Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - The moral law


Two theories of moral law

Teleological conceptions of morality originated in ancient Greek philosophy. The major systems of ethics among the ancient Greeks, those of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, were teleological. So too were those of Epicurus and other thinkers who founded important schools of philosophy in the period that came after Plato and Aristotle. Deontological conceptions, by contrast, have a different origin. They derive from an ideal of universal divine law that Christianity drew from the Judaic materials from which it sprang. Christianity, to be sure, drew from the ancient Greeks as well. Its identification of universal divine laws with the laws of nature, for instance, comes from the Stoics, chiefly through Cicero (106–43 BC). But the ideas in Christianity that yielded deontological conceptions are found in its understanding of divine laws as the laws of a supreme ruler that bind his subjects to obey him in the way that a covenant with him would bind them. These juristic ideas, which originated in Mosaic law, are the original frame for deontological conceptions. The principal text that inspired them is Paul's statement in Romans: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse and perhaps excuse them.”

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

An Introduction to Ethics
  • Online ISBN: 9780511750519
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *