New Natural Law Versus Veritatis Splendor

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By Sam Agra, St. Louis University

One of the many complaints lobbed against the academic tradition of theology or philosophy is that of the professor stuck in hew ivory tower musing upon matters which no layman would ever consider important, or perhaps the scholastic monks furiously debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. While there is force which ought to be heeded behind this criticism, lest theology become detached from faith, there is also a strawman present. For the first ecumenical council of the Christian tradition, one of the highest forms of authority in the Church, was called to adjudicate the dispute between those who backed homoousias or homoiousia, the difference of a literal iota. It is a topic of similar seemingly-niche quality which I take up in this paper, though clearly of less importance. I propose to examine in tandem the New Natural Law Theory (NNL) of John Finnis and Germain Grisez and St. Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor (VS) to distance the latter from the former. Specifically, I aim to display that although the two come to similar conclusions and attack the same opponents, their differences in methodology allow VS to avoid the problems NNL faces regarding the foundations of the moral ought.

This paper will proceed in the following sections: first I will give relevant background information on NNL and VS and show the basis for the supposed connection between them.[1] Then I will turn to an exposition of NNL, focusing upon its moral conclusions and methodology, and some of the main critiques leveled against it, drawing from my own reading and that of Russell Hittinger.[2] Then the argument will examine VS, noting the similarities and differences between it and NNL. Finally, I will show how these differences allow VS to succeed where the NNL fails.

The New Natural Law is a theory championed by philosophers Germain Grisez and John Finnis. They claim to recover the natural law from Aquinas in a manner which avoids both the standard objections to the theory and other methodological problems in his wider work. There are two important facets about the theory to note at the start. First, while Grisez at times dips into moral theology, Finnis writes in the field of moral philosophy and to a non-Catholic audience at that. When comparing their work to that of the pope, we must be careful not to take differences of rhetorical style and audience as differences in substance. Second, the NNL is a theory about the goods to be done. Finnis, drawing from a literal reading of Aquinas on the natural law, often explains his moral maxims in the language of the passive periphrastic. This is a grammatical device used in Latin to show that X or Y must be done. The most famous usage of this comes from the general Cato who would supposedly end his speeches, “Carthago delenda est,” Carthage must be destroyed. Finnis’s use of this construction, as we will note, places tension between the agent and the goods he or she pursues.

John Finnis’s major work on the NNL, Natural Law and Natural Rights was published in 1980. He explicitly builds upon the framework already given in Grisez’s earlier writings on the topic of natural law. John Paull II’s Veritatis Splendor was promulgated three years later. In the reactions to VS, there were those that thought Finnis or Grisez may have had a hand in drafting it. Richard McCormick, a theologian whose views were brought into question by VS, thought that VS shared the same “caricatures” of his work that were present in Finnis.[3] Joseph Selling, in his article on VS, splits Catholic moral ethics into two major camps, the revisionists and the traditionalists. Among the traditionalists are named Grisez and Finnis. He then argues that the Pope views the arguments and sides with the traditionalists against the revisionists.[4] The similarities which draw theologians to make the connection between VS and NNL often center on the fact that both reject “proportionalism” or “consequentialism”, incorporate an idea of natural law, and uphold the existence of intrinsically evil acts. It is despite these similarities that we will argue the difference between NNL and VS. But to do so, we must first examine each in more detail.

Perhaps one of the more important and defining features in Finnis’s recovery of Aquinas and the natural law tradition is his focus upon practical reason as grounding rather than an account of human nature. That is to say, Finnis distances his account of natural law from other accounts.Finnis begins his section on distinguishing the NNL from its “images” by asserting that he uses the phrase “natural law” to mean three related concepts: set of basic and practical principles which indicate that basic forms of human flourishing found in goods to be pursued,a set of methodological requirements of practical reasoning necessary for seeing right from wrong, and a set of general, moral standards.[5] Finnis is quick to counter what he thinks the common “images,” more precisely called strawmen, of natural law are. First, one must note that human law is no mere emanation from the natural law, though it is grounded in the natural law.[6] Second, it is not the case that natural law demands conformity of human desires and morality. While NNL does assert a set of basic and universal goods which are universally worth having, cultural or personal biases can easily distort the moral implications of the principles of the natural law. The plurality of moral notions in this way is not a threat to NNL.[7]

