Grounds of Law and Legal Theory: A Response

Legal Theory, Vol. 13, pp. 315-344, 2008

Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 6/2008

37 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2008 Last revised: 28 Mar 2008

See all articles by John Finnis

John Finnis

Notre Dame Law School; University of Oxford - Faculty of Law


Linking theses of Plato, Wittgenstein and Weber, section I argues that identification of central cases and settling of focal meanings depend upon the theorist's purpose(s) and, in the case of theory about human affairs - theory adequately attentive to the four irreducible orders in which human persons live and act - upon the purposes for which we intelligibly and intelligently act. Among these purposes, primacy (centrality) is to be accorded (by acknowledgement, not fiat) to purposes which are, as best the theorist can judge, reasonable and fit to be adopted by anyone, the theorist included. Section II defends the reasonableness (and hence entitlement to universal assent) of practical and moral judgments, against Michael Perry's ultimately nihilist claims that egoism's challenge to moral normativity has gone unanswered and that reason for A does not entail reason for anyone else. Section III takes up Steven Smith's suggestion that such subjectivism is encouraged by the talk in Natural Law and Natural Rights of pursuing goods, talk which (he argues) is individualistic and neglectful of (other) persons, inimical to an understanding of friendship, and impotent in the face of egoism. Here as elsewhere the key is to grasp that understanding any basic or intrinsic human good is to understand it as good for anyone like me and thus - since I instantiate and embody a universal, viz. human being - as a good common to (good for) anyone and everyone. Section IV argues that common good (which includes respect for human rights, and the Rule of Law) gives reason for exercise and acceptance of authority, and for allegiance, even (and in a sense, especially) in time of breakdown. Section V argues that natural law theory is no more dependent on affirming God's existence than any other theory is, in any of the four orders of theory, but equally that it is not safe for atheists. For, like any other sound theory, it suggests and is consistent with questions and answers about its grounds, in this case about the source of its normativity and of the human nature that its normative universals presuppose and affirm; and the answers are those argued for, too abstemiously, in the last chapter of NLNR and, more adequately, in the equivalent chapter of Aquinas.

Suggested Citation

Finnis, John M., Grounds of Law and Legal Theory: A Response. Legal Theory, Vol. 13, pp. 315-344, 2008, Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 6/2008, Available at SSRN:

John M. Finnis (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

University College
High Street
Oxford, England OX1 4BH
United Kingdom

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