Guide Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics

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Instead, they started from the claim that there are certain basic human goods that should not be acted against in any circumstances. The list of goods offered by John Finnis in the aforementioned Natural Law and Natural Rights , for example, included life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion.

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The identification of these goods is a matter of reflection, assisted by the findings of anthropologists. Furthermore, each of the basic goods is regarded as equally fundamental; there is no hierarchy among them. It would, of course, be possible to hold a consequentialist ethics that identified several basic human goods of equal importance and judged actions by their tendency to produce or maintain these goods. Thus, if life is a good, any action that led to a preventable loss of life would, other things being equal, be wrong. Proponents of natural law ethics, however, rejected this consequentialist approach; they insisted that it is impossible to measure the basic goods against each other.

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Instead of relying on consequentialist calculations, therefore, natural law ethics assumed an absolute prohibition of any action that aims directly against any basic good. The killing of the innocent, for instance, is always wrong, even in a situation where, somehow, killing one innocent person is the only way to save thousands of innocent people. What is not adequately explained in this rejection of consequentialism is why the life of one innocent person cannot be measured against the lives of a thousand innocent people—assuming that nothing is known about any of the people involved except that they are innocent.

Natural law ethics recognizes a special set of circumstances in which the effect of its absolute prohibitions would be mitigated. This is the situation in which the so-called doctrine of double effect would apply.


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If a pregnant woman, for example, is found to have a cancerous uterus, the doctrine of double effect allows a doctor to remove it, notwithstanding the fact that such action would kill the fetus. This allowance is made not because the life of the woman is regarded as more valuable than the life of the fetus, but because in removing the uterus the doctor is held not to aim directly at the death of the fetus; instead, its death is an unwanted and indirect side effect of the laudable act of removing a diseased organ.

Such a procedure was prohibited by the doctrine of double effect, for in performing it the doctor would be directly killing the fetus. This position was maintained even in cases where the death of the mother would certainly also bring about the death of the fetus. In these cases, the claim was made that the doctor who killed the fetus directly would be guilty of murder, but the deaths from natural causes of the mother and the fetus would not be his doing.

Natural Law and Modern Meta-Ethics

The example is significant, because it indicates the lengths to which proponents of natural law ethics were prepared to go in order to preserve the absolute nature of their prohibitions. In the last two decades of the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the Aristotelian idea that ethics should be based on a theory of the virtues rather than on a theory of what one ought to do. This revival was influenced by Elizabeth Anscombe and stimulated by Philippa Foot , who in essays republished in Virtues and Vices explored how acting ethically could be in the interest of the virtuous person.

In his view, the only way out of the resulting moral confusion was to ground morality in a tradition, such as the tradition represented by Aristotle and Aquinas.

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Virtue ethics, in the view of its proponents, promised a reconciliation of morality and self-interest. If, for example, generosity is a virtue, then a virtuous person will desire to be generous; and the same will hold for the other virtues.

If acting morally is acting as a virtuous human being would act, then virtuous human beings will act morally because that is what they are like, and that is what they want to do. But this point again raised the question of what human nature is really like. If virtue ethicists hope to develop an objective theory of the virtues, one that is valid for all human beings, then they are forced to argue that the virtues are based on a common human nature; but, as was noted above in the discussion of naturalism in ethics, it is doubtful that human nature can serve as a standard of what one would want to call morally correct or desirable behaviour.

If, on the other hand, virtue ethicists wish to base the virtues on a particular ethical tradition, then they are implicitly accepting a form of ethical relativism that would make it impossible to carry on ethical conversations with other traditions or with those who do not accept any tradition at all. A rather different objection to virtue ethics is that it relies on an idea of the importance of moral character that is unsupported by the available empirical evidence.

There is now a large body of psychological research on what leads people to act morally, and it points to the surprising conclusion that often very trivial circumstances have a decisive impact. Whether a person helps a stranger in obvious need, for example, largely depends on whether he is in a hurry and whether he has just found a small piece of change. If character plays less of a role in determining moral behaviour than is commonly supposed, an ethics that emphasizes virtuous character to the exclusion of all else will be on shaky ground.

In work published from the s, feminist philosophers argued that the prevalent topics, interests, and modes of argument in moral philosophy reflect a distinctively male point of view, and they sought to change the practice of the discipline to make it less male-biased in these respects. Their challenge raised questions in metaethics , normative ethics , and applied ethics. The feminist approach received considerable impetus from the publication of In a Different Voice , by the American psychologist Carol Gilligan.

Kohlberg claimed that children and young adults gradually progress toward more abstract and more impartial forms of ethical reasoning, culminating in the recognition of individual rights. When Gilligan studied moral development in girls and young women, she found less emphasis on impartiality and rights and more on love and compassion for the individuals with whom her subjects had relationships.

Caring should take precedence over individual rights and moral rules, and obligations to strangers may be limited or nonexistent.

The approach emphasized the particular situation, not abstract moral principles. Not all feminist moral philosophers accepted this approach. Robert P. Forgot password?

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Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics

Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. George Abstract This book gathers twenty seven eminent moral, legal, and political philosophers, lawyers, and theologians to engage critically with the work of John Finnis, a pioneer in the development of a new yet classically-grounded theory of natural law, and contains a substantial reply by Finnis.

More This book gathers twenty seven eminent moral, legal, and political philosophers, lawyers, and theologians to engage critically with the work of John Finnis, a pioneer in the development of a new yet classically-grounded theory of natural law, and contains a substantial reply by Finnis. Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication. Print Save Cite Email Share.

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