that embodied religion and lived morality is a mixed bag. There are, in the lived traditions, beliefs and practices of adherents and the hearts of religious texts, tremendous potential and historical actuality of the concern for and material well being of people and our shared environment. We have also seen that expressions of religious traditions, either in by individuals or groups, logics that allow or demand harm of persons, communities, and our shared environment. The common facts appear to be humanity and our foibles rather than religion itself or any particular religious traditions.
Religion and Ethics – Two Theories
The rest of this chapter explores two approaches to religious ethics. One, represented here by Divine Command Theory (DCT), focuses upon the divine as the creator and communicator of morality. The other, Natural Law Theory (NLT), places more of an emphasis upon rational investigation into the divine’s construction of the universe, including morality, which can be discovered independently from religious revelation.
Divine Command Theory 
Religion and morality seem to go hand-in-hand, and specific moral codes are often grounded in specific religious traditions. Identifying the nature of the relationship between religion and morality may therefore seem straightforward: the right thing to do is whatever is right according to religious tradition. Justification for this claim derives support from the idea that religious moral codes have origins in divine will: “Morality is whatever God commands.” The theory that identifies the morally right with what God commands is called, unsurprisingly, ‘Divine Command Theory’. Divine Command Theory, or ‘DCT’, is attractive to religious practitioners for a couple reasons. One is that it captures the sense that religion provides guidance for living an ethical life; God provides this guidance through giving commands and shaping religious moral codes. Another is that DCT seems to provide a moral theory according to which there are objective moral facts; morality isn’t susceptible to subjective preferences or impermanent social consciousness. If the morally right is what God commands, there is a true measure of our actions and a genuine responsibility for our behavior.
Despite this attraction, DCT is subject to a dilemma, a style of argument that requires commitment to either of two possible, and unfavorable, options. The Divine Command Theorist is forced to make a choice: if the moral is whatever God commands, then either God commands things because they are right, or they are right because God commands them. As we will see, taking either option requires serious theological concessions.
But first, let’s look at several quotes, two from purported religious revelations, and one from a contemporary divine command theorist.
But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them […] just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
– Deuteronomy 20:16-18, NRSV
You shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword. All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall remain a perpetual ruin, never to be rebuilt.
– Deuteronomy 13:15-16, NRSV
How can divine command theorists make sense of purported commands from God that would seriously harm the innocent? Evangelical philosopher William Craig answers with the following.
According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
– William Craig, contemporary Divine Command Theorist, defending his understanding of God’s command to the Israelites to systematically exterminate the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7 and 20.
Understandably, this can easily give us pause. Biting the bullet and accepting a God that is beyond good and evil which issues commands that are moral because God issued them has been a recipe for all manner of violence towards the innocent across the world.
A similar dilemma is found in Plato’s Euthyphro, a dialogue in which Socrates inquires about the nature of piety, or holiness. Euthyphro begins by proposing that whatever the gods love is pious or holy, and that which they hate is impious or unholy. Socrates presses Euthyphro by raising the dilemma of whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or whether the pious is holy because it is loved by the gods. Euthyphro replies that the pious is loved by the gods because it is holy; the pious is pious for a reason independent of the relationship between piety and the gods. The gods, then, love the pious for this reason, whatever the reason ends up being. But whatever is beloved of the gods is beloved because the gods love it; being beloved by the gods is entirely dependent on the relationship between the beloved and the gods. Socrates cites this difference in dependence as a reason to reject ‘whatever the gods love’ as a legitimate definition of ‘piety’. There must be something else about piety, independent of its relationship to the gods, that establishes its true nature. Socrates is asking Euthyphro for this independent reason, which Euthyphro fails to provide.
We can instantiate the same kind of dilemma for Divine Command Theory, inquiring about the nature of morality. In what follows, we will address each option, or horn of the dilemma, in turn. In taking the first horn, that God commands things because they are right, the Divine Command Theorist will be required to concede that God is not unlimited in power. In taking the second horn, that things are right because God commands them, the Divine Command Theorist will be required to concede that God is not truly good. Since the Divine Command Theorist likely views unlimited power and unlimited goodness to be essential divine features, neither of these options is acceptable. Since it was the assumption that DCT is true that generated the dilemma, the Divine Command Theorist is forced to conclude that DCT is false.
Divine Command Theory seems to be an attempt to ground morality theistically; the morally right is whatever God commands. As a background commitment, the Divine Command Theorist is likely motivating the theory in the context of a religious tradition that accepts the divine perfections, or attributes of God. The perfections include
- omnipotence: God is all-powerful,
- omniscience: God is all-knowing, and
- omnibenevolence: God is all-good.
It is certainly fair to question whether there is such a being that has, or necessarily has, the divine perfections. But the dilemma does not hinge on successfully arguing against the perfections. Instead, it is because the Divine Command Theorist likely accepts the divine perfections that the dilemma arises in the first place.
A being with the divine perfections, God, seems to be the kind of being that is capable of commanding actions that are morally right. Plausibly, God knows what is right, God desires for the right to be done, and God is powerful enough to effectively command the right. Therefore, DCT is a natural extension of this variety of theism.