The main difference between NNL and other natural law moralities comes into play when Finnis discusses the infamous is-ought gap attributed to David Hume.[8] To the question of whether one can derive ethical norms from facts about human nature Finnis gives the “brisk,” answer of no, thus forcing us to abandon “the most popular image of natural law.”[9] We must leave to the side any false conception of natural law which “entails the belief that propositions about man’s duties and his obligations can be inferred from propositions about his nature,” and thus any counterarguments which aim at this premise.[10] That is, we must abandon older ideas of teleology and human nature. Rather, the first principles of natural law can be grasped by anyone of adequate age and reason and are themselves self-evident and indemonstrable. They are not derived from nature, teleology, or any other source; they are underived. One knows the basic principle of natural law, that good is to be done and evil to be avoided, in itself through human experience. These distinguishing features laid out, we can proceed the more substantive elements of Finnis’s theory: the basic goods and the requirements of practical reason.

The first part of Finnis’s definition of NNL can be summed in what is called the First Principle of Practical Reason (FPPR): good is to be done and pursed and evil is to be avoided. Finnis draws this principle from Grisez’s understanding of Aquinas ST I-II 94.2.[11] As stated above, this principle is not derived from speculative questions about human nature but known by all through the experience of living human existence. It is also the case that this principle does not yet enter the realm of morality. It is a directive for human action and not a description of good or evil.[12]  Finnis notes seven of these goods which are known in themselves to be goods and thus ought to be pursued. These are life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion.[13] These are the practical, not moral, basic goods of human life. They are what motivate humans to actions.[14] When one seeks one of these goods, he or she participates in said good. Like the FPPR they are self-evidently necessary, a demonstration is not needed and cannot be given.[15] These goals are desired because they are goods; they are not good because they are desired.[16] In this way, we can see again how NNL distances itself from the other natural law theories which address human nature and teleology. Further, we see emphasized the passive periphrastic nature of the theory, the goods determine desires rather than desires determining the good. This list he argues is exhaustive, all other goods are either reducible to these goods or modes of pursuing them, though Finnis does note that this list is open to later modification.[17] He further claims that there is no objective hierarchy among these goods. They are all fundamental and irreducible to each other. Depending upon the personal focus of the agent in question, each good could appear to be the most important. Each could reasonably be the object of focus, and thus each is fundamental.[18]

Regarding a defense of the per se nota of these goods, Finnis only directly defends the basic good of knowledge. He notes that, though it is self-evident that knowledge is a basic good, it is not thus through a sort of self-evidence inscribed upon the human mind from the start of its existence. Rather, “the value of truth becomes obvious only to one who has experienced the urge to question,” and realizes that knowledge satisfies this desire.[19] In other words, a human person living a human life will come to the realization that knowledge is a basic good worth pursuing. There is an analogous argument to be made for the other goods. I know that friendship is obviously a basic good when I realize that it is necessary for a fulfilled human life. In living a human life, I recognize that X is a good and that it ought to be pursued.  The “basic forms of human flourishing [the basic goods] are obvious to anyone acquainted… with the range of human opportunities.”[20] To one who was to argue that knowledge was not a basic good, Finnis would reply that said position is fundamentally incoherent. One cannot be a skeptic about the existence of knowledge as a basic good because to do so exhibits a contradiction. In disagreeing over whether knowledge is a good, one seeks the truth, that is knowledge, about basic goods, and thus in practice shows that she believes knowledge to be a good.[21] It is worth noting that Finnis does not give a similar argument to support the indefensibility of disputing the other basic goods.

At this point, the NNL has given us the basic and premoral goods to be pursued but has not told us how to do this. The list of the goods merely determines the “field of possibilities” for choice, but does not yet show what choices are good or bad.[22] The important questions of “What is to be done? What may be left undone? What is not to be done?” Finnis notes have not yet been answered.[23] To accomplish this, Finnis turns to the “basis requirements of practical reasonableness,” the nine rules which constitute the moral limits for pursuing the basic goods. This constitutes in his theory the step from the premoral goods of the NNL to the moral demands and obligations. These are the necessity of a life plan, a prohibition to overvalue or undervalue any basic good, a prohibition against arbitrary preference among persons, the necessity of a prudent detachment from one’s specific life plan, the balancing need for a commitment to a plan, a need for limited efficiency, the absolute prohibition against choosing an act directly opposed to a basic value, the obligation to foster the common good, and the duty to act in accordance with one’s conscience.[24]  To follow these nine rules of practical reasonableness in the pursuit the basic goods is to live according to the moral natural law. One who follows these rules, in Hittinger’s language, retains an attitude of constant openness to the goods.[25]

