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Could Self-Evidence Guarantee Objectivity of Basic Values?

Bramble Bush

Could Self-Evidence Guarantee Objectivity of Basic Values?

In Natural Law and Natural Right, John Finnis outlines basic values and principles as contents of his natural law theory. The principal characteristic of them is so-called self-evidence, through which these basic values or principles are not subjective or arbitrary, but objective.[1] This essay would crystalize this thesis. The first part would rephrase Finnis’s arguments, and then would be a comparison between Finnis’s and Cartesian epistemology. The third part would be a short conclusion that Finnis fails because there is no mind-independent objectivity as such.

I.

Trying to defeat all skeptical assertions, Finnis makes a distinction between discourse about natural law and discourse about a doctrine or doctrines of natural law.[2] The theory he puts up with is about natural law, ra...


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Could Self-Evidence Guarantee Objectivity of Basic Values?

In Natural Law and Natural Right, John Finnis outlines basic values and principles as contents of his natural law theory. The principal characteristic of them is so-called self-evidence, through which these basic values or principles are not subjective or arbitrary, but objective.[1] This essay would crystalize this thesis. The first part would rephrase Finnis’s arguments, and then would be a comparison between Finnis’s and Cartesian epistemology. The third part would be a short conclusion that Finnis fails because there is no mind-independent objectivity as such.

I.

Trying to defeat all skeptical assertions, Finnis makes a distinction between discourse about natural law and discourse about a doctrine or doctrines of natural law.[2] The theory he puts up with is about natural law, rather than doctrine or doctrines of it,[3] seeming to provide a more advanced and stable basis for natural law. This basis Finnis grounds all his theory on is that natural law is eternal and without history, but we human beings within history could grasp it. For the reason that natural law is eternal and beyond our history, it is objective; and because we could grasp it, it could have an effect on our daily life, rather than a castle in the air. This is his core thesis that the self-evidence of basic values could guarantee the objectivity.

However, a kind of paradox is surely here: how could someone within history grasp something beyond history, and how could someone make sure that she has grasped it? Or put it in epistemological terms, how could Finnis bridge the gap between a cognitive subject who could only know something mind-dependent and something mind-independent to be known?

Finnis’s answer is quite easy: basic values, as contents of natural law, are so self-evident that we could grasp them directly without hesitation,[4] and because of their self-evidence, basic values are indemonstrable.[5] Here we could conclude the self-evidence plays two roles in Finnis’s theory. The one is Finnis connects the knower and the known in the epistemological sense and protects the objectivity of basic values from history or subjective opinions. The other is through it, Finnis’s theory could avoid the critique from the Humean distinction between is and ought, because natural law would not come from facts, but from these indemonstrable and irrefutable basic values.[6]

Through the analysis above, there is a strong tendency in Finnis’s theory that he tries to ground his natural law theory on a necessarily true basis (the first principle), from which he could deduce the whole system. Thus, his theory is also a variation of foundationalism in epistemology, which combining with his attempt to grasp the mind-independent reality, shares the same theoretical aim with Descartes we turn to below.

II.

Descartes, the founding father of modern philosophy and a notorious skeptic, is faced with the same problems as Finnis, but adapts different strategies. This part would first give an outline of Cartesian argumentation on how someone could grasp mind-independent reality and then compare his theory with Finnis’s.

What perplexes Descartes is how we could justify what we know is what really is, not what seems to be for us.[7] The famous example is, when we see a table, how could we say it really is a table, rather than something evil deceiving us?[8] This problematic is quite similar with the paradox Finnis trying to solve as what we have argued.

Descartes’ strategy, however, is rather different from Finnis’s. Finnis tends to adapt a kind of intuitionalism, originating from Plato’s intellectual intuition to grasp eidos. Cartesian epistemology is a kind of representationalism, in which there would be what represents and what is represented. Clear and distinct ideas would represent what really is or mind-independent reality in Descartes’ theory. His argumentation is as follows:

(1) There are clear and distinct ideas that I know[9];

(2) These clear and distinct ideas are necessarily true[10];

(3) Through these clear and distinct ideas, I would get to know what really is, not what seems to be;

(4) Why couldn’t these clear and distinct ideas deceive me?

(5) These clear and distinct ideas come from God, which would not deceive us.[11]

In this way, Descartes could say, I think, therefore I am, because clear and distinct ideas could not come from our sensation which could distort reality or be deceived, but come from our intellectual connection with God. The reason he develops this different strategy is, from his view, we could not trust our sensation as Aristotle has said (which is the deep root of Finnis’s theory[12]). Thus, this cogito or I think, is the supreme principle of Descartes’ theory, from which all his justification of our knowledge could be deduced.[13] In this sense, although Descartes doesn’t accept Aristotle’s justification of knowledge, he totally agrees with Aristotle’s definition of knowledge or science, which is to grasp the first principle, from which deductive inference proceeds.[14]

Through a general outline of Cartesian epistemology, there exist two different points from Finnis’s. The one is obvious that we could not grasp mind-independent reality directly, but indirectly, namely through mediation (clear and distinct ideas). The other is implicit or presupposed by the former that only through a cognitive subject could we get to know the object. To put it in another way, the knower, as the first principle in his theory, would play a role in our cognition of the known. The first principle, in Cartesian theory, is the cogito, a thinking being; but in Finnis’s, it would be basic values without thinking (otherwise, basic values would be not so self-evident). Thus, concerning the epistemological gap between the subject and object, both Descartes’ and Finnis’s theory are variations of foundationalism, but have different even opposite attitudes towards intuition or sensation. Is Finnis right, in Descartes’ wake?

