The Gorsuch nomination provides a good opportunity to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while, the so-called “new natural law.” I know that some of the defenders of the Finnis project dislike that name because, like Finnis, they believe that there is nothing new about it. The Natural Law of Aquinas is not that different from the Natural Law of Finnis, they claim, because they both are practical reason that proceeds from self-evident claims that Finnis calls “basic goods”, which are intuitions that are not derived from theoretical (metaphysical) claims. I have not bought into that argument because it is obviously false if one considers the foundational claims of the two theories.
The separation of fact and value that Finnis accepts as given was a modern development that antedates Aquinas by several centuries. The separation of fact and value as distinct types of claims would not have been possible for him. The nature of a moral teleology merges fact and moral purpose. Aquinas believed that knowledge of the moral purpose of a thing is understood through the act of perception. In Finnis’ commentary of Aristotle’s de Anima, he makes that point unambiguously. Perception is a faculty of the mind whereby the form of the thing perceived is copied into the mind. Aquinas’ naive realism follows Aristotle in believing that the mind gains knowledge of the formal essence of the thing perceived and thereby its moral teleos. Finnis denies precisely this by accepting the fact/value dichotomy and attributing it to Aquinas’s distinction between spectulative and practical. This is interesting today because Gorsuch studied Finnis and was presumably influenced by him. I admittedly have not yet delved into his legal philosophy, but I will be looking for this move in it.
It seems to me that the intuitions that Finnis identifies as Basic Goods are drawn from different levels of abstraction and operate at different levels from the the types of claims that are made in the law. This demands some consideration. Let’s take friendship as an example. Friendship is a basic good, such that no rational person could deny that it is good in itself. That’s Finnis’ claim. But, neither “friend” nor “good” are self-interpreting concepts. What is a friend? There have always been debates about this question. What constitutes a true friend? What can one hope for one’s friends? What can a friendship achieve? And, so on. And the “good” is even more vague. If the good is an absolute judgment–that it is some universal destination of category against which all concepts might be judged–then it would seem to contain a much larger set of possiblities than the term Friend. A friend is some sort of judgement about a person. The good is an absolute moral category. So, then to say that the membership of Friend in the set of things that are Good is an immediate intuition, begs the question: how is this intuition possible? How does one come to know that a Friend belongs in the set of Good things? Finnis says it is an immediate intuition. But, this is not much of an answer.
He is quick to argue that the Basic Goods cannot be derived. And, so we will grant him that this knowledge does not arise through a priori reasoning. Presumably it is an a posteriori judgement that one has from having had Friends and some familiarity with the Good. But, how do these experiences happen? To judge someone a friend, one must have already a concept of friend and some notion of how to use that concept. And, to assign the concept Friend to the category of Good, one must have some concept of Good and know its ordinary use. That is to say, the immediate intuition is possible only because of a semantic system of meaning that already presupposes it. On this reading, then, the Basic Goods are in fact artifacts of a system of semantic meaning. This was, of course, what Neurath and Quine argued. And, what Wittgenstein developed into his anti-philosophy. Viewed in this light, Finnis is veiling a cultural conservatism behind a claim of self-evidence. The New Natural Law simply justifies maintaining the cultural norms and power relations.
This is not to say that law is indifferent to moral purposes. Indeed, I think that legal theory needs to recover some moral foundation for judging purposes and that the lack of the ability to speak about moral purpose and human nature has greatly hampered the effectiveness of the rule of law and undermined the foundations of the American democracy. But, simply accepting the traditional cultural norms is precisely what cannot be done in a period of enormous cultural and technological change. We need to do better. I am looking forward to delving into Gorsuch’s legal philosophy, but I suspect that he will not have overcome these shortcomings.
As a footnote, let me add that Jean Porter’s sorry work on jurisprudence is much weaker than Finnis’. She too accepts Hart as a starting point and does not appreciate the epistemological issues between Hart and the natural law. And, since she lacks legal knowledge which Finnis has, her work also lacks clear examples and the a posteriori judgments that might have led a better thinker to make more sound analysis.