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Appearing on television discussion programme After Dark in 1987

John Finnis (born 1940), is an Australian philosopher, specializing in the philosophy of law. He is Professor of Law at University College, Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame, teaching jurisprudence, political theory, and constitutional law.



Finnis was educated at the University of Adelaide, where he was a member of St. Mark's College. He obtained his LL.B. there, winning a Rhodes scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1962, where he obtained his D.Phil. for a thesis on the concept of judicial power, with reference to Australian federal constitutional law.[1]

Career and works

Finnis is one of the most prominent living legal philosophers. His work, Natural Law and Natural Rights, is regarded as one of the definitive works of natural law philosophy,[2] drawing both on Oxonian and Catholic Thomistic philosophical traditions to challenge the dominant Anglo-positivist approach to legal philosophy taken by John Austin and H.L.A. Hart.

Finnis once taught at Mercer Law School.

In Natural Law and Natural Rights, Finnis's ethics focuses on seven of what he calls intrinsically valuable basic goods: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience (or beauty), sociability (or friendship), practical reasonableness and religion. However, in his latter works these have been partially reworked. He states that these basic goods are self-evidently "good" and cannot be deduced from other premises. He also claims that they are incommensurable with one another. The incommensurability of these goods means that one cannot rationally measure one against another. Their supposed incommensurability also leads Finnis to state that people should pursue all the 'goods' and should not ignore any one of them. People may individually choose to emphasise one good over another, but none should be entirely excluded. This concept also forms part of Finnis's critique of proportionalist (also called revisionist, not utilitarian) theology. He believes that these rely on a concept of commensurability which he feels is not rationally viable.

Finnis suggests that by acting perfectly reasonably on the basis of the basic goods, a person will act morally so long as he does not act in a way which directly harms one of the basic goods.

An additional component of Finnis's model is "the first moral principle". This principle supplements the basic goods. It is a standard to guide choices in serving and sharing the basic goods. Using it will lead to the best moral outcome. The first moral principle is:

in voluntarily acting for human goods and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those Possibilities whose willing is compatible with integral human fulfilment.

Integral human fulfilment refers to the good of all persons and communities.

Finnis opposes abortion, euthanasia, and nuclear weapons. He considers all sexual activity that is not between married persons of the opposite sex, or makes use of birth control devices, to be inherently immoral, even "evil". Finnis rejects what he calls "perverted faculty" arguments, the sort which claim, for instance, that the only legitimate sexual activity is reproductive sexual activity because human sex organs are naturally "for" reproduction. Finnis accepts the standard objections to such arguments, and argues for the traditional Catholic position by focusing on the role that sexual activity plays in a good human life. However, Finnis maintains that only sexual activity "of the reproductive kind" between married adults of the opposite sex is morally acceptable. He opposes efforts to extend legal recognition (including the right to marry) to gay people, and testified on behalf of the state of Colorado in its unsuccessful attempt to prohibit the extension of anti-discrimination laws to them.

Types of injustice in law

Finnis recognizes four types of injustice in law.

  • First, according to Finnis, the main responsibility of the ruler is to further the common good. A ruler's exercise of power is radically defective if a ruler exploits his opportunities by making stipulations intended by him not for the common good but for his own or his friends' advantage, or out of malice against some person or group.
  • Secondly, except in "emergency" circumstances in which the law (even the constitution) should be bypassed, an office-holder who acts beyond his authority is an abuse of power and an injustice to those treated as subject to it.
  • Thirdly, the exercise of authority in conformity with the Rule of Law is for the common good. Therefore, the exercise of power otherwise than according to manner and form is an abuse and an injustice unless those involved consent, or ought to consent, to an accelerated procedure.
  • Fourthly, the stipulated may be distributively unjust by appropriating some benefit to a class not reasonably entitled to it, while denying it to other persons; or by imposing on some a burden from which others are, on no just criterion, exempt.

Effects of injustice on obligation

The ruler has no right to be obeyed. However, he has the authority to give directions and make laws that are morally obligatory and that he has the responsibility of enforcing. He has the authority for the sake of the common good. Therefore if he uses his authority to make stipulations against the common good, those stipulations lack the authority they otherwise would have by virtue of being his.

However, Finnis argues that there is an obligation for the citizen to conform to an unjust stipulation to the extent necessary to avoid weakening the legal system.

The ruler has the responsibility of repealing, not enforcing unjust law.

Conflicting views

There is controversy regarding the self-evidence of Finnis's "basic goods". Firstly, it could be contended that these basic goods may not be fully exhaustive. Secondly, it is disputed whether these basic goods commit the so-called naturalistic fallacy of deriving ought from is, where an "is"-statement (describing a fact) cannot be used to derive an "ought" statement (a statement concerning what ought to be the case).

See also


External links


  • Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory (Oxford University Press 1998).
  • Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Catholic University of America Press 1991).
  • Ed., Natural Law, 2 vols. (New York University Press 1991).
  • Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, with J. M. Boyle Jr. and G. Grisez (Oxford University Press 1987).
  • Fundamentals of Ethics (Georgetown University Press and Oxford University Press 1983).
  • Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press 1980; 9th impression. 1997).


Video lectures

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