The distinctiveness of the NNL and the inner operations of it having been laid out, the argument may now turn to a critique. As alluded to in the introduction the main critique I level against the NNL is that it does not give an adequate foundation for the “oughts” traditionally discussed in moral theories. The moral force of the NNL theory rests upon its account of the basic goods and the requirements of practical reasonableness. As we have seen, Finnis strongly resists any attempt to derive a moral ought from what he calls “speculative” facts about human nature. However, it seems as if his NNL does not give an adequate alternative to this teleological morality of the old natural law. First, his list of basic goods must be assumed. As self-evident, they can neither be argued against nor proven. While Finnis gives a strong account of why denial of knowledge as a basic good borders upon absurdity, he gives no such reductio for the other goods. He merely asserts that ‘any sane person is capable of seeing that life, knowledge, fellowship, offspring, and few other such basic aspects of human experience are, as such, good…”[26] Is the environmental anti-natalist insane for denying the good of human offspring? Perhaps, but what about the pragmatist who sees little value in “aesthetic experience” or the business tycoon who would rather earn another million than participate in the good of play through a round of golf? Are we willing to dismiss all of these as fringe cases of insanity which are rightfully not accounted for by NNL? These are only a few such examples, but it ought to be clear that regarding those (perhaps a significant number) which fall outside of the bounds of an ethical theory as insane does not give the moral force of an ought. Why ought one desire these goods? Finnis answers that to not would be to be insane. The mere fact that to act differently than the NNL thinks is sanity is not a reason to act in a certain way, unless the ought in question is agree that these goods are to be pursued or face the asylum.

Second, even if one assents to the list of basic goods and to the later requirements of practical reasonableness, the NNL still does give adequate reasons for choosing the goods to pursue. In older or teleological natural law traditions, one ought to pursue X because her nature demanded that flourishing could only be found in X. One ought to choose X because doing so would fulfill her. If X was virtue, then one would in any situation attempt to determine what would most contribute to her growth in virtue and then choose that action. But with the NNL, there are no criteria for choice. The theory merely lists the goods and gives rules regarding how one ought to pursue them. In fact, the denial of an objective hierarchy of goods explicitly prevents the NNL from giving direction for moral choice. As the goods are irreducible, Hittinger notes, there would be only subjective reasons for choosing to focus on one or the other.[27] There can be no reason for Einstein to choose physics, Jordan to choose basketball, or John Paul II to choose celibacy other than personal preference. In fact, if Einstein was to think knowledge was objectively better than the other goods, Michael Jordan play, or John Paull II priesthood, then they would be in danger of violating the rules of practical reasonableness. The choice of a way of life, of pursuing the goods, is in danger of a great arbitrariness. There can be personal reasons for choosing X over Y, such as one’s situation, desires, and the like, but, if these reasons fall within the rules of practical reasonability, there can be no further justification. In sum, the reasons for living a certain life rather than another must be purely relative to the induvial person according to the NNL. To the question of “Why did you do this?” the NNL proponent can only give the unsatisfying answer of “Because I wanted to.”

That the NNL has a problem in offering an ought for its morality has been shown. What remains to be shown is whether this problem holds for VS as well. As I will argue, the essential differences between VS and the NNL allow VS to avoid this problem. Veritatis Splendor is an encyclical letter written to comment on certain trends in Catholic moral theology and the ability of the Magisterium to comment upon, and if necessary, condemn them. The encyclical is divided into three chapters. Through each, the pope makes continual reference to Mt 19 and the story of the rich young man who comes to Christ seeking the way to eternal life. The first chapter addresses the main and continually driving question of moral theology; how is one to act if he or she is to enter eternal life. The second and third chapters affirm the existence of intrinsically evil acts contrary to the opinions of some theologians at the time. Since the first chapter lays out his methodology and is thus most important for distinguishing his thought from that of Finnis. The pope makes four important and interrelated points in this chapter.

