A Critical Response to Chapter IV of Natural Law and Natural Rights by John Finnis

by Ben O’Donnell

Ben O’Donnell is a fourth-year LLB student at Trinity College Dublin. In this article, he provides critical commentary on the manner in which John Finnis categorises ‘Religion’ as a ‘Basic Good’ and provides alternative ways to think about religion and faith in Finnis’ system of jurisprudence.

Chapter IV of Natural Law and Natural Rights is a continuation of Finnis’ formulation of his concept of Basic Goods. According to Finnis, the seven Basic Goods that form the basic aspects of the wellbeing of man are Life, Knowledge, Play, Aesthetic Experience, Sociability, Practical Reasonableness, and Religion.  This response paper will predominantly centre around the final Basic Good, Religion. It is the view of the author that Religion, at least as Finnis describes it, ought not to be considered a basic good in itself but should form part of the basic good of Knowledge. I intend to demonstrate why this is so and then propose a (potentially) controversial amendment to Finnis’ conception of Religion that would firmly reinstate its status as a basic good. 

Finnis’ conception of Religion[1] as a basic good is not one that naturally comports with the everyday usage of the word “religion”. In Finnis’ eyes, one does not need to be “religious” in the everyday sense of the word to participate in the good of Religion. Instead, Finnis postulates that one may partake in the good of Religion via contemplation of the lasting order of the cosmos and whether there is a supernatural entity, the existence of which enables human freedom, intelligence and mastery.

It is submitted that this conception of Religion is indistinguishable from the basic good of Knowledge. When one pursues religion, one pursues the truth; the truth of our creation story or how we got here, the truth of our purpose as humans, the truth of a moral order that is objective in nature and not subject to the whim of man. Finnis’ description of Religion in Chapter IV does not adequately explain  why these truths, which he says we seek when we engage in the basic good of  Religion, are different from other forms of knowledge. Why is the truth about how  we were created different from the truth about nuclear fusion or what the Voynich  manuscript truly means? What matters not is that we actually get the answers to these questions, but that there are answers that could conceivably be discovered.  Religion, as Finnis describes it, bears even more indicia of Knowledge upon further contemplation. Knowledge about the Divine can, like other forms of knowledge, be used both instrumentally, and be valuable for its own sake. It can be valuable for its own sake because we are invariably better off knowing if there is a God than  not knowing (or seeking to know).[2] We can use it instrumentally in order to shape our lives and conduct ourselves in a manner that is (if we conclude a Deity exists) pleasing to  God and will aid us in seeking salvation.[3] Even if we conclude that God does not exist, we engage in the pursuit of knowledge about the non-existence of a deity,  even if our answer may not be correct. 

My theory is supported by the concept of Divine Revelation,[4] which almost all religions feature in one guise or another. In the context of the Abrahamic faiths, Divine Revelation often happens either directly or through some intermediary.  One may consider scripture as a whole to be a form of Divine Revelation, as it is considered to be inspired by God, or one may look to specific instances where God has made himself known to man, such as God’s direct revelation to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-17. What matters for our purpose is not the substance of God’s word, but the fact that it necessarily involves the Divine imparting knowledge unto a human. When we engage in the pursuit of religion, we become open to acknowledging and learning about these truths that have been revealed to us.  Aquinas’ Three Precepts5 chime well with this proposition, as the third precept (to avoid ignorance) does not differentiate between Divine and worldly knowledge, but urges the pursuit of both. Divine Revelation is but one way in which this pursuit of divine knowledge comes to fruition. 

One criticism of my argument may be that religion is unknowable and inherently relies on faith in the Divine rather than on knowledge that can actually be proven to be true. While this criticism may have some credence when one considers the normal meaning and practice of religion, it does not in Finnis’ sense of the word.  As outlined in Chapter IV, faith is not required for someone to ponder cosmic order and conclude that it is all just a freak accident of nature. In the eyes of Finnis, a man who does this has partaken in the good of Religion without ever having faith in anything.

The problem here lies in the fact that Finnis’ conception of religion is so narrow that the aspect of belief within religion is not covered. Finnis appears to try to play to the secular crowd by treating faith as the cherry-on-top, instead of an integral part of  the good of Religion. By doing this, he strips religion of its true essence and makes its pursuit indistinguishable from the pursuit of knowledge.

It is therefore submitted that the notion of Religion as a basic good is at somewhat of a crossroads. Maintaining Religion’s status as it is currently constituted is not a tenable position. As I hope I have outlined above, it is not irreducibly basic (and therefore a basic good) because it is in essence no different from the basic good of Knowledge. I therefore propose two directions of travel from this crossroads, one of which is the natural continuation of the argument and the other which would be far more radical (and possibly controversial).

The first option is to no longer consider Religion as an independent basic good. Instead, it would be considered as just one form of Knowledge. As Finnis outlined in Chapter III, not all knowledge is equally worth knowing. Accordingly, one would not necessarily be demoting the value of religion by doing this, as it would not be outside the framework of this concept for one to  conclude that religious knowledge is the supreme form of knowledge and that worldly knowledge is of lesser value. 

The second option is to reformulate the concept of Religion as a basic good  so that it may unapologetically recognise the value of faith and the  acknowledgement and worship of God as a central and fundamentally basic part  of our wellbeing as humans. Adopting this more “meaty” conception of Religion  that includes faith, however, would necessarily result in concluding that those who merely question the existence of an intelligent designer but conclude in the  negative do not partake in this basic good, and are consequentially lacking fulfilment in their lives as they do not partake in all the essential goods. This would be a rather bold conclusion indeed. That being said, it does cure the fault in Finnis’ current concept of religion as a basic good while also asserting that religion is peculiarly good and distinct from knowledge, which the author believes to be the case.

In conclusion, it is submitted that Finnis’ conception of Religion as a basic good in  Chapter IV of Natural Law and Natural Rights is flawed because it is construed  so narrowly as to make it no different from Knowledge. As outlined above, the  concept of Divine Revelation is in keeping with this contention, as it is premised  on the notion that God, through various means, reveals himself to us and imparts unto us knowledge which may become known through the pursuit of religion. As  the status quo of Religion as a basic good cannot be justified, we are left with two  options: allow it to be subsumed by the good of Knowledge or reformulate Religion  as a good so the true essence of religion is captured. It is the view of the author  that the latter option is preferable, but not uncontroversial.

[1] Religion with capital “R” refers to the basic good of Religion as Finnis describes it in Chapter IV. A lowercase  “r” is used when I wish to refer to the plain language meaning of religion. Likewise, a capital and lowercase “K” will be used to distinguish between the good of Knowledge and the normal meaning of the word.

[2] See Chapter III for Finnis’ argument as to why the presence of knowledge is always better than the absence. 

[3] Deciding to act in a moral way may involve both Knowledge and Practical Reasonableness, but the knowledge of what is pleasing to God is pure knowledge. 

[4] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “Divine Revelation” (17th June 20202)  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/divine-revelation/#TradView. See also James Stoner, “What if  Theology if Knowledge, Not Belief?” (2006) 62 Theology Today 515, 526; John J. Murray, “The Role of Religion as. Basic Human Good in the Moral Theory of Germain Grisez” (2009) PhD  thesis for Pontifical University, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, 110-121, 153-162 5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Ave Maria Press 2000) Question 94, Article 2.

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