But, given the divine perfections, we can construct the dilemma for the Divine Command Theorist:
- A1. If DCT is true, then morality is whatever God commands.
- A2. If morality is whatever God commands, then either God commands things because they are morally right, or things are morally right because God commands them.
- A3. If God commands things because they are morally right, then God is not omnipotent.
- A4. If things are morally right because God commands them, then God is not omnibenevolent.
- A5. God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
- ∴ AC. DCT is false. (‘∴’ means ‘therefore’)
The argument begins in premise A1 by citing the definition of Divine Command Theory: the morally right is what God commands. The Divine Command Theorist will accept this premise, since it provides an accurate statement of what DCT is. Premise A2 sketches options for the relationship between morality and God’s commands: either God’s commands are grounded by moral facts or moral facts are grounded by God’s commands. If there is an explanatory relationship between God and morality, then it has to be one or the other. In the first case, God looks to the moral facts to determine what should be commanded, ensuring that God is commanding what is indeed right. In the second case, God’s commands establish the moral facts; whatever God decides is right becomes right in virtue of God’s command.
More work needs to be done to establish premises A3 and A4, and we will see auxiliary arguments for these premises shortly. But before we do so, note that even if you don’t agree with premise A5, the Divine Command Theorist almost certainly does. Premise A5 affirms a background commitment that the Divine Command Theorist likely accepts: God has the divine perfections. So, since accepting DCT yields two unacceptable options, the argument concludes with AC that DCT is false.
The First Horn: The Argument for A3
Premise A3 represents the first horn of the dilemma for the Divine Command Theorist: If God commands things because they are morally right, then God is not omnipotent. Premise A3 can be established by appealing to an auxiliary argument:
- B1. If God commands things because they are morally right, then morality is outside God’s control.
- B2. If morality is outside God’s control, then God is not omnipotent.
- ∴ A3. If God commands things because they are morally right, then God is not omnipotent.
B1, the first premise of the auxiliary argument highlights the relationship between morality and God’s commands in taking the first horn of the dilemma. According to the first horn, God will guarantee that any command given fits with what’s morally right. God will look to the moral facts and then make commands on their basis. So, suppose God is about to issue the Ten Commandments. God will investigate the nature of morality, identify the moral facts, and issue the commandments accordingly: Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, etc. God makes these commands because murder and stealing are wrong. The commandments should be followed, then, because the commandments accord with the moral facts. Since God is omnibenevolent, God will only issue commands that fit with the moral facts, and God defers to the moral facts in order to make moral commands. So, although God will command things that are morally right, the moral facts cannot be determined by God. Otherwise, they would be right because God commands them, and not the other way around.
Having deferred to the moral facts, God’s commands are therefore somewhat restricted, and we arrive at B2. God cannot decide to command just anything; God will command only what is right. Accordingly, morality is independent of God, and God’s commands are restricted to only what is right. Morality is not affected or changed by God’s will. If this is the case, then a whole range of facts, moral facts, are outside the scope of God’s control, and God has no power to change them. But if this is the case, then God is not omnipotent; God is not all-powerful.
Some argue that being restricted by moral facts does not threaten God’s omnipotence. God is also restricted, plausibly, by logical facts. God cannot, for instance, make a round square, but this may not seem to be much of a threat to God’s power. Unlike logical facts, however, one might argue that moral facts, like natural facts or physical facts, seem to be exactly the kinds of facts that should be within God’s power. But, in taking this horn of the dilemma, the moral facts instead have power over God.
So, we arrive at A3: If God commands things because they are morally right, then God is not omnipotent. This is an unfortunate result for the Divine Command Theorist, who will consider rejecting God’s omnipotence to be unacceptable. The first horn may then prod the Divine Command Theorist to consider the other option. Instead, perhaps things are morally right because God commands them.
The Second Horn: The Argument for A4
Premise A4 represents the second horn of the dilemma for the Divine Command Theorist: If things are morally right because God commands them, then God is not omnibenevolent. Premise A4 can be established by appealing to an auxiliary argument:
- C1. If things are morally right because God commands them, then God’s commands are morally arbitrary.
- C2. If God’s commands are morally arbitrary, then God is not omnibenevolent.
- ∴ A4. If things are morally right because God commands them, then God is not omnibenevolent.
C1, the first premise of this auxiliary argument illustrates the challenge of taking the second horn of the dilemma. This relationship between God’s commands and morality makes it the case that God could command anything whatsoever and it would be morally right simply because God commanded it. So, when God issues the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, a class of actions, particular kinds of killing, became morally wrong. If God never gave the command, then these kinds of killing would be morally acceptable. If God had not prohibited it, then it would not be morally wrong, for instance, to kill an innocent person for no reason, despite any apparently-bad consequences or apparently-bad intentions.
