This activity uses material from Theme 2D: The effectiveness of Finnis’ Natural Law in dealing with ethical issues. It focuses on the skill of evaluation. The tasks illustrate the different levels of evaluation from good to weak examples.
The beauty of John Finnis’ system is that it is grounded in morality and yet established through the law. Since there are moral issues that are dealt with by the law, for example stealing and murder, and also those that are not, for example, issues surrounding sexuality, one could put forward the argument that it is the ideal ethical theory because it addresses the full range of moral issues. Ethical issues that are located within the parameters of law are dealt with by the law; the ethical issues that do not, are debated, resolved and decided upon by individual citizens in a more private realm and without the need for common public approval. Therefore, it would appear that on the surface of things, Finnis’ Natural Law is effective in dealing with ethical issues.
In order to evaluate a little more effectively, we need to delve a bit deeper than just a general overview and so we will consider some ethical issues and how Finnis has used his version of Natural Law.
In regard to the issue of homosexuality, Finnis has been quite clear. In an article from the Guardian newspaper 3rd February 2017, it points out that in 1994 Finnis had written that ‘a life involving homosexual conduct is bad even for anyone unfortunate enough to have innate or quasi innate homosexual inclinations’. In the same paper he described ‘the evil of homosexual conduct'.
It is, therefore, quite clear that in applying his basic goods, homosexuality does not fall within the remit of life or friendship (society). However, homosexuality is not against the law. Homosexuality has quite recently been afforded the similar rights as heterosexuality. Indeed, for many people today homosexuality is not an issue and where there is a moral issue it is with how homosexual individuals have, both today and in the past, been discriminated against and not whether or not homosexuality is ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’. Finnis’ Natural law then appears to be outdated when dealing with this ethical issue.
With regard to immigration, the official Roman Catholic teaching is one of warm welcome. However, for Finnis, his view of immigration over the past 50 years has meant ‘a trajectory of demographic and cultural decay… pervasive untruthfulness about equality and diversity; population transfer and replacement by a kind of reverse colonisation’. In other words he sees the overall idea of immigration as destroying a country’s identity and a threat to a ‘community’s medium term-survival’ due to their ‘replacement, as a people by other peoples, more or less regardless of the incomers’ compatibility of psychology, culture, religion or political ideas and ambitions, or the worth or viciousness of those ideas and ambitions’. Once again, his application of the basic goods appears to be skewed towards an ancient Greek model of patriotism and a nationalism that is not in line with the Pope’s declarations that ‘There is no Christian joy when doors are closed; there is no Christian joy when others are made to feel unwanted, when there is no room for them in our midst’.
In terms of capital punishment, Finnis’ appears more compassionate. Finnis says that the law of ‘talion’ (latin for ‘retaliation’) misses the point because it focuses on the criminal acts rather than on the criminal and that this is preferring self-interest to common good. If we are really going to address the wrong, we need to help people turn from selfishness. For Finnis, capital punishment directly attacks the basic good of life. It is not acceptable and he argues that the law should ‘work to restore reasonable personality in offenders, reforming them for the sake not only of others but of themselves’.
In conclusion, we can see that Finnis’ Natural Law clearly works when applied to moral issues. However, effectiveness does not really mean it is simply applied but more that it is applied well. My own view that it is not always applied well, as clear instances of ethical views that are contrary to human rights are in danger of emerging. However, this does not mean it cannot be effective. I am sure that there are other ways of applying Finnis’ Natural Law and reaching a different conclusion.
This is a wide-ranging discussion that is well structured and evaluative. In terms of critical analysis it may be a little one-sided in its selection of how Finnis applies the theory without consideration of different ways; however, this is recognised and addressed in a balanced and mature conclusion. Good use of evidence and examples throughout.
John Finnis makes a modern statement for Natural Law in his famous book entitled ‘Natural law and Natural Rights’ published in 1980. In this book, Finnis develops the idea of primary precepts of Aquinas and gives them a more modern feel. Once again, coming back to the idea of a natural good, first identified by Aristotle vaguely in his concept of ‘eudaimonia’ (happiness) and then developed by Aquinas into natural good, Finnis uses the term ‘well-being’ to establish what the telos, end or purpose for humanity ideally is.
