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A high honor for a giant of the law

Britain recognizes one of the world’s most important conservative thinkers

John Finnis Notre Dame Law School

A high honor for a giant of the law

Britain’s King Charles III has conferred the first honors of his reign with the traditional New Year’s list, which celebrates the signal contributions of exceptional Britons to society. Professor John Finnis of Oxford University, a giant of law and philosophy, was rightly recognized for his services to legal scholarship. Not only the people of Britain, but Americans as well should honor this towering intellect and committed conservative.

Born in Australia in 1940, Finnis first arrived on British shores compliments of a Rhodes Scholarship, which he used to obtain a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford. This began a lifelong association with one of the world’s foremost universities, starting as a law tutor in 1966, then becoming a full professor in 1989, before retiring to emeritus status in 2010. 

From the first through to today, Finnis has set out a remarkable body of work grounded in his accounting of the natural law, which then shapes his conclusions regarding positive (or enacted) law. Finnis, along with philosopher Germain Grisez, is a founding father of the New Natural Law movement within philosophy, an intellectual development that revitalized a view of natural law based primarily upon the works of Thomas Aquinas. The Wall Street Journal dates this influence from Finnis’s 1980 book Natural Law and Natural Rights. The paper cited Jeremy Waldron, professor of law and philosophy at New York University: “Mr. Finnis revived the academic vitality of natural law, which posits that law’s legitimacy rests on moral values intrinsic to human nature.”

This might sound all purely philosophical and academic, and to some degree it is. But we cannot overlook the massive challenge that Finnis’ natural law program brought to the reigning paradigms of legal philosophy of his day, which were based almost exclusively on positivism—the idea that morality and law are two entirely separate domains. Finnis’ approach to natural law challenged secular theories of law and pushed the discipline back towards a tradition of law grounded in objective moral good that law could recognize and act to protect.

Finnis applied his views to the major public issues of our day, becoming a passionate champion for the humanity of the unborn child, the traditional definition of marriage, and the vital importance of free institutions.

Far beyond purely academic theory, Finnis applied his views to the major public issues of our day, becoming a passionate champion for the humanity of the unborn child, the traditional definition of marriage, and the vital importance of free institutions. Robert George of Princeton, one of Finnis’s most accomplished students and frequent collaborators, once wrote of him: “In normative ethics and political theory, Finnis has been a force second to none in defending the moral inviolability of human life in all stages and conditions.” George continued: “And so he has written powerfully against abortion, infanticide, [and euthanasia]. Similarly, he has been a leading voice in defense of the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal partnership—the union of husband and wife.”

These views brought a news cycle’s worth of controversy during the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, because Finnis supervised Gorsuch’s doctoral dissertation at Oxford. Later, while an intermediate appellate judge, Gorsuch saluted Finnis on the publication of his five-volume collection of essays.

Medal for Commander of the Order of the British Empire

Medal for Commander of the Order of the British Empire Wikimedia Commons

Finnis played an essential role in bringing what is known as the New Natural Law to the United States, including through his longtime association with the Notre Dame Law School. Justly proud of that service, the dean of the law school labeled Finnis “one of the greatest legal philosophers to ever live.” In that role he was first a teacher, then a colleague and collaborator of a second Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

Though some evangelicals may not accept his every conclusion—Finnis is a convert to Catholicism and his view of the natural law is debated even among Christians—we must appreciate his heroic advocacy for human life and traditional marriage.

It is appropriate that Finnis was honored as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, as he is a leading legal thinker in not only Britain, but in two of her former colonies, America and Australia. In an Oxford press release, Finnis responded to the news by saying, “It is good that this award bears the name of a great and essentially beneficent institution which was conceived and pursued in a spirit of service,” crediting the British Empire for “advancing religion and learning, philosophy, sciences and law, across so many regions of the world.” The statement typifies both his intellectual confidence and inherent conservatism. King Charles III was quite right in recognizing Professor Finnis’s intellectual achievement.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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