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John Finnis

For the explorer and settler of South Australia, see John Finnis (captain).

File:John Finnis on After Dark 26th June 1987.jpg
Appearing on television discussion programme After Dark in 1987

John Mitchell Finnis (born 28 July 1940) is an Australian legal scholar and philosopher specialising in the philosophy of law. He is professor of law at University College, Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame, teaching jurisprudence, political theory, and constitutional law. He is admitted to the English Bar as a member of Gray's Inn.

Early life and education

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 LL.B. there, winning a Rhodes scholarship 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.[1]

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.[2]


Finnis is a legal philosopher and author of Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), a seminal contribution to the philosophy of law and a restatement of natural law doctrine.[3] Finnis 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." Philosophy lecturer 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.[4]

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.[5]

Political commentator Andrew Sullivan writes that 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. In his view, 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.[6] Other scholars, such as Stephen Macedo and Michael Perry, have also criticised Finnis's views.[7]

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. Its release was marked by an all-day conference at the Notre Dame Law School on 9 September 2011. Featured speakers included: Joseph Boyle, Dean Timothy Endicott, Robert P. George, The Hon. Neil Gorsuch, Germain Grisez, John Keown, Patrick Lee and Rev. Peter Ryan.

See also



  • Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford University Press 1980; 9th impression. 1997).
  • Fundamentals of Ethics (Georgetown University Press and Oxford University Press 1983).
  • Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, with J. M. Boyle Jr. and Germain Grisez (Oxford University Press 1987).
  • Natural Law, 2 vols (as editor) (New York University Press 1991).
  • Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Catholic University of America Press 1991).
  • Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory (Oxford University Press 1998).
  • The Collected Essays of John Finnis, five volumes. (Oxford University Press 2011).


Video lectures


  1. ^ [1], Oxford Law Faculty, retrieved 25 March 2008.
  2. ^ Video on YouTube
  3. ^
  4. ^ Stephen Buckle, "Natural Law", in Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell Publishers, 1997, chapter 13, p. 171.
  5. ^ Aqunias, 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.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. Picador: London, 1996. pp. 98–99
  7. ^ Stein, Edward. The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999. p. 356

External links

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