First, there is a connection between moral good and the fulfillment of one’s own life and destiny.[28] Being good is tied into the fulfillment of the human life; if one is to come to the meaning and fulfillment of his life, he must be good.  The question of finding and doing the good, which the rich young man poses to Christ, is thus a perennial and essential question of human existence. Second, and following the first point, moral laws are thus aids to fulfillment and true freedom rather than hindrances to them. As Jesus first instructs the young man to follow the commandments, He affirms that following the commandments of God are necessary first steps to flourishing and moral goodness.[29] Since the moral good is tied to good life, the following of laws is not the mere adherence to the command of a superior, but following the internal laws infused by God of one’s one being.[30] This internal law given by God into the human person is rightfully called by Aquinas the natural law.  Third, and following from the relation between God and the laws infused into the human person, the answer to how to be good and live a good life can only be answered by God. It is he who has given us this internal law and thus He alone can fully instruct us in it. Further, God is the Good itself, so only He has the full authority and ability to speak in this matter. Since God is the Good itself, the question of morality itself is a fundamentally religious question inquiring about the final end of human activity which is to be found in Christ alone.[31] Only Christ can give the full answer to the question of morality and eternal life.[32]  Fourth, due to this intimate connection between God and the Good, “following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian moralityholding fast to the very person of Jesus…”[33] While divine or natural laws may give a sine qua non, they are not the fullness of the moral life. One can only be truly moral and live a full life by following Christ in a personal and relational manner.

While we have noted those who, due to the similar conclusions regarding intrinsic evils and condemnations of consequentialism, attempt to connect VS and NNL, we are now in a good position to see their mistakes regarding methodology. However, we must be wary of making into a methodological difference which is only a difference between the schools of philosophy and theology. First, the NNL is explicitly non-teleological. There are certain goods which men and women are to pursue, but these goods are known through practical experience and not any understanding of human nature. In contrast, the pope notes that there is an intimate connection between human nature and morality. The natural law is something inscribed upon the very person’s nature. That which is moral is good because it is in accord with human nature and thus necessary for the flourishing of the human person. Knowledge is not a basic good without demonstration. It is a good because the composition of the human person necessitates knowledge for its perfection.  While the pope notes that this is something essentially theological, infused by God Himself, one could also place the source of this law in an Aristotelian metaphysical biology. The point is that VS draws moral laws from a speculative human nature while NNL rejects that this is the case.

Second, the NNL rejects again and again any objective hierarchy of goods. Knowledge is just as basic as life, and either can be seen to be more important or fundamental depending on one’s point of view or reflection. Whether one devotes her life to promoting life, say as an oncologist, or promoting knowledge as a physicist, is up to personal preference and a hierarchy subjectively imposed by the acting agent. The pope argues from a different premise. God alone is the foundation of morality and flourishing is found in Him alone. Indeed, the truest living of the moral life comes in following God. The pope goes so far in his divergence from the NNL to assert, after Augustine, “the extent to which we serve God we are free.”[34] Freedom and moral uprightness is found in service to God. In the moral language of VS, one ought to become a doctor rather than an academic or vice versa because he believes that a certain profession will allow him to better serve God. Human acts serve a plurality of mediate ends or goods but do so in service of the ultimate good which is God. This is an objective hierarchy, God is to be served first, though through other things. The person who places any the basic goods over God by subjective, such as the rich young man did as he left Christ, stands in a state of moral wrongness. This difference of intention between VS and NNL, though subtle, is important. For one who acts according to VS’s system of valuing God over all else is guilty of insanity to an NNL follower. And one who sees all the basic goods as equally fundamental without an objective hierarchy, as the NNL follower does, does not act morally as VS describes. To adopt the methodology of one is to eschew the other.

Though VS and NNL both reject forms of consequentialism and uphold the existence of acts malum in se, we see that their have great divergences in methodology. Thus, to argue that VS is drawn from NNL or that VS is essentially siding with NNL in the moral debates seems to be mistaken. NNL and VS may be allies by virtue of a shared competitor, but they have essential differences and disagreements between each other. What remains to be seen is whether this difference allows VS to avoid the problems of “ought” in NNL. Recall that I argued for the weakness of the NNL for two reasons: its account of the goods do not give a sufficient “ought” for morality and that the plurality and incommensurability of the goods makes the choice of pursuing this or that good merely subjective with no real guiding principles. The first weakness of NNL can be answered through the teleological basis of morality found in VS. The lack of a connection between the goods and the person in NNL resulted in an inarguable and unfalsifiable claim. There seven goods and those who do not value or pursue them are insane, or at least do not understand human life. VS rather connects its conception of the good, following Christ’s laws and conforming oneself to Him, with its conception of the human person, one who is made to be deified. The answer to why pursue this good and act morally is not recourse to assumed and inarguable goods known to all sufficiently experienced people, but that pursuing this good and acting morally fulfills one’s deepest inclinations and the very purpose for existence. There is a conception of the human person, as contentions as it may be, which grounds the need to do good. Do the good because it is good for you, because it will allow you to become the best version of yourself.