Since, according to the second horn, the moral facts depend entirely on God’s commands, there is no objective standard that God must look to before making commands. God could command, ‘Thou shalt put on thy right shoe before thy left shoe except on every third Thursday of the month, in which case thou shalt put on thy left shoe before thy right.’, and it would become immoral to put on your left shoe before your right on a Monday. Such a command is totally unprincipled, and we should feel no moral pull toward either shoe. This is because such a command would be morally arbitrary, or without principle or moral reason. There is no external standard by which we could measure the legitimacy of the command and no recourse to appeal to if we broke it. So, C1, if things are right because God commands them, then God’s commands are morally arbitrary.
Even worse, if God’s commands are morally arbitrary, then God could command things that we consider to be morally reprehensible, and these things would become right. For instance, God could command ‘Thou shalt torture thy children’, and it would be morally right to torture your children. Any complaints that this is wrong would fall on deaf ears, for, according to the second horn, if God commanded it, it is not wrong. The fact that the second horn allows that God could command things like the torture of children negates any lingering plausibility concerning God’s omnibenevolence.
It is very tempting at this point to think, “Well, God would never command the torture of children, because torturing children is wrong, and God would not command something that is wrong.” But note that in making this move, we find ourselves again facing the first horn. If God would not command something that is wrong, then this is possible only if God looks to the moral facts in order to determine what to command. But, if God does so, then morality is outside God’s control. The Divine Command Theorist can make this move, but then they must give up on God’s omnipotence.
The moral arbitrariness of God’s commands is a serious problem for the Divine Command Theorist, which we see in C2. Recall that God is supposed to be omnibenevolent. When omnibenevolence is attributed to God, it is supposed to highlight a perfection or a laudable divine quality. But if morality is arbitrary, then saying that God is good becomes trivial. It would be analogous to saying that God is divine, or, like Euthyphro, saying that whatever is beloved by the gods is loved by the gods. It may be true, but it does not provide any reason to think that divinity is a good-making feature or a perfection; it is true simply because anything that is God is divine. Likewise, anything that God commands would be morally right. So, saying that God is omnibenevolent is merely another way of saying that God meets the moral standard that God establishes. This is not praise-worthy; it is trivial.
We arrive at A4: If things are morally right because God commands them, then God is not omnibenevolent. Like rejecting God’s omnipotence, rejecting God’s omnibenevolence is likely to be considered unacceptable. In taking the second horn, the Divine Command Theorist fares just as poorly as in taking the first. Both options require conceding divine perfections, but this is inconsistent with what the Divine Command Theorist is trying to accomplish.
Below is how the argument as a whole operates.
Having established the auxiliary arguments, we now see the dilemma completed. If DCT is true, then either
- God commands things because they are morally right, or
- they are morally right because God commands them.
If God commands things because they are right, then God is not omnipotent. If things are right because God commands them, then God is not omnibenevolent. Since God is (according to the divine perfections) both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then we must conclude that DCT is false.
DCT has attraction given certain religious commitments. It is unlikely that an atheist, for instance, would endorse DCT. The dilemma is therefore forceful because it is contingent on a theological understanding that attributes the divine perfections to God. It is logically possible, however, for the Divine Command Theorist to reject A5 and deny that God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. An objection could take the form of arguing that it is theologically acceptable to say that God is not omnipotent or that God is not omnibenevolent. A Divine Command Theorist might prioritize the connection between God and morality over the divine perfections, and they may consider this to be necessary, albeit unpalatable, concession.
Another option is to deny the explanatory relationship between morality and God’s commands. Perhaps what God commands is morally right but not because it is morally right, and whatever is morally right is morally right but not because God commands it. On this option, the class of actions that God commands is identical to the class of actions that are morally right, but there is no dependence in either direction.
In reply, we might grant that these options are possible. They are not, however, desirable. While there may be theists willing to concede the divine perfections, we suggest that in doing so we likewise concede attraction to grounding morality theistically. The connection between God and morality seems attractive because of the divine perfections, and conceding the divine perfections weakens the case to think that God and morality are inextricably linked. Further, if one thinks that God and morality are inextricably linked, it is implausible to argue that there is no explanatory relationship between them.
So, while it is natural for religious practitioners to see religion as authoritative in matters of morality. But if DCT is true, and morality is whatever God commands, then a dilemma arises. Either way we try to define the relationship between the morally right and the commands of God, an unacceptable result follows. Either morality is outside God’s control, in which case God is not omnipotent, or God’s commands are morally arbitrary, in which case God is not omnibenevolent. Since omnipotence and omnibenevolence are divine perfections that cannot be simply subtracted from God’s nature, both horns of the dilemma are unacceptable. As a result, we, and the Divine Command Theorist, should conclude that DCT is false.
It is for this reason that religious ethicists shy away from Divine Command Theory and opt for other religious approaches to ethics. And here we introduce Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law Theory.
Natural Law Theory
Introduction to Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was an intellectual and religious revolutionary, living at a time of great philosophical, theological and scientific development. He was a member of the Dominican Friars and taught by one of the greatest intellects of the age, Albert the Great (1208–1280). In a nutshell Aquinas wanted to move away from Plato’s thinking, which was hugely influential at the time, and instead introduce Aristotelian ideas to science, nature and theology.
