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Oxford Philosophy & the “Seamless Garment”

Fundamentals of Ethics

By John Finnis

Publisher: Georgetown University Press

Pages: 163

Price: $8.95

Review Author: James G. Hanink

James G. Hanink is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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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