The Collected Essays of John Finnis: Volumes I–V

Written by John Finnis Reviewed By James P. Gould

John Finnis has been active in the public communication of ethics at the highest academic level for over forty years. The Collected Essays of John Finnis: Volumes I-V brings together 106 papers. The earliest of the essays collected in the five volumes dates from 1967, the latest from 2010. Included in this total is nearly two dozen previously unpublished works. To give details of all the nuances of every essay in Finnis' collection of published journal articles would be far too exhaustive. Instead, the way Finnis has thematically linked the 'essays', as he terms them, provides an accessible platform for each theme. Each volume can be read as a solitary work, but it is only when the volumes are combined that appreciation of the scope and range throughout Finnis' work can begin.

It is an interesting enterprise in The Collected Essays to see Finnis approach and interpret his work in a cumulative, substantive body. Most commonly associated with his work on Legal Philosophy (or Jurisprudence), the five volumes provide a thematic insight into his work in contemporary philosophy: Reasons in Action; Intention and Identity; Human Rights and Common Good; Philosophy of Law; and Religion and Public Reasons. Through these five volumes, Finnis builds upon his new classical theory of natural law, originally articulated in Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press, 1980), arguably his best known work. This acclaimed contribution to the philosophy of law and practical reason is built upon and significantly contributes to any publication seen in the Collected Essays. It may be argued that the Collected Essays show the full picture of Finnis' philosophical contribution for the first time. Yet to what extent is Finnis developing and contributing to the theory? Indeed, in subsequent writings highlighted in the essays, Finnis displays his contribution to divisive ethical debates, such as those surrounding nuclear deterrence, abortion, and sexual morality, which can be seen as practical application of the theory of natural law previously presented. It can be argued, however, that this practical application merely works out a theory that could benefit from integrating more academic criticism and suggestion for the benefit of the new classical theory of natural law.

Clear from the outset, Finnis is writing from a Roman Catholic theological perspective. The theory of natural law Finnis adopts draws heavily from Thomist and Aristotelian sources, hence it is often referred to as the new classical theory of natural law. Equally the theory has been referred to as 'New Natural Law Theory', a term that reflects the philosophical techniques being used and one that will be used in the remainder. Historically, natural law themes have been articulated as part of the product of a philosophical critique of ethical scepticisms, whether nihilism, relativism, subjectivism, or hedonism (1:201). From this basis it can be seen why such themes would appeal to a legal philosopher writing in the Roman Catholic tradition. The new natural law theory, proposed by Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights is essentially a theory of practical rationality. The first principles of practical reasoning are a number of basic goods, things that are worth pursuing for their own sakes. Finnis's list in 1980 included life, knowledge, aesthetic experience, play, practical reasonableness, friendship, community, and religion. These basic goods are aspects of agents' well-being and lead to human flourishing for the agent. This is a dramatic simplification. The Collected Essays convey, in part, how Finnis has altered his account: first, he has widened the basic good of play to include skillful performances included in work; second, he has included as a distinct form of basic good-the unique form of interpersonal communion he calls 'the marital good.' Whilst these are definite alterations, it is questionable the extent to which Finnis has radically developed the theory. Within Volume 1, Finnis acknowledges his failure to include the good of marriage as a basic human good within Natural Law and Natural Rights. However, the inclusion of marriage has been relentlessly debated by the New Natural Lawyers and its omission frequently questioned by critics.

John Finnis is often referred to as a constitutive member of the 'Grisez School.' This school represents Germain Grisez's collaboration with John Finnis and Joseph Boyle. While Grisez formed much of the new natural law's philosophical theory, Finnis traditionally receives the acclaim. How much does Finnis recognise Germain Grisez's influence? While Grisez is referred to intermittently throughout the Collected Essays, Finnis owes a large debt to the Grisez School. For the natural law theory of morality Finnis here proposes, providing his foundation for the political theory and jurisprudence he defends, is as he suggests at the beginning of NLNR, 'squarely based on the work of Germain Grisez' ( Natural Law and Natural Rights, p. vii). Therefore, while the application in the Collected Essays can be attributed towards Finnis, the formation of the theory needs to be attributed to Grisez, with John Finnis applying this to the legal arena.

