Finnis’s first axiom (review of Chapter III)

Now that we have addressed Chapters II and XII of “Natural Law and Natural Rights,” let’s jump into Chapter III, shall we? (We will thus skip Chapter I for now.) Among other things, we’ve already highlighted Professor Finnis’s preliminary clarifications regarding “underived first principles”: the Kuhnian idea that there are elementary axioms or meta-truths–or implicit paradigms, if you prefer–that are simply assumed to be valid, even in such rigorous fields as mathematics and physics. And if you will recall, we also assumed a skeptical stance toward such untestable axioms, asking in a previous post: What are these “self-evident” or underived propositions, and why should we accept these axioms as true? To his credit, Prof Finnis begins to provide an answer to both of our searching queries in Chapter III.

In short, Professor Finnis’s first axiom is not happiness. Nor is it Aristotlean eudaimonia or excellence. It is neither the Nozickian “everybody has rights” nor the Rawlsian “justice as fairness.” His first axioms are knowledge and truth (p. 69): “The principle that truth is worth pursuing, knowledge is worth having, is thus an underived principle. Neither its intelligibility nor its force rests on any further principle.” (See also pp. 64-65: “The good of knowledge of self-evident, obvious. It cannot be demonstrated, but equally it needs no demonstration.”) Although Prof Finnis will later identify seven axioms in all and assert that all seven values are equally important, it is revealing that Prof Finnis not only begins his enumeration of basic goods with knowledge and truth; he also devotes an entire chapter to these fundamental or self-evident values!

Furthermore, Finnis also anticipates our skeptical stance regarding the “self-evident” nature of his axioms, for he himself asks (p. 67), “But is there not something fishy about appeal to self-evidence?” In direct reply to this crucial query, Finnis identifies no less than seven separate examples of unstated axioms or “underived first principles” that guide all theoretical pursuits. This taxonomy of theoretical axioms is worth restating in full (pp. 68-69):

One such principle is that the principles of logic, for example the forms of deductive inference, are to be used and adhered to in all one’s thinking, even though no non-circular proof of their validity is possible (since any proof would employ them). Another is that an adequate reason why anything is so rather than otherwise is to be expected, unless one has a reason not to expect such a reason. A third is that self-defeating theses are to be abandoned. A fourth is that phenomena are to be regarded as real unless there is some reason to distinguish between appearance and reality. A fifth is that a full description of data is to be preferred to partial descriptions, and that an account or explanation of phenomena is not to be accepted if it requires or postulates something inconsistent with the data for which it is supposed to account. A sixth is that a method of interpretation which is successful is to be relied upon in further similar cases until contrary reason appears. A seventh is that theoretical accounts which are simple, predictively successful, and explanatorily powerful are to be accepted in preference to other accounts.

More simply put, untestable axioms are necessary and unavoidable in all domains of knowledge and theory-choice. Okay, fine, putting aside the problem of conflicting axioms, I am willing to concede this point, but still, why should we accept knowledge or truth (take your pick) as the basic value? Put another way, why should truth/knowledge or knowledge/truth enjoy such a privileged epistemological status? One reason, according to Finnis, is that truth and knowledge are pre-conditions for morality and ethics. For Finnis, morality and ethics are simply inconceivable without an innate curiosity or a desire for knowledge for its own sake (p. 72): “… the principle that truth is worth knowing … is not itself a moral principle. In due course we shall see that it is a principle relevant to the making of moral judgments ….” Really?

Finnis then concludes Chapter III with a bang by identifying three types of self-refuting propositions and politely pointing out the self-defeating nature of skepticism. In brief, to question the value of knowledge or truth is to accept the fundamental value of knowledge and truth. Okay, fine (again), but I have one last pesky question for Professor Finnis. Why does he equate knowledge with truth? After all, a desire for knowledge alone does not guarantee success–the search for truth may lead to many dead ends–and as I have stated many times here before (and in many of my scholarly papers), the truth can be defined in probabilistic or Bayesian terms. Or to restate Pontus Pilate at the trial of Jesus, What is truth? Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Chapter III is an intellectual tour de force. In fact, if I were writing a preface to Finnis’s book, I would direct his readers to begin with Chapter III, my favorite chapter thus far, not Chapter XII or II. We will thus proceed to Chapter IV in our next post …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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