Aquinas wrote an incredible amount — in fact one of the miracles accredited to him was the amount he wrote! His most famous work is Summa Theologica and this runs to some three and half thousand pages and contains many fascinating and profound insights, such as proofs for God’s existence. The book remained a fundamental basis for Catholic thinking right up to the 1960s! But do not worry we will only be focusing on a few key ideas! Specifically books I–II, questions 93–95.
For Aquinas, what role, if any at all, does God have when it comes to morality? For him, God’s commands are there to help us to come to see what is right and wrong rather than determine what is right and wrong. That is, Aquinas opts for the Option A in the Euthyphro dilemma as stated above. But then this raises the obvious question: if it is not God’s commands that make something right and wrong, then what does? Does not God just fall out of the picture? This is where his Natural Law Theory comes in.
Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory contains four different types of law:
- Eternal Law,
- Natural Law,
- Human Law and
- Divine Law.
The way to understand these four laws and how they relate to one another is via the Eternal Law, so we’d better start there…
By Eternal Law Aquinas means God’s rational purpose and plan for all things. And because the Eternal Law is part of God’s mind then it has always, and will always, exist. The Eternal Law is not simply something that God decided at some point to write.
Aquinas thinks that everything has a purpose and follows a plan. He, like Aristotle, is a teleologist  and believes that every object has a telos; the acorn has the telos of growing into an oak; the eye a telos of seeing; a rat of eating and reproducing etc. If something fulfills its purpose/plan then it is following the Eternal Law.
For Aquinas, there is an element of Eternal Law which intersects with how we are live and relate to others. This is what’s known as Natural Law. Aquinas thinks that something is good in as far as it fulfills its purpose/plan. This fits with common sense. A “good” eye is one which sees well, an acorn is a good if it grows into a strong oak tree. But what about humans? Just as a good eye is to see, and a good acorn is to grow then a good human is to…? Is to what? How are we going to finish this sentence? What do you think?
Aquinas thinks that the answer is reason and that it is this that makes us distinct from rats and rocks. What is right for me and you as humans is to act according to reason. If we act according to reason then we are partaking in the Natural Law.
If we all act according to reason, then we will all agree to some overarching general rules (what Aquinas calls primary precepts). These are absolute and binding on all rational agents and because of this Aquinas rejects relativism.
The first primary precept is that good is to be pursued and done and evil avoided. Aquinas reasons this is the guiding principle for all our decision making.
Before unpacking this, it is worth clarifying something about what “law” means. Imagine that we are playing Clued and we are trying to work out the identity of the murderer. There are certain rules about how to move around the board, how to deal out cards, how to reveal the murderer etc. These rules are all written down and can be consulted.
However, in playing the game there are other rules that operate which are so obvious that they are neither written down nor spoken. One such rule is that a claim made in the game cannot both be true and false; if it is Professor Plum who is the murderer then it cannot be true that it is not Professor Plum who is the murderer. These are internal rules which any rational person can come to recognize by simply thinking and are not external like the other rules — such as you can only have one guess as to the identity of the murderer. When Aquinas talks of Natural Laws, he means internal rules and not external ones.
Natural Law does not generate an external set of rules that are written down for us to consult but rather it generates general rules that any rational agent can come to recognize simply in virtue of being rational. For example, for Aquinas it is not as if we need to check whether we should pursue good and avoid evil, as it is just part of how we already think about things. Aquinas gives some more examples of primary precepts:
- Protect and preserve human life.
- Reproduce and educate one’s offspring.
- Know and worship God.
- Live in a society.
These precepts are primary because they are true for all people in all instances and are consistent with Natural Law.
Aquinas also introduces what he calls the Human Law which gives rise to what he calls “Secondary Precepts”. These might include such things as do not drive above 70mph on a motorway, do not kidnap people, always wear a helmet when riding a bike, do not hack into someone’s bank account. Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they are imposed by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc.
It is not always morally acceptable to follow secondary precepts. It is only morally acceptable if they are consistent with the Natural Law. If they are, then we ought to follow them, if they are not, then we ought not. To see why think through an example.
Consider the secondary precept that “if you are a woman and you live in Saudi Arabia then you are not allowed to drive”. Aquinas would argue that this secondary precept is practically irrational because it treats people differently based on an arbitrary difference (gender). He would reason that if the men in power in Saudi actually really thought hard then they too would recognize that this law is morally wrong. This in turn means that Aquinas would think that this human law does not fit with the Natural Law. Hence, it is morally wrong to follow a law that says that men can, and women cannot, drive. So although it is presented as a secondary precept, because it is not in accordance with Natural Law, it is what Aquinas calls an apparent good. This is in contrast with those secondary precepts which are in accordance with the Natural Law and which he calls the real goods.
Unlike primary precepts, Aquinas is not committed to there being only one set of secondary precepts for all people in all situations. It is consistent with Aquinas’s thinking to have a law to drive on the right in the US and on the left in the UK as there is no practical reason to think that there is one correct side of the road on which to drive.