There is no questioning the practical application of new natural law theory. Essays focussing upon abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and in vitro fertilisation abound within the collection. Particularly within Volume 2, Finnis engages with philosophers, bio ethicists, and judges in the highest international courts. The essays in Volume 2 explore themes in Finnis' work touched upon lightly in Natural Law and Natural Rights, such as personal identity and integrity, existence, group identity, and intention. This provides an often controversial exposition of the practical implications of new natural law theory.

Throughout the essays it is immediately apparent that an insight is provided into political and academic debates that have raged over major areas of law (particularly the public enforcement of morality) over the last half century. From this Finnis engages a host of eminent academics, including Peter Singer, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, H. L. A Hart, and Amartya Sen.

Volume 3 brings together Finnis' wide-ranging contribution to fundamental issues in political philosophy. It discusses human rights, referring to them equally as 'natural rights' to outline their history in classical philosophy. Human rights as 'natural rights' have been an extensive part of Finnis' new natural law discussion and application. From Natural Law and Natural Rights, Finnis derives a human rights basis, which is applied throughout the essays, asserting that: 'human beings are of equal worth and bearers of true moral rights by virtue of their humanity' (3:9). Throughout the Collected Essays, reference is frequently made to Finnis' previous substantive work such as Fundamentals of Ethics (Georgetown University Press, 1983) and Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (Oxford University Press, 1980). However, particular and almost constant reference is made to Natural Law and Natural Rights throughout The Collected Essays.

Finnis does indeed apply a rights basis, although one wonders how this applies to both the state and government. Volume 3 does not endorse state paternalism. Finnis, while opposed to many actions on moral grounds (following a traditional Roman Catholic perspective) believes the state should not actively prevent the population from performing immoral acts. The prime reason for this is reason. Finnis illustrates in volume 5 a central element of the new natural law theory: the main tenets of personal and political morality, and of a good legal order, are taught both by reason and authentic divine revelation. Reason also provides the basis for theological reflection, for religion is fundamentally an 'operation of reason, theoretical and practical' (5:2) and practical because directed towards choosing and acting. Indeed, all the different meanings and applications of reason are covered by the five volumes.

Philosophy and theology for Finnis are intrinsically linked. For the question of whether the 'existence and character of our universe give cogent reason for affirming the existence of such a transcendent explanation [of God] is a philosophical question' (5:80). For Finnis, the existence of God can be discovered through nature, using the process of reason. This position, traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic Church, invokes criticism from a more Reformed position. For the teaching of total depravity would often mire any conclusion formed on the basis of an agent's reason alone. Accordingly, Finnis outlines his understanding of Catholic theological reflection on moral questions (and therefore on political and legal questions) to be a search for a reflective equilibrium between (1) revelation in the authoritative teaching of the church and (2) what would be judged morally reasonable even without revelation (5:10). Once again, he links philosophy and theology, reason and revelation.

Within the final chapters in Natural Law and Natural Rights and Aquinas, Finnis argues for a divine creator and providential maintainer of the universe. Finnis sees no need to do so here. Instead he indicates in volume 5 arguments for refuting atheism and agnosticism. Several of the papers indicate ways in which they open onto the ground for learning more about God's nature. For Finnis, religion shares in reason's radically public character (5:3). Thus a deity can be approached through reasoning on a public basis. But this needs to be distinguished from a Rawlsian public reason approach since there is 'no need for the phrase public reason' (5:4). Rather the Collected Essays support practical reasonableness, which comes into view as a 'further basic intelligible good to which a distinct practical first principle directs us' (5:4). Once more, the thematic link is displayed throughout his Collected Essays, founded in the new natural law tradition to present legal, philosophical, political, and theological opinion across the vast amount of material analysed and debated.

James P. Gould

James P. Gould
University of Exeter, School of Law
Exeter, Devon, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

In 1524, six years after posting his “Ninety-five Theses,” Martin Luther (1483–1546), father of the Protestant Reformation, charged his contemporaries...

Perhaps when you read the Song of Songs you feel as perplexed as the Ethiopian eunuch did with Isaiah...

C. S. Lewis argues that we should prefer old books over new books because every age has its own outlook...

‘Just right’. This is the key refrain in the Goldilocks story as she tries out the chairs, porridge, and beds of the three bears, whose home she has entered (apparently illegally, but nothing turns on that)...

For many people, the thought of missionary work sounds, at best, painfully old-fashioned...