Chapter 44. Textolatrous Formalism in Finnis

the characterization of the manner by which the natural law shows is not well served by the mere employment of the written text. I have in mind specifically the manner in which the basic goods which the natural law identifies are to be understood as “common goods”, which is to say, “goods which are good for anyone, and not just me”. The common goodness of the basic goods entails the practically reasonable viewpoint that one should not be ruled by any form of arbitrary partiality for particular persons when promoting the basic goods. However, the employment of the written text, and the explanatory thinking about the natural law’s identified common goods by way of the text risks misleading the theorist and/or reader, by imputing on the natural law a kind of linguistic or Kantian formalism. John Finnis explains that the intelligibility of the natural law is such that it does not come with a “proper noun”. Meaning to say, the precepts of the natural law is that “such and such a good is choice-worthy, period”, and not, that “such and such a good is choice-worthy for me.”, and for this reason such a good is a common good, and not just a good for (only) me. Now, this should not be taken to mean that, since the formal structure of the natural law precept is as it is, therefore the good is a common good. It is not as if the natural law is a proposition primarily and that one can from the structure of the proposition infer these conclusions about the way in which the goods are common. Lest the objection be raised that it is a non-sequitur: just because the proposition “such and such is a basic good” does not state that the good is merely for me, it does not follow that it is good for anyone else. Indeed, one could say that merely a proposition like that leaves it for too ambiguous to infer anything with certainty. It merely says that such and such is a basic good, but it is silent on and therefore leaves us rather agnostic about who precisely it should be good for, and whether it is good merely for oneself, or for that particular person in which is is currently instantiated, or whether it is really for anyone. However one may conjecture, the point remains that there is nothing here which draws the conclusion that such a good is a “common good” or a “good for everyone”.

How then shall we understand the way in which the natural law shows these goods to be “common goods”? I suggest: it should rather be the case that the intelligibility of the natural law is such that it does not specifically identify these goods are good merely for oneself – and this is so because that intelligibility includes the judgment that it is a good for everyone. The thing needed here to understand this point is to firstly distinguish between what the natural law says, that is, its shown intelligibility, and the kinds of semiotic resources we employ to represent that intelligibility. Those semiotic resources include words, forming sentences or propsitions. Yet it is too easy to forget that the natural law’s intelligibility is pre-propositional, as it were, and it is with a proposition that we try to represent its intelligibility. In other words the intelligibility of the goods’ common goodness is as self-evident as the good itself, and should not be a kind of idea one deduces from our propositional representation of its intelligibility. Yet the re-presentation of the natural law with textual, propsitional word-signs risks the misunderstanding that the reason natural law theorists think the basic goods are also common goods is because, this is something one could read off or infer from the precept, “that such and such is a basic good, period” (rather than: “that such and such is a basic good for me”). Quite the contrary: when one encounters a basic good, one may encounter it in oneself or in others, and one does so grasping it as a good, period (i.e., for any human being), even if one has not yet formulated a sentence or proposition about that thought. Nevertheless given that Natural Law and Natural Rights has sought to articulate the natural law and the common goodness of the basic goods with a text, composed of the above relevant sentences and propositions quite easily, in my judgment, leads the reader or the theorist towards a misunderstanding of the way in which the natural law is shown as identifying common goods…

…Steering away from textual formalisms. Specifically in relation to the problem of mis-representing the way in which the common goodness of the basic goods are shown, photography introduces another mode of representation which avoids the pitfall of the propositional text. Suppose one takes an image of someone instantiating a basic good. Of course when discussing what that image means, one may employ propositions to articulate the norm of the precept, or the meaning of the prescription. But unlike the mere confrontation with a text and its proposition (e.g., “skillful play is a basic good, period”) already determined by the author, say in this case by John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights, one also wrestles with the non-propositional, visual image. In this way, the propositional presentation of the precepts intelligibility is a posteriori in relation to the image. The image is the point of reference, and the proposition is subject to some measure of malleability and alteration. This already sets up a kind of useful distinction between the intelligibility of the natural law and the propositional representation of the intelligibility of the natural law, useful for discussion and for avoiding the confusion one with the other. One’s thoughts therefore do not quickly slip into the misleading impression that the intelligibility of the common goodness of the basic goods is to be inferred from the propositions. One’s mind turns to the image and at times the person instantiating the good is as it were “replaceable”. Some images fail to capture the face of the subject, and one grasps quite clearly that the intelligibility of the good is one which can be in principle be instantiated by any person. Thus the picture of the skillful coffee barrista, in fig. A, whose face is hidden, leaves one admiring his skillfulness but indifferent to who he really is – meaning, he could just as well be anyone.



Figure A: Making Coffee (2014)

At other times, photographic images of or visual and audio encounters (facilitated by the photographic project) with another’s skillful play or aesthetic experiences suggests to oneself that it would be good if you, yourself (either the photographer or a viewer of the photograph), were to instantiate the good that another does. That means that the good is not grasped as a good exclusive to that person, but one which even you, like anyone else, can benefit. Thus for instance, this photograph of Japanese drummers (Figure B) could well have captured someone’s musings about aspects of Japanese cultural aesthetic and skilled martial practices which they would enjoy being able to master, if only time permitted.


Figure B: Japanese Drummers (2014)