It is clear that on our own we are not very good at discovering primary precepts and consequently Aquinas thinks that what we ought to do is talk and interact with people. To discover our real goods — our secondary precepts which accord with Natural Law — we need to be part of a society. For example, we might think that “treat Christians as secondary citizens” is a good secondary precept until we talk and live with Christians. The more we can think and talk with others in society the better and it is for this reason that “live in society” is itself a primary precept.
But looking at what we have said already about Natural Laws and primary and secondary precepts, we might think that there is no need for God. If we can learn these primary precepts by rational reflection then God simply drops out of the story (recall the Euthyphro dilemma above).
Just to recap as there a lots of moving parts to the story. We now have Eternal Law (God’s plans/purpose for all things), Natural Laws (our partaking in the Eternal Law which leads to primary precepts), Human Laws (humans making specific laws to capture the truths of the Natural Laws which lead to secondary precepts) and now finally Aquinas introduces the Divine Law.
The Divine Law, which is discovered through revelation, should be thought of as the Divine equivalent of the Human Law (those discovered through rational reflection and created by people). Divine laws are those that God has, in His grace, seen fit to give us and are those “mysteries”, those rules given by God which we find in scripture; for example, the ten commandments. But why introduce the Divine Law at all? It certainly feels we have enough Laws. Here is a story to illustrate Aquinas’s answer.
A number of years ago I was talking to a minister of a church. He told me about an instance where a married man came to ask his advice about whether to finish an affair he was having. The man’s reasoning went as follows — “I am having an affair which just feels so right, we are both very much in love and surely God would want what is best for me! How could it be wrong if we are so happy?”
In response, the minister opened the Bible to the Ten Commandments and pointed out the commandment that it says that it is wrong to commit adultery. Case closed. The point of this story is simple. We can be confused and mistaken about what we think we have most reason to do and because of this we need someone who actually knows the mind of God to guide us, and who better to know this than God Himself. This then is precisely what is revealed in the Divine Law.
Or consider another example. We recognize that we find it hard to forgive our friends and nearly always impossible to forgive our enemies. We tell ourselves we have the right to be angry, to bear grudges, etc. Isn’t this just human? However, these human reasons are distortions of the Eternal Law. We need some guidance when it comes to forgiveness and it is where the Divine Law which tells us that we should forgive others — including our enemies. Following the Human Laws and the Divine Laws will help us to fulfill our purposes and plans and be truly happy.
Summary of Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory
For Aquinas everything has a function (a telos) and the good thing(s) to do are those acts that fulfill that function. Some things such as acorns, and eyes, just do that naturally. However, humans are free and hence need guidance to find the right path. That right path is found through reasoning and generates the “internal” Natural Law. By following the Natural Law we participate in God’s purpose for us in the Eternal Law.
However, the primary precepts that derive from the Natural Law are quite general, such as, pursue good and shun evil. So we need to create secondary precepts which can actually guide our day-to-day behavior. But we are fallible so sometimes we get these secondary precepts wrong, sometimes we get them right. When they are wrong they only reflect our apparent goods. When they are right they reflect our real goods.
Finally, however good we are because we are finite and sinful, we can only get so far with rational reflection. We need some revealed guidance and this comes in the form of Divine Law. So to return to the Euthyphro dilemma. God’s commands through the Divine Law are ways of illuminating what is in fact morally acceptable and not what determines what is morally acceptable. Aquinas rejects the Divine Command Theory.
Putting this into Practice: The Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE)
Let’s consider some examples to show that what we have said so far might actually work. Imagine someone considering suicide. Is this morally acceptable or not? Recall, it is part of the Natural Law to preserve and protect human life. Clearly suicide is not preserving and protecting human life. It is therefore irrational to kill oneself and cannot be part of God’s plan for our life; hence it is morally unacceptable.
Imagine that someone is considering having an abortion after becoming pregnant due to rape. The same reasoning is going to apply. We ought to preserve and protect human life and hence an abortion in this case is morally wrong.
However, as we will see, Aquinas thinks that there are some instances where it is morally acceptable to kill an innocent person and therefore there may be occasions when it is morally acceptable to kill a fetus. But how can this be correct? Will this not violate the primary precept about preserving life? The answer is to understand that for Aquinas, an action is not just about what we do externally but is also about what we do internally (i.e. our motivations). With this distinction he can show that, for example, killing an innocent can be morally acceptable.
To make this clear, Aquinas introduces one of his most famous ideas: the “Doctrine of Double Effect”. Let’s see how this works.
Imagine a child brought up in a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive family. He is frequently scared for his life and is locked in the house for days at a time.
One day when his father is drunk and ready to abuse him again he quickly grabs a kitchen knife and slashes his father’s artery.
His father bleeds out and dies in a matter of minutes. Do you think the son did anything wrong?
Many people would say that he did nothing morally wrong and in fact, some might even go as far as to say that he should get a pat on the back for his actions. What about Aquinas? What would he say?
