John Finnis on the television discussion programme After Dark in 1987
John Mitchell Finnis
28 July 1940
|Alma mater||University of Adelaide|
University of Oxford (DPhil)
|Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980)|
|Thesis||The idea of judicial power, with special reference to Australian law|
|Doctoral students||Neil Gorsuch|
Robert P. George
|Philosophy of law|
Philosophy of religion
|Criticism of legal positivism|
John Mitchell Finnis, AC QC (Hon) FBA (born 28 July 1940) is an Australian legal philosopher, jurist and scholar specializing in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law. He is currently the Biolchini Family Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School and Permanent Senior Distinguished Research Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. He was Professor of Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 2010, where he is now professor emeritus. He acted as a constitutional adviser to successive Australian Commonwealth governments in constitutional matters and bilateral relations with the United Kingdom.
His academic focus is in the areas of jurisprudence, political theory, and constitutional law, while his practice at the English Bar saw him in cases at the High Court and at the Court of Appeal. He is a member of Gray's Inn. He was appointed an honorary Queen's Counsel in 2017. In 2019 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), Australia's highest civilian award.
Finnis was educated at St. Peter's College, Adelaide and the University of Adelaide, where he was a member of St. Mark's College. He obtained his Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) degree there, winning a Rhodes scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1962, where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree with a thesis on the concept of judicial power, with reference to Australian federal constitutional law. Also in 1962, Finnis converted to Roman Catholicism.
Finnis was a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, also an Oxford graduate; and, in 1989, Finnis nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize but did not receive it until June 2012, when she recalled how her late husband, Michael Aris, had visited her under house arrest and brought her the news "that a friend, John Finnis" had nominated her for the prize.
Finnis is a legal philosopher and author of Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980, 2011), a seminal contribution to the philosophy of law and a restatement of natural law doctrine. For Finnis there are seven basic goods; life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability of friendship, practical reasonableness and religion. In his book on Finnis' student Neil Gorsuch while at Oxford University, John Greenya has described Finnis's views by stating: "Some of John Finnis's views are very controversial. For example, in defending his long-held position against same-sex marriage and same-sex coupling, he once compared them to bestiality."
Life involves all aspects of vitality that enable a person to gain strong willpower. The second aspect of well-being is knowledge and is described as the pure desire to know, simply out of curiosity, as well as a concerning interest and desire for truth. The third aspect, play, is regarded as self-evident as there is no real point of performing such activities, only for pure enjoyment. Aesthetic experience is the fourth aspect and is considered similarly to play however; it does not essentially need an action to occur. The fifth aspect for Finnis is sociability where it is realised through the creation of friendships, that these relationships are fundamental goods. Practical reasonableness is the sixth basic good where it is one's ability to use their intellect in deciding choices that ultimately shape one's nature. The final basic good is religion; it encompasses the acknowledgment of a concern for a simplified distinct form of order, where an individual's sense of responsibility is addressed; it is "all those beliefs that can be called matters of ultimate concern; questions about the point of human existence".
After discussing the basic goods it is argued that within the list there is no hierarchal order, as the basic goods are considered impossible to compare or measure. Finnis believes the goods are equally self-evident. Each of the basic goods can be considered the most important, as none of them can be reduced to simply a mechanism of achieving another. While technically the goods can be treated as superior to one another Finnis provides that each good is still fundamental where no priority value exists.
Philosopher Stephen Buckle sees Finnis's list of proposed basic goods as plausible, but notes that "Finnis's account becomes more controversial when he goes on to specify the basic requirements of practical reasonableness". He sees Finnis's requirement that practical reason requires "respect for every basic value in every act" as intended both to rule out consequentialism in ethics and also to support the moral viewpoint of the Catholic Church on a range of contentious issues, including contraception and masturbation, which in his view undermines its plausibility.
Finnis's work on natural law ethics has been a source of controversy in both neo-Thomist and analytical circles. Craig Paterson sees his work as interesting because it challenges a key assumption of both neo-Thomist and analytical philosophy: the idea that a natural law ethics must be based upon an attempt to derive normative (or "ought") statements from descriptive (or "is") statements.
According to Andrew Sullivan, Finnis has articulated "an intelligible and subtle account of homosexuality" based on the new natural law, a less biologically-based version of natural law theory. Finnis argues that the state should deter public approval of homosexual behaviour while refusing to persecute individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, basing this position not on the claim that homosexual sex is unnatural but on the idea that it cannot involve the union of procreation and emotional commitment that heterosexual sex can, and is therefore an assault on heterosexual union. Sullivan believes that such a conservative position is vulnerable to criticism on its own terms, since the stability of existing families is better served by the acceptance of those homosexuals who are part of them. Other scholars, such as Stephen Macedo and Michael J. Perry, have also criticised Finnis's views.
In the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honours List in Australia, Finnis was appointed a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia, the country's highest civilian honour for his eminent service as a jurist and legal scholar.
In May 2011, Oxford University Press published a five-volume collection of essays by John Finnis and a second edition of Natural Law and Natural Rights. Their release was marked by an all-day conference at the Notre Dame Law School on 9 September 2011.