on March 27, 2004
This interesting but difficult book lays out a comprehensive theory of moral and legal philosophy. Early chapters argue that certain forms of human flourishing (such as the good of knowledge) are self-evidently valuable; the final chapter paints a lovely picture of how "playing" in the "game of God" may be the ultimate purpose of human existence. The intervening 200+ pages of text, however, are a tedious analysis of core legal concepts such as "obligation" and "rule of law." Conceptual distinctions are laboriously identified; sentences are sometimes hundreds of words in length. The basic idea is that natural law is the law necessary to achieve the good of human beings and communities. However, only masochistic students of jurisprudence will stay interested in the entire argument. I found myself inadvertently skimming entire sub-chapters. Readers just getting started on philosophy of law really must begin with authors like H.L.A Hart or Ronald Dworkin.
on June 4, 2002
John Finnis's book is revolutionary, and it is owing to this brilliant, though not uncontroverted work that Aquinas' theory of natural law has regained its appeal and even prestige. Finnis' arguments can be hard to grasp, principally because natural law is not argued for, but is self-evident, and can only be submitted to a defense. Precisely on this count Finnis, and his collaborators with him, Germain Grisez and Robert P George (themselves also excellent catholic intellectuals) have found criticism amongst more conservative readers of Aquinas' moral theory. For Finnis, the reasonable grasp of basic goods, i.e., the awareness of first practical principles, i.e., the natural law, is known per se nota, not derived from anything. Especially exciting his defense of knowlegde or truth as an undeniable basic good, although his treatment and defense of other basic goods require development Also interesting is his treatment of Aquinas' notion legal validity in positive law, which he argues admits of a certain abstraction from morality, thereby aligning himself somewhat with Hart's positivism. Issues of Thomistic exegesis aside, this is a magnificent work in its own right, and compulsory reading for ages to come in jurisprudence. A good and perhaps even essential companion is his Fundamentals of Ethics.
on November 19, 2002
Finnis's background is that of a lawyer and legal philosopher, and so this book is ostensibly a contribution to philosophy of law, but in effect it is a wide-ranging treatment of ethical and political theory aimed at supporting a broadly Natural Law conception of the foundations of law. Finnis's starting point is a teleological but anticonsequentialist ethical theory originally developed by Germain Grisez. Grisez, and following him Finnis, attempt to combine the Aristotelian insight that human actions are fundamentally directed toward realization of or participation in certain human goods, with the Kantian (and traditionalist Catholic) position that certain actions are never morally permissible, no matter what human goods may be achieved by doing them. The justification for this restriction lies in the "incommensurability" of multiple human goods: because goods cannot be commensurated, it is never rational to say that acting against a certain basic good is justified by the overall "better" effect of doing so. This moral principle supplies a justification for certain specific political rights (e.g., the right of innocents not be killed) and so for certain (not all) rights protected in e.g., in the American Bill of Rights.
Finnis's political philosophy is based on the necessity of political communities for the realization of certain kinds of human good, which in turn is the basis for the justification of political authority and of law in particular.
The foregoing is a very brief and selective sketch of a theory that Finnis develops in great detail over the course of the book's ten central chapters. Although much of Finnis's theory is necessarily controversial--especially his account of the incommensurability of goods--the book offers a subtle, rich, and I think largely compelling alternative to purely consequentialist and purely deontological theories of law and political morality. Finnis's work clearly comes out of a specifically Catholic intellectual tradition, but I think this book can be profitably read by a much wider audience. Finnis never relies on specifically Catholic (or Christian, or religious) doctrine, and he seems to have intentionally focused the discussion away from specifically Catholic moral controversies.
The book presupposes some familiarity with moral and political philosophy, e.g., Aristotle's _Ethics_ and modern consequentialist theories. Familiarity with Aquinas will reveal some of Finnis's influences but I doubt such familiarity is strictly necessary to understand what Finnis is saying. Certainly the book's arguments stand (or fall) on their own merits, without appeal the authority of Aquinas.