Good common goods and bad common goods (review of Chapter VI)

Note: This part of our review of “Natural law and natural rights” (NLNR) was revised on 17 May 2019. (In fairness to Finnis we added an important clarification below the cartoon.)

We now proceed to Chapter VI of NLNR, though, recall from the previous chapter Professor Finnis’s master list of moral criteria–criteria for evaluating the morality of our choices. Among other things, Finnis asserts morality requires that one’s choices must not only be consistent with “the common good of one’s communities” (p. 125), but must also “foster[] and favor[]” this common good. Finnis, however, doesn’t have much to say (only 47 words!) about this common good criterion in Chapter V; instead, he devotes all of Chapter VI to it. Although Finnis makes a number of excellent points in this chapter, here is where Professor Finnis’s natural law theory will begin to unravel. I shall limit myself to pointing out the good, the bad, and the ugly (theoretically-speaking) aspects of this chapter:

1. The Good. The best part of Chapter VI is Finnis’s attempt to define the concepts of “society” and “community”, two notoriously loose and slippery concepts. According to Finnis (p. 152, footnote omitted), it is the “sharing of aim rather than multiplicity of interaction [that] is constitutive of human groups, communities, societies.” In other words, a group can be said to exist when two or more people work, play, plan a heist, or whatever “with a view toward a shared objective” (p. 153). I would only add that groups thus defined might have more than one “shared objective” and that such multiple objectives might conflict with each other.

2. The Bad. Professor Finnis spends most of Chapter VI propounding a master taxonomy of groups. In particular, Finnis identifies four major types of group or community, depending on the group’s shared objectives. Some groups’ purpose is to promote play. Other groups are motivated by business profit. And still other groups are grounded in friendship. But according to Finnis, the most all-encompassing or “complete” group is that of the polis or the political community (see VI.6). Ok, fine, but is it just me, or is there a gaping hole in Finnis’s taxonomy? Where is the family, however defined?

3. The Ugly. Putting aside the problem of groups and polities with multiple and conflicting objectives (cf. James Madison in Federalist #10), we still have the problem of defining what we mean when we talk about the “common good.” This is a huge problem for Finnis because a group’s shared objective might be a nefarious one, like planning a heist or a murder, so we are going to need some additional criterion to distinguish good common goods from bad common goods. But alas, Finnis is unable to provide such an impossible criterion. In the end, Finnis succumbs to the most circular and lame-ass possible definition of the common good (p. 156): “The common good in [my] sense is a frequent or at least a justified meaning of the phrases ‘the general welfare’ or ‘the public interest’.” Have we come all this way–156 pages of the most dense and esoteric moral philosophizing–only to arrive at a circular truism?*

Let’s see whether Finnis can break out of this logical circle when we proceed to Chapter VII of NLNR, the chapter devoted to justice, in our next post …

Image result for circular reasoning
*Later (especially in Chs. IX, X, and XI), Finnis will provide a much better and more workable definition of “the common good”; in particular, he will define the common good in terms of our ability to promote human cooperation and solve collective action problems. Still, our third objection (see point #3) above still stands, since men may cooperate in order to pursue selfish or evil ends, so we will still need some higher-level theory to help us distinguish between good common goods and bad common goods, but generally speaking, we agree with Finnis that one of the main purposes of laws and norms is to promote human cooperation and solve collective action problems.

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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2 Responses to Good common goods and bad common goods (review of Chapter VI)

  1. Pingback: Authority, the nirvana fallacy, and the costs and benefits of co-ordination (review of IX) | prior probability

  2. Pingback: On promises: Hume v. Finnis (review of XI.2) | prior probability

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