John Finnis

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John Finnis
John Finnis on After Dark 26th June 1987.jpg
John Finnis on the television discussion programme After Dark in 1987.
Born John Mitchell Finnis
(1940-07-28) 28 July 1940 (age 77)
Alma mater University of Adelaide (LL.B)
University of Oxford (DPhil)
Notable work Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980)
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Thomism
Natural law
Thesis The idea of judicial power, with special reference to Australian law
Doctoral students Neil Gorsuch[1]
Main interests
Philosophy of law
Political theory
Philosophy of religion
Notable ideas
Criticism of legal positivism

John Mitchell Finnis (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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

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.[5][6]

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.[7]


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.

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] Other scholars, such as Stephen Macedo and Michael J. Perry, have also criticised Finnis's views.[11]

He has supervised several PhD students including Neil Gorsuch[1] and Robert P. George.[12].



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.

  • Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press 1980; 2nd edn 2011 ISBN 9780199599134)
  • Fundamentals of Ethics (Georgetown University Press and Oxford University Press 1983)[ISBN missing]
  • Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, with J. M. Boyle Jr. and Germain Grisez (Oxford University Press 1987)[ISBN missing]
  • Natural Law, 2 vols (as editor) (New York University Press 1991)[ISBN missing]
  • Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Catholic University of America Press 1991)[ISBN missing]
  • Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory (Oxford University Press 1998)[ISBN missing]
  • The Collected Essays of John Finnis, 5 vols (Oxford University Press 2011)[ISBN missing]


Video lectures[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gorsuch, Neil McGill (2004). The right to receive assistance in suicide and euthanasia, with particular reference to the law of the United States. (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. OCLC 59196002. EThOS  Free to read
  2. ^
  3. ^ Notre Dame Faculty Page for John Finnis
  4. ^ "Lord Chancellor welcomes historic promotion of talent for new silks - Press releases - GOV.UK". Retrieved 2017-01-24. 
  5. ^ Finnis, John Mitchell (1965). The idea of judicial power, with special reference to Australian law. (PhD thesis). University of Oxford. OCLC 694895648. EThOS  Free to read
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 September 2011. Retrieved 2011-09-26. , Oxford Law Faculty, retrieved 25 March 2008.
  7. ^ Video on YouTube
  8. ^ Stephen Buckle, "Natural Law" in Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell Publishers, 1997, ch. 13, p. 171.
  9. ^ Aquinas, Finnis and Non-Naturalism, Craig Paterson, "Aquinas, Finnis and Non-Naturalism" in Craig Paterson & Matthew Pugh (eds.), Analytical Thomism: Traditions in Dialogue. Ashgate, 2006, ch. 9, pp. 171–93.
  10. ^ Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. Picador: London, 1996. pp. 98–99
  11. ^ Stein, Edward, The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation. Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 356
  12. ^ George, Robert Peter (2014). Constitutional Structures and Civic Virtues. Emory University.  Free to read