John Finnis

John Finnis

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John Finnis is an Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n legal scholar and philosopher, specializing in the philosophy of law. He is Professor of Law at University College, Oxford
University College, Oxford
.University College , is a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England. As of 2009 the college had an estimated financial endowment of £110m...

 and at the University of Notre Dame
University of Notre Dame
The University of Notre Dame du Lac is a Catholic research university located in Notre Dame, an unincorporated community north of the city of South Bend, in St. Joseph County, Indiana, United States...

, teaching jurisprudence, political theory, and constitutional law. He is admitted to the English Bar as a member of Gray’s Inn.


Finnis was educated at the University of Adelaide
University of Adelaide
The University of Adelaide is a public university located in Adelaide, South Australia. Established in 1874, it is the third oldest university in Australia...

, where he was a member of St. Mark's College
St. Mark's College (University of Adelaide)
St Mark's College is a co-residential college in North Adelaide, South Australia. Founded in 1925, it is affiliated with the Anglican Church of Australia, yet accepts individuals from all faiths...

. He obtained his LL.B. there, winning a Rhodes scholarship
Rhodes Scholarship
The Rhodes Scholarship, named after Cecil Rhodes, is an international postgraduate award for study at the University of Oxford. It was the first large-scale programme of international scholarships, and is widely considered the "world's most prestigious scholarship" by many public sources such as...

 to University College, Oxford, in 1962, where he obtained his D.Phil. for a thesis on the concept of judicial power, with reference to Australian federal constitutional law.

Career and works

Finnis is one of the most prominent living legal philosophers. His work, Natural Law and Natural Rights, is regarded as one of the definitive works of natural law
Natural law
Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

 philosophy, drawing both on Oxonian
An Oxonian is a member of the University of Oxford, England. The term is derived from Oxonia, the Latin form of Oxenford or Oxford. The term can also refer to an inhabitant of the city of Oxford, but is less used in this context.The matching word for Cambridge and the University of Cambridge is...

 and Catholic
The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase , meaning "on the whole," "according to the whole" or "in general", and is a combination of the Greek words meaning "about" and meaning "whole"...

 Thomistic philosophical tradition
Thomism is the philosophical school that arose as a legacy of the work and thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher, theologian, and Doctor of the Church. In philosophy, his commentaries on Aristotle are his most lasting contribution...

s to challenge the dominant Anglo-positivist approach to legal philosophy taken by John Austin and H.L.A. Hart.

Stephen Buckle writes that Natural Law and Natural Rights defends the following basic human goods: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability (friendship), practical reasonableness, and religion, the last being defined as "all those beliefs that can be called matters of ultimate concern; questions about the point of human existence." 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
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

 in ethics and also to support the moral viewpoint of the Catholic Church on a range of contentious issues, including contraception
Contraception is the prevention of the fusion of gametes during or after sexual activity. The term contraception is a contraction of contra, which means against, and the word conception, meaning fertilization...

 and masturbation
Masturbation refers to sexual stimulation of a person's own genitals, usually to the point of orgasm. The stimulation can be performed manually, by use of objects or tools, or by some combination of these methods. Masturbation is a common form of autoeroticism...

, which in his view undermines its plausibility.

Craig Paterson writes that Finnis's work on natural law ethics has been a source of controversy in both neo-Thomist and analytical circles. Paterson sees Finnis's 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.

Political commentator Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Michael Sullivan is an English author, editor, political commentator and blogger. He describes himself as a political conservative. He has focused on American political life....

 writes that Finnis has articulated "an intelligible and subtle account of homosexuality
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

" based on the new natural law, a less biologically based version of natural law
Natural law
Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

theory. In his view, Finnis argues that the state should deter public approval of homosexual behavior 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.


  • Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory (Oxford University Press 1998).
  • Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Catholic University of America Press 1991).
  • Natural Law, 2 vols (as editor) (New York University Press 1991).
  • Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, with J. M. Boyle Jr. and Germain Grisez (Oxford University Press 1987).
  • Fundamentals of Ethics (Georgetown University Press and Oxford University Press 1983).
  • Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press 1980; 9th impression. 1997).


Video lectures

External links