Oxford Philosophy & the “Seamless Garment”
Fundamentals of Ethics
By John Finnis
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Review Author: James G. Hanink
Early on in this important and tightly reasoned study, John Finnis invites us to consider an intriguing thought-experiment. Here is the proposal:
Suppose you could be plugged into an “experience machine” which, by stimulating your brain while you lay floating in a tank, would afford you all the experiences you choose with all the variety (if any) you could want: but you must plug in for a lifetime or not at all.
What would you say? Fundamentals of Ethics can be read as a far-reaching account of just why such a proposal (and the real but less dramatic versions of it marketed in our times) is abhorrent. The core of Finnis’s reply is that we flourish only in the freely chosen activity of pursuing a range of basic goods. It is these basic goods rather than, say, the “utility” of John Stuart Mill or the “reason” of Immanuel Kant, that are at the cornerstone of ethics. But a life organized around realizing these goods cannot be simulated. It must be lived.
In presenting such a life as the only life for a human being, Finnis advances the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Indeed, he refines and extends that tradition in a series of trenchant exchanges with some of the dominant voices of the late 20th century, especially subjectivism and utilitarianism (with the latter showing a flair for disguise).
Finnis sets the agenda for these exchanges with three pointed questions. The experience machine has suggested the first: is one to live for pleasure? The second is attributed to the High Priest Caiaphas: “Is it not better that one innocent be put to death than that the whole people perish?” Socrates, in his Apology, asks the third: is it better to suffer evil than to do evil? How would a subjectivist respond to such hard questions? How might a utilitarian answer them?
A subjectivist holds that moral judgments are neither true nor false. They are expressions of personal preference. Right and wrong are “invented.” For a subjectivist, then, answers to our agenda questions come easily. If one prefers pleasure, any pleasure, it is right. If one prefers that the innocent be killed, let it be done. If one prefers (inexplicably?) to suffer rather than to make others suffer, such is one’s “invention” of duty. These answers, of course, are too easy to be real answers. Obviously, too, subjectivism generates paradox, since personal preferences will often conflict and thus give birth to contradictory “rights” and “wrongs.”
And the utilitarian? Take utility to be the result of subtracting the sum total of pain from the sum total of pleasure produced by an act. If we could measure the utility of a life in the experience machine over against the utility of a life outside of the machine, we might, depending on the calculation, choose the machine over the world. And couldn’t we measure the utility of killing the innocent over against that of letting the whole people perish? Wouldn’t our course of action, then, be apparent? The utility calculus, once again, must decide for me whether I should suffer or make others suffer. The answer comes easily! But, as Finnis demonstrates, it is incoherent. For the utilitarian’s simpleminded equating of human good with utility distorts the richness of the several human goods. And the project of measuring chains of events in terms of a calculus of utility is itself bizarre. Such calculations are impossible because we cannot qualitatively rank disparate sensations and we cannot even conceive of all the various consequences to which one rather than another action might give rise. Talk of utility, once its incoherence is exposed, comes to look more and more like a handy cover for mere personal preference, subjectivism all over again.
But how are we to answer these hard questions on our agenda? The heart of Finnis’s own response is, we have seen, the basic goods as constituents of human flourishing — and, too, their “incommensurability.” What are these goods? Reflective experience suggests that they include life, knowledge, friendship, the experience of beauty, procreation, and play. They are “incommensurable” because they are “equally fundamental,” there is “no single, objective hierarchy” that can order them.
And how is it that moral reasoning centers around them? Since these goods are incommensurable aspects of our flourishing, reason tells us that we must promote them and never, in so doing, intentionally destroy any one of them. They are not to be made tools, for instrumentalizing them would destroy a part of ourselves and we would become both less and other than what we are. (To do this would be to flirt with a kind of moral suicide. One recalls, with Finnis, Aristotle’s remark that “no one chooses to possess the whole world if he has first to become someone else.”)
So, clearly, the experience machine gives only simulacra of the basic goods — and thus only a hollow self. Taking the life of the innocent rejects the incommensurable good of one person’s life and, too, the friendship we might have with that person. And doing evil, that is, intentionally destroying a basic good, can never be preferable to suffering an evil. Each basic good is “beyond price.” In doing evil we can only attempt a moral bartering that demeans both others and ourselves.
Finnis’s “great questions” are necessarily supplemented by an immediate and parallel set of public policy questions. What of the “seamless garment” of life issues? If human life is a basic good, the garment is seamless, is it not? Finnis bluntly insists that “the policy of nuclear deterrence is the foundation of politics in the wealthy…democracies of the West; and the availability of termination of pregnancy is a fundament of the life-style and self-understanding of the generation which grew up with the deterrent.” Yet perhaps the web is not entirely seamless. For Finnis does allow for capital punishment (without advocating it). Here, he acknowledges, an attack is made on the good of a human life. Yet here the attack is not a matter of utility nor, unless done out of revenge, done “for its own sake.” Its point is to restore the order of justice which imposes a “system of benefits and burdens” on everyone and which the criminal has put aside. On this last issue, however, Finnis is unpersuasive. The restoring of “burdens of justice” need not, as he himself notes, require the taking of another life.
A pair of final comments, one about substance and the other about style: Finnis thinks that much recent Catholic moral theology suffers from a highly modified strain of utilitarianism termed “proportionalism.” This charge cannot be fairly explored here. As for the matter of style, Finnis is an Oxford philosopher, and his genre is the extended argument. While his prose is hardly graceful, the difficulty of this work is due to the rigor of its reasoning rather than the opacity of its language.
©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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