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Aquinas and Finnis’s Failure

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Aquinas and Finnis’s


St. Thomas Aquinas and John Finnis are natural law theorists. At the outset, they are committed to a nexus between law and morality and this is immediately appealing because it matches a common man’s wisdom. But the biggest weakness of their theories of law is precisely the commitment to five assumptions, namely:
(a) humans are born with nature;
(b) laws that accord to their nature are just and worth pursuing;
(c) the purpose of law is to serve common good;
(d) the common good is served when human laws are in consonance with human nature; and
(e) laws that contravene human nature are of no moral force even if they retain legal force in that they help overcome the destability of a social order.
Aquinas and human beings
For Aquinas, human beings were a complex of many things. In precise terms, they had a body and a soul. While their body was made of reason and will, their soul was made of virtue. It was for them to appreciate this and learn it in the course of their life to strike a balance between the uses of reason and will in order to be virtuous. To help them achieve this, nature had imprinted their minds with certain moralities. These range from preservation of life to propagation of species, desire for harmony in society, desire for educating their offspring and preference for good to evil. Achieving these moralities gave them pleasurable experience and their absence gave rise to discomfort. Thus, in the light of their makeup, they were obliged to offshoot discomfort by pursuing their in-built moralities, the outcome of which would be inner peace.
Aquinas and Aristotle
Aquinas was inspired by Aristotle’s distinction between natural law and conventional law. He reformulated them as natural law (specificatio) and human law (determinatio) in his classification of laws. He was also touched by Aristotle’s teleological approach and employed it to argue that the purpose of life to live in a Christian society was to appreciate the grace of God.
Aquinas and classification of laws
Against this background, Aquinas formulated a four-tier classification of law – (1) eternal law; (2) natural law; (3) human law; and (4) divine law.
His starting point was eternal law. This was God’s plan or wisdom for the governance of the universe. It gave everything its nature and right place and order. It predetermined the roles of stars, the moon, the sun, the Earth and other planets.
The second category was the natural law. This was human beings’ participation in eternal law. As such, it was their duty to find out the immutable principles that governed them all. Once they had found them, it was for them to subject manmade laws to them so that the governance of human affairs was in line with their nature.
The third category was human law. This was the law made by a person who furthered common good, that is, who made laws in line with natural law precepts. On this logic, a statute that did not criminalize suicide was an unjust law because it was contrary to preservation of life, hence not worthy of moral obligation. Likewise, a statute that allowed abortion was an unjust law because it was contrary to propagation of species and, by this reason alone, was not morally worthy. In a similar manner, a statute that ordained use of contraceptive was unjust law because it was contrary to preservation of life and was not morally binding. In this way, the badness of an action or injustice of a statute was assessed by its separation from moral benchmark to live by immutable principles.
The last one was divine law. This was the Ten Commandments which taught human beings feelings of compassion love and temperance.
Aquinas and obligation
Aquinas drew distinction between moral and legal obligation. He argued that citizens owed no moral obligation to an unjust law but they owed legal obligation to such for its stability and sustainability.
Finnis and Aristotle
John Finnis was drawn in by Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom. He employed this to address what was self-evident and how people were to act.
Finnis and seven basic values
According to Finnis, there are seven basic values that are true in themselves. He calls them indemonstrable truths that are true for human beings. These are life, knowledge, aesthetic experience, play, religion, sociability and practical reasonableness.
1. Life means physical integrity and psychological fitness. It also includes marriage between heterosexual partners.
2. Knowledge means curiosity.
3. Aesthetic experience means appreciation of beauty in nature or art.
4. Play means fun, amusement and recreation.
5. Religion means wonder about cosmos.
6. Sociability means peace and friendship.
7. Lastly, practical reasonableness means the ability to make decisions.
Finnis and nine methodological requirements of practical reasonableness
Finnis seems to fear that human beings are born with fallacy of reason and tries to prevent this by giving them a long checklist about how to overcome it. It is, in this sense, that his requirements for practical reasonableness become relevant. They are required to avoid arbitrary preference among persons and values. They should develop, trust and use their conscience. They should commit themselves to projects but, at the same time, be able to detach from them. They should find value in every act and acknowledge that every act has an impact on some value. They should plan their lives coherently.
Finnis and common good
For Finnis, the purpose of law is to promote common good by striking a balance between these seven basic values. Human laws that give arbitrary preference to one value or one group or person are unjust laws and lack moral force. However, like Aquinas, he argues that legal obligation arises from them because they sustain systems.
Aquinas and Finnis assessed together
A closer reading of their works reveals a common commitment to the fact that human beings are born with certain duties. For Aquinas, these include knowing one’s nature, serving common good and purifying one’s soul. For Finnis, these include knowing one’s nature, serving common good and overcoming the fallacies of mind. From the point of view of the former, this could be attained by living in a Christian society. Whereas for the latter, it could be achieved in any society as long as an individual is able to act in accordance with the nine principles of practical reasonableness. Their common error is the presumption that common good would be served if the human law was the mirror image of human nature. For them, what was close to human nature had greater appeal on conscience and made the enforceability of laws undeniable.
In sum, it can be said that the greatest merit of Aquinas’s and Finnis’s theories is their belief in human nature. This separates them from those who contend that the human mind is tabula rasa or clean slate. However, their precise shortcoming is in their over-ambition that making laws in line with human nature will increase the enforceability of laws.

The author teaches jurisprudence and legal theory at Pakistan College of law, Lahore. She can be contacted at:

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