We might think that given the Natural Law to “preserve and protect life” he would say that this action is morally wrong. But, in fact, he would say the son’s action was not morally wrong (Aquinas discusses self-defense in the Summa Theologica (II–II, Qu. 64)).
So why is the son killing the father not in direct contradiction with the primary precept? Aquinas asks us to consider the difference between the external act — the fact that the father was killed, and the internal act — the motive.
In our example, the action is one of self-defense because of the son’s internal action and because of this, Aquinas would think the killing is morally acceptable. This distinction and conclusion is possible because of Aquinas’s Doctrine of Double Effect which states that if an act fulfils four conditions then it is morally acceptable. If not, then it is not.
- The first principle is that the act must be a good one.
- The second principle is that the act must come about before the consequences.
- The third is that the intention must be good.
- The fourth, it must be for serious reasons.
This is abstract so let’s go back to our example.
- The act of the son was performed to save his own life so that is good — we can tick (1).
- Moreover, the act to save his life came about first — we can tick (2).
- The son did not first act to kill his father in order to save his own life. That would be doing evil to bring about good and that is never morally acceptable. The intention of the son was to preserve and protect his life, so the intention was good — tick (3).
- Finally, the reasons were serious as it was his life or his father’s life — tick (4).
So given that the act meets all four principles, it is in line with the DDE and hence the action is morally acceptable, even though it caused someone to die and hence seems contrary to the primary precept of preserving life.
We can draw a contrasting case. Imagine that instead of slashing his father in self-defense, the son plans the killing. He works out the best time, the best day and then sets up a trip wire causing his father to fall from his flat window to his death. Does this action meet the four criteria of the DDE? Well, no, because the son’s intention is to kill the father rather than save his own life — we must put a cross at (3).
We have already seen that suicide is morally impermissible for Aquinas, so does that mean that any action you take that leads knowingly to your own death is morally wrong? No. Because even though the external act of your own death is the same, the internal act — the intention — might be different. An action is judged via the Natural Law both externally and internally.
Imagine a case where a soldier sees a grenade thrown into her barracks. Knowing that she does not have time to defuse it or throw it away, she throws herself on the grenade. It blows up, killing her but saving other soldiers in her barracks. Is this wrong or right? Aquinas says this is morally acceptable given DDE. If we judge this act both internally and externally we’ll see why.
The intention — the internal act — was not to kill herself even though she could foresee that this was certainly what was going to happen.
- The act itself is good, to save her fellow soldiers (1).
- The order is right, she is not doing evil so good will happen (2).
- The intention is good, it is to save her fellow soldiers (3).
- The reason is serious, it concerns people’s lives (4).
Contrast this with a soldier who decides to kill herself by blowing herself up. The intention is not good and hence the DDE does not permit this suicidal action.
Finally, imagine that a woman is pregnant and also has inoperable uterine cancer. The doctors have two choices; to take out the uterus and save the mother, but the fetus will die; or leave the fetus to develop and be born healthy, but the woman will die. What would Aquinas say in this instance? Well using the DDE he would say that it is morally acceptable to remove the cancer.
The action is to remove the cancer; it has the foreseeable consequences of the fetus dying but that is not what is intended.
- The action — to remove the cancer — is good (1).
- The act of removing the cancer comes before the death of the fetus (2).
- The intention to save the woman’s life is also good (3).
- Finally, the reasons are serious as they are about the life and death of the woman and the fetus (4).
So even though this is a case where the doctor’s actions bring about the death of the fetus it would be acceptable for Aquinas through his Natural Law Theory, as is shown via the DDE.
Some Thoughts about Natural Law Theory
There are many things we might consider when thinking through Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory. There are some obvious problems we could raise, such as the problem about whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then the Eternal Law does not exist and therefore the whole theory comes tumbling down. However, as good philosophers we ought always to operate with a principle of charity and grant our opponent is rational and give the strongest possible interpretation of their argument. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that God exists. How plausible is Aquinas’s theory? There are a number of things that we can pick up on.
Aquinas’s theory works on the idea that if something is “natural”, that is, if it fulfills its function, then it is morally acceptable, but there are a number of unanswered questions relating to natural.
We might ask, why does “natural” matter? We can think of things that are not “natural” but which are perfectly acceptable, and things which are natural which are not. For example, wearing clothes, taking medication and body piercing certainly are not natural, but we would not want to say such things are morally wrong.
On the other hand, we might consider that violence is a natural response to an unfaithful partner, but also think that such violence is morally unacceptable. So, it is not true that we can discover what is morally acceptable or not simply by discovering what is natural and what is not.
