Relativism (Moral & Legal)


I am in the mist of defending Aquinas against attacks on relativism insofar as his conception of Natural Law is concerend. However, I am having considerable difficulty and am need of help. As far as I understand, all reason stems from the Eternal Law ( God ) and that insofar as Human and Natural Law is concerned, we should align our law with what is in line with the “common good.” For example, what is “good” to Bill Gates is not the same “good” as a railway worker. This “common good” aspect is difficult to defend against relativism with philosophic acceptance, do you have any words of wisdom to help me out of this trouble? I would appreciate any assistance you can offer me.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Natural Law and Relativism

For Aquinas, the natural law is our participation in the governance of the universe which God brings about through the Eternal Law. The plan in God’s Intellect and Will by which He orders the universe is the Eternal Law, and insofar as things are ordered according to that law in the nature with which God has made them, there is a reflection of that law.

Humans, by use of their reason, are able to understand the order by which God cares for everything in the universe, and it is thus that we discover the natural law, the reflection of God’s eternal law that is written into our nature.

In general, the natural law is the same for all people, i.e. at a certain level of generality, what God commands (through our natures) is always and everywhere the same. At the most general level, the natural law commands: “Do and pursue good, and avoid evil.” At a level of a little less generality, what is good and and what is evil is specified by reason, eg. “Life is to be preserved” which in the particularity of human action gets further specified into “Murder is wrong.”

What sometimes gets difficult is deciding in particular cases whether a particular action is Murder or not, i.e., the unjustified taking of human life. At the most general level, it is relatively uncontroversial that there are certain moral absolutes, but when one gets down to particular cases, there can be lots of uncertainty.

As a theory, however, Aquinas’ view of natural law insists that there are moral absolutess even in particular cases, i.e. there is one right answer in each case for both a railroad worker and for Bill Gates concerning the question “May I take this which does not belong to me.” In one case the answer may be yes and the other the answer may be no, but each answer will be dictated by the variety of circumstances, what “this” is, what other overriding obligations obtain in the situation.

In order to decide correctly in each particular case, one needs the virtue of Prudence, i.e. the mental/moral character of judging well, i.e. correctly, about whether this is a case of e.g. stealing, or about which moral obligations should take presidence over which.

The Common Good

Yes, but what about the common good, you ask. The common good, for Aquinas, is that for which human society exists, it is the purpose of the human community. In absolute terms, Aquinas believes that human society, like everything else, exists to glorify God. Relative to the members of the human society, it exists for full flourishing of all of the members. That flourishing, that good of each individual, is dictated by the natural law. It is dictated by what reason determines to be the end or ends toward which God has determined every human to be directed according to his or her rational nature.

Thus, as life is to be preserved as a good for all living things, so certain goods which pertain to human nature in particular are also to be preserved and protected, e.g. the ability to freely worship God, the oportunity to develop one’s rational capacities through education, etc. So also, there are certain goods which humans should pursue as rational natures, not only in isolation and for the sake of each individual, but there are also social goods to be pursued, as e.g. civil peace or national defense. All of these goods, life, religion, education and national defense (among the myriad others), pertain to the common good, but the fact that they pertain is determined by the Natural Law, i.e. they are human goods because human nature is such as God has made it.

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