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Explain Finnis’ Natural Law Theory

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John Finnis, an Australian legal philosopher has tried to resurrect the natural law tradition in moral philosophy and law since the mid-1960s. He tries to offer a “neo-Aquinian” natural law philosophy which does not presuppose a divine being. By focusing attention on goods rather than a single Good, Finnis skilfully articulates what he calls a theory of moral action for our day. Or, in other words, he seeks a theory of how to live well. Finnis identifies a number of equally valuable basic goods or ends, given human nature, there are seven. Three are substantive, existing prior to action and four are reflexive which is depending on our choices. The first is human life, including every aspect of vitality, such as health and procreation. The next two basic goods are knowledge and play or skilled performance. The fourth is Aesthetic appreciation; Finnis writes “which may be in the creation as well. So I may appreciate the art that I am painting as well as the painting I see in the gallery.” The next is sociability meaning at least peace and harmony but also, more than that, the full flowering of friendship. The sixth is practical reasonableness that is bringing your intelligence to bear on the moral decision that you face in life.

The last of the seven basic goods is Religion, the recognition that all the basic goods are made possible by a higher intelligence. Finnis proposes nine principles of practical reasonableness that are the ‘methods of operation’ rather than ‘end sought’. The principles are supposed to simplify decision making, and allow us to achieve the seven basic goods. The first principle of practical reasonableness is to have a rational plan of life; John Finnis believes that there is a reason for everything that someone does. A coherent life plan demands the harmonising of general purposes as effective commitments in one’s life. The second principle is no arbitrary preference among values Finnis notes that by assigning an equal value to each Basic Good, Finnis makes it objectively unreasonable to neglect any basic good. While Finnis acknowledges that it may not be possible to embrace some of basic goods as wholesomely as others, one should leave them open to all. Similar to the second principle, the third is no arbitrary preferences among persons, to respect the intrinsic integrity of each individual in treating people always as ends in themselves and never as mere means.

This is often referred to as the second formulation of Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative.’ The fourth is equilibrium between detachment and commitment, detachment prohibits fatalism or obsession with specific projects, ensuring life is not drained of meaning if your objective eludes you. Commitment prescribes that someone engages in projects and pursues them beyond hardship. You should expand their horizons in seeking out creative ways to pursue their enterprises or we needlessly waste opportunities for fulfilment. Principle five discusses the consequences of a decision in particular, the limited relevance of consequences. This principle speaks to the need for efficiency in pursuit of definite goals. Finnis rejects utilitarian reasoning as ‘senseless and unworkable’ because the ‘basic forms of human good are incommensurable’. Finnis holds that the rational agent will prefer ‘less rather than greater damage to a basic good’ in single act. The sixth principle of the nine principles of practical reasonableness is respect for every basic value in every act.

Finnis holds that in every act one must respect all basic goods. The only reason for doing an act contrary to this rule is that the good consequences of the act outweigh the damage done through the act itself. The two remaining principles that Finnis explains are the requirements of the common good and following one’s conscience. The requirements of the common good according to Finnis are that ‘the common good is not the utilitarian’s ‘greatest net good’ but rather it is the ‘ensemble of conditions which would enable each to pursue his own objective’. Finnis suggests that the common good is the source of most of our concrete moral responsibilities, obligations and duties. The final intermediate principle of natural law prescribes that one must act in accordance with one’s conscience. This principle tries to achieve a harmony between judgment and choice, and flows from the fact that principle reasonableness is not simply a mechanism for producing correct judgments, but an aspect of personal full-being, to be respected in every act.

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