III.

To evaluate these two strategies, a proper way is to analyze their theoretical ambitions. As what has repeated again and again, Finnis tries to guarantee the objectivity of natural law through the self-evidence of basic values. In Descartes’ wake, the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy could be understood much more clearly. This part would describe its advantages first, and then provides a critical analysis of its disadvantages.

By and through the self-evidence of basic values, Finnis unfolds to us someone conditioned in history could grasp natural law beyond it. Without doubt, Finnis agrees with Thomas Aquinas that while some propositions are self-evident to ‘everyone’, other proposition are self-evident only to ‘the wise’.[15] Thus, he would admit a Platonic theory that only someone by nature and nurture through could grasp eidos through intuition as what has mentioned above. This further means some principle of natural law or basic values, although they are self-evident, they may not be so self-evident to everyone. They may appear to someone, and disappear to others, but what appears and disappears would be the same. Thus, there is no need for a kind of mediation to represent what disappears to us.

Compared with the Cartesian strategy, Finnis’ theory has at least one advantage. In Descartes’ theory, he distinguishes between what represents and what is represented. The core issue he would deal with is, how he could guarantee or justify what represents accurately corresponds to what is represented. That is the reason why Descartes introduces God into his theory: God would not deceive us and those clear and distinct ideas from it would justify this correspondence. However, in a more secular world, Descartes’ strategy would be a metaphor to tell us his theory could just assume, but not justify the correspondence between the two. Finnis’s theory, instead, intentionally or unintentionally avoids this problem because he doesn’t make the distinction as Descartes, and in fact equals what appears with what disappears.

Nonetheless, Finnis’s theory has two fatal disadvantages. The first disadvantage, as Descartes’ famous example says, certainty, however self-evident, is quite different from knowledge, which aims at pursuing what really is.[16] The self-evidence could not function as this criterion to discern what seems to be and what really is on one hand, and Finnis could not provide other ways for us to detect what we grasp is what really is on the other hand. If he could, it would mean his basic values need demonstration or justification. What surely could be deduced is there may be a higher principle behind basic values, which would lead to infinitive regression.

The second disadvantage follows from the first. If we accept certainty is different from what really is, then we would also accept the gap between mind-independence and mind-dependence has not been bridged through Finnis’s strategy. This deep gulf should be taken seriously for double reasons. On one hand, it means the attempt of Finnis to grasp something beyond history by someone conditioned in history would thoroughly fail, because of no criterion for Finnis to justify or demonstrate what is self-evident is what really is. On the other hand, it would stop the argumentation from self-evidence to objectivity of basic values. If we could not discern accurately what is self-evident from what really is, we have to distinguish self-evidence from objectivity, too. Besides, when we take into consideration the fact that Finnis’s theory is a variation of foundationalism, these two disadvantages would be fatal because all his system is based on the so-called self-evident, objective and indemonstrable basic values, which by and through critical analysis, may be merely self-evident, but not objective. Some scholars would oppose this argument that the definition of objectivity here is too exclusive. Objectivity could not only include what really is, but also a kind of agreement or assent within a community. This opinion is incompatible with Finnis’s theory because while he emphasizes the self-evidence of basic values that someone could grasp directly, he doesn’t assume a kind of consensus for the reason that he also admits someone could not grasp these values easily as others.

Through the analysis above, we could clearly say these two characteristics of the beginning of Finnis’s theory, namely self-evidence (objectivity) and foundationalism, can be fatal to his whole system in a sense. The nerve here is, if Finnis only upholds the self-evidence or objectivity of basic values, and gives up foundationalism, his disability to justify the objectivity could not be so fatal as now to his theory, because a sound and reasonable theory could also be one, within which all propositions would underpin each other, constitute a coherent whole and with the development of argumentation, this coherence and explanatory power of theory would develop, too. But as Finnis combines the self-evidence with foundationalism, his standpoints would be so strong that they success once for all and fail hand in hand. Unluckily, through what has analyzed, Finnis could not justify the mind-independent objectivity of basic values as such, he has to accept his theory has a fatal shortcoming.[17]


[1] John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 64-65.

[2] Id, p. 25.

[3] Id.

[4] Finnis cited Julius Stone and Aquinas to explain his idea. Id, pp. 31-32.

[5] Id, p. 33.

[6] In this way, Finnis rejects a classical critique that natural law is kind of theory deducing ought from is. This is a prospective defense shared by many other scholars in the field of constitutional interpretation. For example, Ronald Dworkin and James Fleming, they each advocate a kind of interpretation based on legal principles or a moral reading of constitution, claiming, say, to help a person in need is not out of the fact itself, but some moral conviction within our life. This strategy would provide judges a more flexible or pragmatic interpretation of legal texts.

[7] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Michael Moriarty trans, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 13-14.

[8] Id, p. 17.

[9] Id, p. 25, 28. Descartes distinguishes two kinds of ideas. One kind represents things outside of ourselves, but they would not necessarily do so. The other kind of ideas is derived from some notions innate within us.

[10] In fact, clear and distinct, these two words are used by Descartes in his last Meditation. Id, p. 55.

[11] Id, pp. 38-39.

[12] