Critically evaluate Natural Law as an approach to making 21st century moral decisions. [40]

Natural Law is the most ancient of the normative ethical systems; originating in the work of Aristotle, it was adopted as the basis for Roman Catholic moral philosophy and continues to be applied today. As a result, there are multiple different versions of Natural Law so in critically evaluating it as an approach to making decisions it is important to differentiate between these. Given this, a proportionalist version of Natural Law is a practical approach to making 21st century moral decisions.


Firstly, Natural Law has the great advantage of offering a clear and universal set of norms. 21st Century moral decisions are often complex and emotive, which means that consequentialist approaches to decision making are impractical. Taking Utilitarianism as an example, even Peter Singer has acknowledged that individuals deciding when to end life-support, use a drone to eliminate a terrorist-suspect or invest in an untried technology are not in a position to calculate the outcomes of all their possible actions with sufficient accuracy and objectivity to make an act-utilitarian approach viable. Because of the Problem of Prediction in particular, most Utilitarians advocate a more-or-less strong rule approach to maximising pleasure and minimising pain today. Further, Utilitarians are divided on how to define the outcome to be maximised and most have moved away from the crude Benthamite claim that “all things being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry…” and embrace Mill’s desire to be more Socrates and less pig! In short and in practice most 21st Century Utilitarians recognise the need for clear more-or-less universal norms designed to maximise human flourishing. While they do not support the traditional Roman Catholic version of Natural Law, they are in fact not so far from a proportionalist version of Natural Law. So much so that Proportionalists are often accused of being Utilitarians. However, Proportionalism is a distinct approach to decision making and one with the advantage over utilitarianism that it considers actions in their wider context, including in relation to the effect they have on the moral character in the long-term. Because of this, a Proportionalist version of Natural Law is a better approach to making 21st Century moral decisions than consequentialist approaches such as Utilitarianism.


Secondly, in terms of Proportionalism’s concern to place actions in a broader context and to consider their effects on character, this is nothing new in the tradition of Natural Law. Both the versions of Aristotle and Aquinas Natural Law was intended to sit alongside virtue ethics; actions in themselves and broader character development were intended to be considered side-by-side. While the Roman Catholic Church has often been legalistic in its application of Natural Law, making it inflexible and reducing the role of the individual in making their own moral decisions, this goes against even the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas and was criticised by Pope Francis in his 2016 encyclical Amoris Laeticia…“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. … Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”….” Aquinas argued that the first duty of each person is to follow their own conscience, pursuing good and avoiding evil as they see fit. While this does not excuse evil actions, chosen by pursuing an apparent good over the real good, it is worse for someone to go against their conscience because of the effect this has on the wider moral character. This point is emphasised by Proportionalists like Bernard Hoose, who argue that Natural Law should be about “trying to discover what is the morally right thing to do in any particular set of circumstances.” Hoose rejects the idea that 21st century moral decisions are clear-cut and stresses the importance of making decisions in conscience and in relation to the specifics of the case. Because it is able to combine a clear and universal set of norms with a degree of flexibility with regard to complex situations, a proportionalist version of Natural Law, such as that proposed by Hoose, is a practical approach to making 21st Century moral decisions.


A common criticism of Proportionalism from Roman Catholic moral philosophers is that it seeks a proportional way of justifying morally wrong actions. However, Hoose argued that “We should always do only what, in conscience, we judge to be morally right, and we should never do what we judge in conscience to be morally wrong…” pointing out that actions and those carrying them out should be understood and judged as a whole rather than focusing on bits in isolation. Hoose wrote, ‘An evil like pain, death or mutilation is, in itself, pre-moral or non-moral, and should never be described as ‘moral’. It is the act as a whole which is either right or wrong, and it is the person, or the person in his or her acting, who is morally good or morally bad.’ Where a traditional Roman Catholic approach to Natural Law would see the action of terminating a pregnancy as morally wrong in itself, Hoose sees the termination as a non or pre-moral evil, which only becomes moral as part of a whole decision made by a whole moral character and then in context. Where a traditional Roman Catholic approach to Natural Law would see any decision and any person involved in terminating a pregnancy as evil by association, Hoose would distinguish between terminating the pregnancy of a 10 year old rape-victim and of a healthy married woman. The termination may become part of a morally evil action and contribute to the corruption of one or more moral characters – such as when a healthy married woman in India is forced to abort a female foetus – or the termination may become part of a morally good action and contribute to the development of a good moral character – such as in the aftermath of war and with the consent of all concerned. Proportionalism does not attempt to justify morally wrong actions, but rather it rejects the idea that actions are wrong in themselves and insists that they are evaluated in their proper context. So, in this way, a proportionalist version of Natural Law, such as that proposed by Hoose, is sufficiently sophisticated and nuanced to support 21st Century moral decision making.


Further, it is clear that following some of the moral rules laid down by the Church blindly strikes most people as morally wrong in the 21st Century. Take for example the case of Bishop Kevin Dowling in Rustenburg, who came into conflict with the Church for handing out condoms to sex-workers in the middle of an HIV epidemic in his South African Diocese. Church teaching from Humanae Vitae, developed by Germain Grisez on the basis of Natural Law, clearly forbids the use of condoms in any circumstances as they prevent sex from having the potential to create life; promoting human life being the most basic of human goods. Nevertheless, Dowling argued that the sex-workers were engaged in “survival sex”, meaning that selling sex is the only means available not to starve and so to promote the most basic of basic human goods, life. Dowling reasoned that the sex-workers were going to have sex with or without condoms, while without them many lives would be destroyed, so proportionately and in the interests of promoting the basic human good of life it was the right thing to give the sex-workers condoms. This accords with Aquinas own writing on the subject of prostitution, which acknowledged that “those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred.” Summa II(II) question 10, article 11 and it accords with the Roman Catholic Church’s own teaching on warfare, which again permits “those in authority” to use even lethal force when it is proportionate and necessary to pursue a good cause, such as to protect more lives. It follows that Proportionalism is both faithful to Aquinas’ Natural Law and more consistent than traditional Roman Catholic ethics. In this way also, a proportionalist version of Natural Law, such as that proposed by Hoose, is the best approach to 21st Century moral decision making.


In conclusion, a proportionalist version of Natural Law, such as that proposed by Hoose, is the best approach to 21st Century moral decision making. Proportionalism is more suited to making complex, emotive decisions than consequentialist approaches such as utilitarianism, and more practical, nuanced, and consistent than traditional, legalistic Roman Catholic Natural Law. As a result, much more attention should be given to Proportionalism as a way of addressing moral problems as they arise in the future.

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