Oxford-based legal philosopher honoured for influential service
Among Australia’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list this June, in his 79th year, John Mitchell Finnis, the eminent Australian and Oxford-based legal philosopher, jurist and scholar, received this country’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia.
It is a fitting honour, among the many others he has received for his prodigious and wide-ranging legal and moral scholarship, for his ground-breaking collaboration in public ethical discussion and for his renowned mentoring of other students and thinkers.
Two of his doctoral students are fellow Catholics who carry his lifelong concern for the link between jurisprudence and the reasonableness of the Church’s teachings in relation to the sanctity (and Culture) of life: America’s Robert George and Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.
As a Rhodes scholar, John Finnis left his home city of Adelaide in 1962 for Oxford University and there began a life of distinguished and internationally influential service to “the law, and to education, to legal theory and philosophical inquiry, as a leading jurist, academic and author” (as the award words his achievements)
As well as advising the UK and Australian governments on constitutional and positive law and in engaging with scholarly finesse with many issues of political philosophy and policy, Finnis is the author of Natural Law and Natural Rights (originally published in 1980).
This work remains a landmark in the revival of the natural law tradition of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas but is recast in light of the British legal tradition and international concerns for fundamental human rights and the dignity of conscience.
Finnis argues that good law starts with an axiom of Aristotle: We ask not only “what” something is but “why?” it is.
Immediately, we move from the simply descriptive and causative to the analytical and normative; we start asking for the purpose and ends of things – or in this case for law in general and for particular laws.
He argues that if we ask reasonably, in a Socratic way; – that is, with moral maturity and intellectual honesty – we will find that we arrive at deeper questions about what it means to be a human being.
He wrote “a person is not a creature of the law, but the person is the point of law”. Positive law is not absolute nor should it be arbitrary. It can be interrogated in order to discover the grounds for the formational and educative roles for laws and for their reform and their revival.
In the quest of intelligible and deep questions are what Finnis calls “fundamental” and irreducible normative ends or “goods”- which he identifies as being “self-evident”- objectively intelligible principles which can contribute to many ethical discussions in a civilised, mature and non-utilitarian way. They are important for both personal moral discernment and vocational development as well as for the common good.
Finnis’ stood up against abortion, same-sex marriage, nuclear war and capital punishment
Prof Finnis identifies seven of these basic goods; life (health and bodily integrity), knowledge (in its own right), friendship and social relationships, play and skilled performance, aesthetic participation, practical reasonableness and religion (what we might call today the ability to experience transcendent and spiritual connection in both belief and practice.)
Finnis has been indefatigable at applying his legal personalism across other disciplines and this breadth brought him into life-long and fruitful collaboration with the moral philosopher Germain Grisez (who died on 1 February 2018), Joseph Boyle and Olaf Tollefson as well as other notable scholars.
Finnis’s tireless reasoning extended and challenged discussion about abortion and reproductive technology, Shakespeare, “same-sex” marriage, nuclear war and capital punishment and many issues in-between.
His contributions have influenced the language and nuances of the Church’s magisterial teaching.
In the often miasmic period after the Second Vatican Council, moral theology lecturers and students, as well as Catholic institutions crumbled under the nostrums of secular relativism and “freedom of choice”- Finnis (and his colleagues) provided a cogent and intellectually stirring alternative.
There was a normative resistance to the basic push of strong emotion (or wilfulness) or the pull of social conformity.
Finnis in a succinct and elegant paragraph linked and distinguished the life shaping role of what Pope John Paul calling “the acting” and deciding person alongside the making of choice:
“Decision, then, includes both the practical judgment (a judgment of the kind we call judgments of conscience) and the self-directing, self-determining, self-shaping choice.”
Later, scholars from revived Thomist and phenomenologist moral traditions would critique aspects and priorities of the “new natural law” arguments but none would deny the importance of that John Finnis’ academic asceticism offered to Church’s moral development and to its future.
As late as 2016, Grisez and Finnis penned a masterly warning about the misuse of Pope Francis’ Exhortation on love and marriage: Amoris Laetitia particularly the gravitational temptation to ditch the intrinsic reality of certain moral actions; as risk of “mutilating and ignoring the teachings of the (Second Vatican) Council.”
Earlier this year, Emeritus Professor Finnis, became the target of a “petition” to have him sacked and disgraced from Oxford University for being “trans-phobic” and for teaching ideas which “dehumanise” minority and disadvantaged groups.
It illustrated how far the cultural tide has receded in the hope for the type of reasonableness to which Finnis appeals.
Never afraid of opposition and a champion of academic professionalism, Professor Finnis recalled the importance of charity, friendship and civility: “In my private life, in my professional life, I’ve been well-treated by people with homosexual inclinations or living arrangements – very well-treated by friends, by colleagues, by members of my Faculty, and I have reciprocated.”