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Ethics and Religion

Updated on October 19, 2012

Natural Law

Though there are many ethical theories that have no basis on religion, there are some that do, one example is Natural Law. Natural Law is the application of human reason through our observations of the universe, although it isn’t actually natural at all, nor is it a law that everyone has to abide by. Its foundations are in Aristotle’s theory that everything has a meaning, a purpose and a function. Now, though Aristotle was not in the same way religious as Christians, he did believe that there was a God. This is how some Christians were able to follow this theory – because they believe that God has provided them with meaning, a purpose to their existence and a function. His main idea of what Natural Law had set out to achieve is ‘eudemonia’, which today translates into happiness; however, when he speaks of happiness, he does not mean our transient happiness that we have now, he is talking more of fulfillment, and the only way to get fulfillment is by seeking out the good. An example to explain Natural Law is:

There is a woman who wants an abortion. People who are in ‘pro-choice’ would say that it was her choice whether or not she wants an abortion or not, because it is her body and she should have the right to decide what happens to it; however Catholics, and those who follow Natural Law would be totally against this because it is taking away a life, which in the law of nature is prohibited as you are meant to preserve life to its end. They believe God’s intention is right and so we should not interfere with his plans.

Kant, who was an Absolutist, which is a form of Natural Law, came up with examples to show how sometimes there can be contradictions in the law of nature; one example was showing the contradiction of doing the most loving thing, and following Natural Law:

There is a man, who is living a very depressed life; he is so depressed that he just doesn’t want to live anymore, so decides that he wants to commit suicide. Now out of self-love this could be considered morally acceptable, for if he keeps on living, he will continue to suffer; but, if he committed suicide that suffering would be over. However, according to Natural Law, you must preserve life to its end. It should not be extended, or shortened intentionally because it would go against God’s wishes, therefore you cannot abide by both rules of self-love and Natural Law. This is why Kant said that we must take the moral and rational way of life, which in fact are our human desires. For this situation, the moral and rational solution is to not commit suicide and to try to improve your way of life so you are not suffering any longer.

ST Thomas Aquinas’ idea of what Natural Law was is the most natural of everyone else’s claims and stand more on the basis of what God intends us to do. He said that our human nature is that which makes us, such as the need to live, reproduce, acquire knowledge, have a role in society and to worship God. He gave this idea of Natural Law because he believed that the law of nature was God’s Wisdom; he gave us life and controls it to its end. This would suggest that we have no free will or decision in the matter of what happens in the universe, so should not decided upon things such as life and death because it is God’s job, not ours.

There are three constituents that Natural Law has. They are the discriminating norm, the binding norm and the manifesting norm. Aquinas was mainly on the side of the discriminating norm, which is the norm of human nature and what we were naturally made to do, whereas Kant was more the binding and manifesting norm which was based on rationality and morality. Though there are many variations to what Natural Law actually is, it is all based on the conviction that God actually exists.

Basing Ethics on Religion

There are people, religious or not who believe it is not right to place a moral theory based on religion; at the same time there are millions who believe that there is nothing wrong with doing that, or that it is better that way.

For example, some people say that God being the creator of the world that there is no other sensible option but to follow ethics having God as the main source of it. They believe that it is the only way to get a correct ethical theory that will work, because others do not work with God to create the world that he has planned it to be. An example would be an Absolutist approach. Christians believe that God made every human being equal; no one is better than somebody else and have the same value – therefore, they believe that we should all abide by the same principles. It doesn’t matter who you are, we should all follow the universal maxims.

However, some people do feel it is not right to base ethics on religion; this is because, not everyone is religious. When it comes to Natural Law, its whole foundation is placed in the conviction that God does not exist. If you do not believe God exists, then how are you possibly going to be able to follow such a theory? You can’t. Those who believe they need God as the source of ethics are only seeing it from that point of view that he exists, but those who believe he does not, would not need him in part of the equation. They would still be able to have a perfectly sound and morally just ethical theory; they just wouldn’t need to base it off a higher power. The reason some might say it is indefensible to have a theory based on religion isn’t just because they have different beliefs, but by having such a theory, you are barricading Atheists, polytheism and non-religious groups from ever being a part of it. This is like separating different social classes or worse yet, going back to separating different colours of people. Although this may not intentionally be the case, it is still what could indirectly happen as a result of this.

Christians could argue that those of a non-religious domination can have non religious ethics, but that doesn’t mean that it excludes religious people like religious ethics excludes others.

The issues these raise both have good points to make, but in my personal opinion, it is wrong to have an ethical theory based on religion, not only because it separates people, but mainly because for centuries we have been trying to find the perfect ethical theory, that everyone agrees with, which would mean no other theory is needed. There wouldn’t be the dozens that there are currently. Just the one; however, by creating ethics, that just on its foundation, excludes millions of people across the world, it is moving further away from the perfect theory than closer to it.


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