Natural Law and Its History

John Finnis, Natural Law Theory: Its Past and Its Present, 57 Am. J. Juris. 81 (2012).

The image of natural law to the modern mind is one in which certain actions, states-of-affairs, and “values,” are represented as being right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, depending upon whether they can claim to be in accord with or contrary to nature. Though apparently hard to shift, this image, as John Finnis and others have pointed out on numerous occasions, is misconceived: the orientation of thinking running rather from what is reasonable and right to what is (therefore) in accord with nature.

The matter is dealt with in some detail in the second chapter of Natural Law and Natural Rights, and the rest of that book constitutes an example precisely of arguments of practical reasonableness (a reworking of Aquinas’s prudentia) as the ground of a theory of “natural law” (i.e. a fully critical basis for evaluation of human acts and institutions, and the subject-matter of the social sciences). It is taken up again, in much greater detail, in Finnis’s book on Aquinas, in the context of Aquinas’s own account (itself quite clear on this point) of human choosing and deliberating. The present essay situates the discussion within a much broader historical context, ranging from the treatment of “nature” in Platonic and Sophist philosophy through to the positivism of Hart and Austin. Just as the idea of “natural law” must be logically separated from the beliefs and opinions of those who assert its existence (only the latter having a temporality and history), so the skeptical, nihilist or agnostic assertion that there is no moral law, but only the satisfactions of “animal” nature (subrational emotions, desires to which reason is the ingenious servant), represents a single permanent idea which plays out in numerous different forms in different times and places. How could it be otherwise? For the skepticism is directed precisely at reason’s governance, its ability to identify and work its way towards those human goods that stand at the center of natural law thinking. In one long argument, the essay unpicks, steadily and relentlessly, the confusions that underpin the strand of skeptical thinking that unites the Sophists’ outlook to Hart’s own commitment to legal positivism. Continue reading "Natural Law and Its History"