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Natural Law Theory and Virtue Ethics

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Moral reasoning using natural law theory and virtue ethics

One of the primary debates in ethics is not whether a certain action is right or wrong, as most can agree that acts such as murder are not ethically right, but in what specific situations that these actions become permissible. There are certain absolutist views that determine an action is right or wrong, despite any extraneous circumstances; however, many moral reasoning ethics fall into a grey area where certain acts that would normally be considered wrong are justified in certain conditions. The natural law theory, along with its doctrine of double effect, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics both fall into the aforementioned category of moral ethics. Natural law theory originated from the religious view that a human’s ability to reason sets them apart as higher beings, and with such reasoning we have the responsibility to follow the righteous path set forth for our lives, “to do good and avoid evil”.1 In this manner, a certain act cannot be justified or viewed as “good” because it leads to the satisfaction of desire, setting natural law theory far apart from utilitarianism ethics. The principals laid out by the natural law theory gave birth to the doctrine of double effect, which is the belief that many acts may have both a good and a bad effect. The Catholic Church defends that some acts that would normally be considered immoral may be justified under three distinct conditions: the act itself is not intrinsically wrong, the good effect is the desired result of the action, and the possibility of the good effect compensates for allowing the bad effect.2 On the contrary, virtue ethics focuses on the innate question of “who should I be” instead of “what should I do”. The idea of virtue ethics originated from the idea that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.3 Aristotle, the founder of virtue ethics, believed that human beings should strive for eudemonia, or a happy and flourishing life. The only way to achieve this goal, he argues, is to live virtuously. Therefore, when faced with a morally conflicting issue, virtue ethics demands that we act in the most judicious way possible. Although both virtue ethics and natural law ethics argue for moral decisions based on the goodness of humanity, they will often arrive at distinctly different judgments of ethical cases based on their intrinsic definitions. Same sex marriage could be an example of a case in which natural law theory and virtue ethics may come to a different conclusion, despite their apparent similarities. The Catholic Church and religious theorists using the natural law theory typically disapprove of same sex marriage and homosexuality because it lies outside God’s natural plan for humanity. “The Catholic Church opposes both abortion and birth control because these are inconsistent with a conception of sexuality as expressed within a monogamous marriage only, and primarily oriented toward its natural end or purpose, procreation”.5 For these reasons, homosexuality is also opposed by natural law theory because same sex marriage conflicts with the “goodness” of procreation and monogamously defined marriage. Both of which are beneficial for society and the individual. Virtue ethics, however, may reach a different conclusion on the topic of same sex marriage. Eudemonia, the basis of the theory, is defined as a state of being healthy, happy, and prosperous by living a flourishing life. Therefore, denying the rights of same sex marriage also deny the individual the right to living a fulfilled and prosperous life; which is the cardinal sin according to virtue ethics. Another controversial topic that virtue ethics and natural law ethics typically disagree on is that of physician assisted suicide. Dr. Quill, a doctor that participated in inactive euthanasia, shares his experience with helping a patient with leukemia complete the act of what he calls individualized decision making. Dr. Quill speaks of Diane, the patient that he provided the medicine with which she used to commit suicide, as a teacher that helped him learn about the range of help one can provide as a doctor if they take the time to know a patient well and hear what they really want.6 Dr. Quill’s stance on the act of physician assisted suicide is the same as virtue ethic’s, that there may be specific conditions where it is morally permissible to help end a life. “Virtue ethics broadens the scope of moral appraisal… exemplary people can, in very special circumstances, step outside the code of conduct or the law in the interest of behaving well and flourishing”.7 In this fashion, physician assisted suicide achieves virtue ethics end goal of eudemonia; as dying is a life event and a slow painful death impedes eudemonia for both patient and physician. On the contrary, natural law theory considers physician assisted suicide wrong in the terms of moral reasoning. This is due to the fact that the end goal of physician assisted suicide is the purposeful loss of life, which is distinctly against the normal path of a natural life. The act of purposely helping someone take their own life, no matter the cause or justification, directly impedes God’s natural plan of goodness for the individual. It is easy to see how moral reasoning behind supporting or opposing an ethically controversial act is a complicated subject. There are numerous theories, each with their own views of when an action is or is not morally acceptable, and even similar theories disagree on most cases.

References Begley, Ann. Guilty but Good: Defending Voluntary Active Euthanasia from a Virtue Perspective. Publication. Sage: Nurs Ethics, 2008. 6. (Begley page 441) Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers. New York: Washington Square. 3. (Durant page 76) | |
Steinbock, Bonnie. Arras, John D. London, Alex John. Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine: Contemporary Readings in Bioethics. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

1. (Steinbock et. al. page 21) 2. (“Double effect”, New Catholic Encyclopedia page 21) 4. (Steinbock et. al. page 21) 5. (Quill Death and Dignity page 21)…...

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