Put this worry aside. Recall, Aquinas thinks that reproduction is natural and hence reproduction is morally acceptable. This means that sex that does not lead to reproduction is morally unacceptable. Notice that Aquinas is not saying that if sex does not lead to pregnancy it is wrong. After all, sometimes the timing is not right. His claim is rather that if there is no potential for sex to lead to pregnancy then it is wrong. However, even with this qualification this would mean a whole host of things such as homosexuality and contraception are morally wrong. We might take this as a reason to rethink Aquinas’s moral framework. There is, though, a more fundamental worry at the heart of this approach (and Aristotle’s) to ethics. Namely, they think that everything has a goal (telos). Now, with some things this might be plausible. Things such as the eye or an acorn have a clear function — to grow, to see — but what about humans? This seems a bit less obvious! Do humans (rather than our individual parts) really have a telos? There are certainly some philosophers — such as the existentialists, for example Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) — who think that there is no such thing as human nature and no such thing as a human function or goal.
But if we are unconvinced that humans have a goal, then this whole approach to ethics seems flawed.
Next we might raise questions about DDE. Go back to our example about abortion. For Aquinas it is morally acceptable to remove the uterus even if we know that in doing so the fetus will die. What is not morally acceptable is to intend to kill the fetus by removing the uterus. On first reading this seems to makes sense; we have an intuitive feel for what DDE is getting at. However, when we consider it in more detail it is far from clear.
Imagine two doctors who (apparently) do exactly the same thing, they both remove the uterus and the fetus dies. The one intends to take out the uterus — in full knowledge that the fetus will die — the other intends to kill the fetus. For the DDE to work in the way that Aquinas understands it, this difference in intention makes the moral difference between the two doctors. However, is there really a moral difference? To put pressure on the answer that there is, ask yourself what you think it means to intend to do something. If the first doctor says “I did not intend to kill the fetus” can we make sense of this? After all, if you asked her “did you know that in taking out the uterus the fetus would die?” she would say “yes, of course”. But if she did this and the fetus died, did not she intend (in some sense) to kill the fetus? So, this issue raises some complex question about the nature of the mind, and how we might understand intentions.
Finally, we might wonder how easy it is to work out what actually to do using the Natural Law. We would hope our moral theory gives us direction in living our lives. That, we might think, is precisely the role of a moral theory. But how might it work in this case?
For Aquinas, if we rationally reflect then we arrive at the right way of proceeding. If this is in line with the Natural Law and the Divine Law then it is morally acceptable. If it is out of line, then it is not. The assumption is that the more we think, the more rational we become, the more convergence there will be. We’ll all start to have similar views on what is right and wrong. But is this too optimistic? Very often, even after extensive reflection and cool deliberation with friends and colleagues, it is not obvious to us what we as rational agents should do. We all know people we take to be rational, but we disagree with them on moral issues. And even in obviously rational areas such as mathematics, the best mathematicians are not able to agree. We might then be skeptical that as rational agents we will come to be in line with the Natural and Divine Laws.
Aquinas is an intellectual giant. He wrote an incredible amount covering a vast array of topics. His influence has been immense. His central idea is that humans are created by God to reason — that is our function. Humans do the morally right thing if we act in accordance with reason, and the morally wrong thing if we don’t. Aquinas is an incredibly subtle and complex thinker. For example, his Doctrine of Double Effect makes us to reflect on what we actually mean by “actions”, “intentions” and “consequences”. His work remains much discussed and researched and typically still plays a central role in a Christian Ethics that rejects Divine Command Theory.
- Thinking that Aquinas is a Divine Command Theorist.
- Thinking that Eternal Law is something that God decided to write.
- Thinking that Natural Laws are laws of science — e.g. law of thermodynamics.
- Thinking that all the “laws” are absolute.
- Thinking that it is always morally required of us to follow secondary precepts.
- Thinking that Aquinas is committed to there being only one set of secondary precepts for all people in all situations.
- If God exists, then what — if anything — do you think that has to do with what is right and wrong?
- We might answer the “arbitrariness” dilemma by citing God’s nature. Why might this answer be problematic?
- What is the point of the Euthyphro dilemma and how can this create problems for DCT?
- What are the reasons some people believe religion is necessary in order to have morality? Do you think they are right? Why or why not?
- If God is perfect, does DCT still make sense? Why or why not?
- What is the Eternal Law?
- What are Natural Laws and primary precepts?
- What are Human Laws and secondary precepts?
- What are Divine Laws?
- Just as a good eye is to see, and a good acorn is to grow then a good human is to…? Is to what? How are we going to finish this sentence?
- People often talk about what is “natural”? What do you think they mean by this? How useful is the notion of “natural” in a moral theory?
- Think of a descriptive claim. Think of a prescriptive claim. Why might it be problematic moving from one to the other?
- If people thought long enough, do you think there would be convergence on what is morally right and wrong?
- What is the doctrine of double effect?
- What is the difference, if anything, between intending to bring about some end and acting where you know your action will bring about that end?
- Apparent goods
- A priori
- A posteriori
- Eternal Law
- External acts
- Natural Law
- Primary precepts
- Real goods
- Secondary precepts
- Internal acts
- Doctrine of Double Effect
References and Notes
Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, freely available at http://www. summatheologica.info/summa/parts/?p=1
Plato, Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett, freely available at http:// classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html
- Religions by Percentage of Population
- Occident and Orient as construsted and mapped onto the world by European colonialists.