Like Aquinas and others, Finnis stresses the importance of reasoning: ‘From one’s capacity to grasp intelligently the basic forms of good as ‘to-be-pursued’, one gets one’s ability... to sympathetically (though not uncritically) see the point of actions, life-styles, characters and cultures that one would not choose for oneself.’
In using reason human beings can identify what Finnis calls basic values or “basic forms of good”. He identifies seven of these:
- Sociability (friendship)
- Aesthetic experience
- Practical reasonableness
Such goods are identifiable psychologically through ‘corresponding inclinations and urges of one’s nature’.
In order to apply them to society, Finnis develops aspects of what he calls ‘practical reasonableness’ which assist an individual in life with the aim of fulfilling the ‘basic forms of good”’. The nine principles are:
- Having a rational and coherent life plan
- Not arbitrarily prioritising one basic good over another
- Treating everyone as equal
- Remaining objective by not letting detachment lead to indifference
- Maintaining commitment to the ideals of the basic goods
- Limiting the relevance of consequences
- Respect for every basic value in every act
- The requirements of the common good
- Following one’s conscience
As can be seen from above Finnis’ work is very well set out for ethical issues and being effective in solving them because there are clear guidelines.
This is a weak attempt at evaluation. This is more of an AO1 skill answer than an AO2. It consists of reciting some application of Finnis but not weighing the relative strengths and weaknesses of these applications. It may be that the person has panicked and just written down anything on Finnis. This answer clearly demonstrates the reminder to make sure AO1 and AO2 answers are clearly different.
Finnis says that the goal of the law is a quality of communal life ‘in which the demands of the common good indeed are… also recognised as including the good of individual autonomy…’ So, the law has to serve both the community as well as individuals.
Natural Law is based on what it means to be human and this means acting in line with your true nature and follow our natural inclinations. When the theory is applied, it assumes the special status of human beings. It is a universal law, and not relative to culture or a religion and it appeals to common sense. Therefore, in theory it is effective in dealing with moral issues.
Finnis Natural Law is good because it is based in the Law and morality. Its guidelines are clear and can be easily applied to moral issues. So therefore, in theory it can be seen to be effective. But what about in practice?
Take capital punishment. It is easy to see how capital punishment might serve the community – removal of threat, no ongoing cost to the community for services to the prisoner, a sense of justice and closure for the victim’s family. However, it contravenes the basic good of life. Finnis says that the law of ‘talion’ (latin for ‘retaliation’) misses the point because it focuses on the material consequences of criminal acts rather than on their formal wrongness. This means that it is preferring self-interest to common good. If we are really going to address the wrong, we need to help people turn from selfishness. This demonstrates the ambiguity of Natural Law. Finnis argues against it as going against a basic good; Aquinas argues that sometimes it is necessary to defend society. Therefore, it is not totally effective.
One could also question the idea of a constant unchanging human nature and a natural law that stems from it. For example, why is it, that so many through the centuries have got human nature so wrong (e.g. slavery and apartheid considered natural)? Human nature seems to change. For instance the debate about homosexuality has raised questions about what is natural.
Therefore, as in theory it seems ok, when it comes to applying it to specific moral issues it is not that effective.
This is a fair attempt at an evaluation. It mainly deals with some strengths and weaknesses that are generic to the theory, but it does at least attempt to evaluate the success of Finnis’ Natural Law in terms of capital punishment. This aspect saves the answer from ruin and keeps it focused. In the generic parts of the answer it could have done with more discussion and evaluation of the other ethical issues mentioned. The conclusion does follow from the argument and makes sense.
Read the following and identify whether the example illustrates a good or weak evaluation. Put them in rank order. Examine how you might improve the answer by identifying any weaknesses it may illustrate. Then click on the text to see if you agree with the comments.
'Finnis’ Natural Law is effective in dealing with ethical issues.'
Evaluate this view.