We have also seen that the NNL rejection of a hierarchy of goods leaves those who would follow it with little guiding principles as to which good to choose. The NNL proponent can only tell one to choose according to her whims, assuming she does not violate the rules of practical reasonableness. It can give no substantive answer to “What am I to do?” other than “Pursue these goods in a way which seems fitting to you without violating these rules.” VS, on the other hand, gives a strong account of a hierarchy of goods. All is subordinated to and finds its fulfillment in service of God. Knowledge is a true good if and only if it is done in light of God, and the same follows for all of the NNL’s “basic goods.” Like NNL, VS offers constraints on actions, but only VS gives one a guiding goal a substantive answer to “What am I to do?” One is to follow the commandments of God, primarily, and then discern further action through relationship and conformity to Him. One is to order her life toward God and fulfill His will as expressed through discernment, virtues, avoidance of sin, etc. One is still free to pursue the plurality of goods laid out in the NNL, but there is now a guiding and overarching principle. Only by a hierarchy of goods as presented in VS is there an objective reason for the priority or choice of a specific good over another in any circumstance. God’s will serves as the determining factor between any of the subordinate goods. Rather than remaining stuck between seven incommensurable goods with only one’s subjective choice to weigh the options, the inclusion of a highest good, God’s will, gives one a substantive reason to choose between the other goods.

There were two related goals set out for this paper: to show the distance between NNL and VS despite their common opponents and agreement on the existence of intrinsic evils and to show how this distance allows VS to overcome problems that NNL cannot. While NNL bases its moral system on a set of premoral incommensurable and foundation goods and rules of practical reasonableness which are known in themselves and ought to be respected, VS unashamedly advances a teleological and religious foundation for morality with a singular highest good. This twofold difference, a teleological view of the person and a hierarchical view of the goods gives VS the tools it needs to overcome the problems regarding the “ought” or morality which plagues the NNL.

Works Cited

Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Hittinger, Russell. A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

John Paul II, St. Pope. Veritatis Splendor. Vatican City: Vatican City Press, 1993.


[1] For this section, I am thankful to David Kiblinger who allowed me to read over his paper on the reception of Finnis in theology.

[2] Hittinger often refers to NNL as the Grisez-Finnis theory due to the great overlap their thought shares. While his critique is thus leveled against both thinkers, in many areas their names are interchangeable. Though paper focuses mainly upon Finnis, many of Hittinger’s critiques against Grisez are also applicable to Finnis.

[3] Richard McCormick, SJ, “Some Early Reactions to Veritatis Splendor,” Theological Studies 55, no. 3 (1994): 486.

[4] [4]. Joseph A. Selling, “Ideological Differences: Some Background Considerations for Understanding Veritatis Splendor,” The Month 27, no. 1 (January 1994): 12–14. I find the moniker of “traditionalist” for the NNL theorists to be somewhat of a misnomer, since their understanding of natural law is quite different from many in the Catholic tradition.

[5] John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 23.

[6] Finnis Natural Law, 28.

[7] Finnis, Natural Law, 30.

[8] What exactly Hume meant in his formulation of this principle is hotly debated among Humeans. Whatever Hume himself may have intended, the principle is popularly taken as the idea that one cannot derive ethical norms from facts.

[9] Finnis, Natural Law 33.

[10] Finnis, Natural Law, 33.

[11] Russell Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 30.

[12] Hittinger, Critique, 35.

[13] Finnis, Natural Law, 86-90.

[14] Finnis, Natural Law, 61.

[15] Finnis, Natural Law, 65.

[16] Finnis, Natural Law 71-2. Contra to some teleological natural law trends, on page 66 Finnis notes that the universality of a desire is not the basis for thinking that a good is a good.

[17] Finnis, Natural Law, 92.

[18] Finnis, Natural Law, 93.

[19] Finnis, Natural Law, 65.

[20] Finnis, Natural Law, 371.

[21] Finnis¸ Natural Law, 74-5.

[22] Hittinger, Critique, 49.

[23] Finnis, Natural Law, 100.

[24] Finnis, Natural Law, 101-125.

[25] HIttinger, Critique, 52.

[26] Finnis, Natural Law, 30.

[27] Hittinger, Critique, 76.

[28] St. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (Vatican City: Vatican City Press, 1993), 8.

[29] John Paul II, VS, 17.

[30] John Paull II, VS, 12.

[31] John Paul II, VS, 9.

[32] John Paul II, VS, 25.

[33] John Paul II, VS, 19. Emphasis in the original.

[34] Augustine, In Johannis Evangelium Tractatus, 41 cited in John Paul II, VS, 17.

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