John Finnis on the obligation to follow unjust law

Thomas S Becker, Fordham University


This dissertation is an examination of John Finnis's theory of our duty to obey unjust laws. Its purpose is to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of his theory. Finnis's overall theory is founded on his moral assumptions. His theory of morality is based on what he calls eight basic goods. The basic goods are our reasons for moral action. These basic goods are self evident to anyone after appropriate reflection on what is significant and worthwhile in human life. The basic goods are not the whole of morality, but are pre moral. Full morality is achieved for Finnis after the basic goods are interwoven with Finnis's ten requirements of practical reasonableness. These requirements or modes of responsibility are the methodological devices with which we implement the basic goods in our lives. Finnis believes that the number of basic goods and requirements of practical reasonableness are both open to addition with appropriate justifications. Finnis's theory of our duty to obey unjust laws also concerns what he means by an unjust law. Fundamental to his notion of an unjust law is the distinction Aristotle and Aquinas use with respect to the central and secondary meaning of a term. The central meaning of a term is the primary meaning of a term based on a definition. Finnis believes that the central meaning of law is that of an act of practical reasonableness made by an appropriate authority for the common good. The secondary meaning of law is based on how close or removed a particular instance of law is to the primary meaning. An unjust law is a law that is very removed from the primary meaning and is therefore deficient, deformed, or defective in some respect. Finnis's basic classification of unjust laws is between intrinsically evil laws and extrinsically unjust laws. The former are laws that directly attack the basic goods and the latter are laws that do not advance, promote or protect the common good. We have no duty to obey intrinsically unjust laws but we usually do have a duty to obey extrinsically unjust laws.

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Recommended Citation

Becker, Thomas S, "John Finnis on the obligation to follow unjust law" (2011). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3466692.