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Natural Law and Change: Another Look at Aquinas's Moral Norm

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In our search for a moral norm by which to judge the moral worth of our actions, the natural law is regarded as one of the most influential. A good instance when one is directed to it is when, faced with situations which give rise to conflicts with enacted or positive law, one looks for a more objective norm. Suppose a law has been passed by the State authorities compelling every citizen to serve in what many would regard as a war of aggression. Presuming that the law has been enacted by the proper lawmaking body, one would have to admit that it has legal status. It is, of course, possible to avoid any tension by simply stating that no such law can ever be unjust, as Hobbes is reputed to have claimed. Once it has gone through all the accepted stages of the law-making process, it is said to impose a moral demand on us. According to this interpretation, what is legal is automatically regarded as moral. But if one believes that there is something morally objectionable about that law, certain relevant questions arise. What would make it unjust? On what grounds could one oppose it such that civil disobedience could be regarded as ethical? Such questioning brings our attention to the natural law theory since its advocates refer to it whenever there is a clash between a law and its moral demands.

The term itself, however, shows that as a norm it has some of the characteristics of a legal code (although, as we shall see later, Aquinas maintains that positive or enacted law is not properly but only analogically a law). Like a legal code, the natural law can be set out as a comparatively extended set of rules or precepts. Moreover, inasmuch as it is claimed to be internally consistent, it is like any other legal code. Where it differs, and therefore merits the other term is that the natural law is “natural” because it is grounded in something wider or more general or more enduring than the mere practical needs of humans such as custom, convention and agreement. For this reason, it is held that the natural law, conceptually at least, is an objective norm of conduct.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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