- Magnificat by Ben Wildflower
- See the introduction to Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. ↵
- Compare Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets in Matthew 22:40 with Hillel’s summary of the Torah in Shabbat 31a. ↵
- In the opening chapters of the book of Genesis there is the myth of the first murder. YHWH asks Cain where his brother Abel is (Cain had killed him s few verses before). Cain responds by asking YHWH whether or not he is his brother’s keeper. ↵
- The Desert Monotheisms are those religions that follow the God of Abraham as the one true god and arose in what is now known as the Middle East. The exact meaning of the phrase is contested, but we will use the term to denote the idea that the God of Abraham has created humanity with a special purpose, place, and role in creation. ↵
- Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 108. ↵
- Keown, 36. ↵
- The Nineteenth Islamic Conference of Foreign Minister, “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, 1990, http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/instree/cairodeclaration.html. ↵
- Abdullah Omar Nasseef, “The Muslim Declaration on Nature,” in The Assisi Declarations (Assisi, 1986), 10–12, http://www.arcworld.org/downloads/THE ASSISI DECLARATIONS.pdf. ↵
- Dibyesh Anand, “The Violence of Security: Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Representing ‘the Muslim’ as a Danger,” The Round Table 94, no. 379 (April 1, 2005): 203–15, https://doi.org/10.1080/00358530500099076. ↵
- Matthew Gindin, “Sri Lanka Struggles to Contain Its Violent Buddhist Extremists,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, March 9, 2018, https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/sri-lanka-buddhist-violence/. ↵
- Matthew Gindin, “Rohingya in ‘Last Stages of Genocide,’” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, April 25, 2018, https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/rohingya-genocide/. ↵
- The best introduction to this historical phenomenon is E.W. Said, Orientalism (Penguin Group, 2006), https://books.google.com/books?id=66sIHa2VTmoC. ↵
- Here we use allusions to Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:17-19 to stand in for the religious claim (found in most religions of the world) that violence is prohibited, particularly retributive violence. The scales of justice are balanced by God, not by the followers of God. ↵
- Jamel Velji, “Apocalyptic Religion and Violence,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, ed. Michael Jerryson, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Margo Kitts, 2013, http://oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199759996.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199759996-e-14. ↵
- Joas Wagemakers, Salafism (Interactive Factory, n.d.), http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-255. ↵
- Waite Gary K., “From Apocalyptic Crusaders to Anabaptist Terrorists: Anabaptist Radicalism after Miinster, 1535-1544,” Archiv Für Reformationsgeschichte - Archive for Reformation History 80, no. jg (1989): 173, https://doi.org/10.14315/arg-1989-jg10. ↵
- Sara Zalcberg, “The Place of Culture and Religion in Patterns of Disclosure and Reporting Sexual Abuse of Males: A Case Study of Ultra Orthodox Male Victims.,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 26, no. 5 (July 2017): 590–607, https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2017.1316335. ↵
- Elizabeth B. Ludwin King, “Transitional Justice and The Legacy Of Child Sexual Abuse in The Catholic Church” 81, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 121–43. ↵
- Andrew S. Denney, Kent R. Kerley, and Nickolas G. Gross, “Child Sexual Abuse in Protestant Christian Congregations: A Descriptive Analysis of Offense and Offender Characteristics” 9, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 27–27. ↵
- Henna Budhwani and Kristine R. Hearld, “Muslim Women’s Experiences with Stigma, Abuse, and Depression: Results of a Sample Study Conducted in the United States.,” Journal of Women’s Health (15409996) 26, no. 5 (May 2017): 435–41, https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2016.5886. ↵
- “Fears Mount over Scale of Buddhist Sect Sexual Abuse; Followers Allege They Were Coerced into Sex in 1970s and 80s with Elders of UK’s Triratna Order,” The Observer (London, England), 2017, edsgbe, http://0-search.ebscohost.com.avalon.searchmobius.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgbe&AN=edsgcl.481755225&site=eds-live. ↵
- Zalcberg, “The Place of Culture and Religion in Patterns of Disclosure and Reporting Sexual Abuse of Males: A Case Study of Ultra Orthodox Male Victims.” ↵
- The bulk of this section on the problems with Divine Command Theory was written by Kristin Seemuth Whaley. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Graceland University. She specializes in metaphysics and philosophy of religion, and she is a recipient of the AAPT Grant for Innovations in Teaching. You can find more information about Dr. Seemuth Whaley’s work at kristinseemuthwhaley.com. This work was originally published in Introduction to Ethics put out by NGE Far Press. The whole work was released under a CC-BY license. Edits primarily consist of quotes and diagrams. ↵
- Note that this command is conditional, only to be done when the people of the town propose worshiping gods other than YHWH. ↵
- Quoted from Craig's post "Slaughter of the Canaanites" published through Reasonable Faith, founded by Craig. ↵
- This section is primarily written by Dimmok and Fisher. ↵
- Stems from the Greek term “telos,” which refers to what we might call a purpose, goal, end/or the true final function of an object & not to be confused with a telelogical ethical theory such as Utilitarianism. ↵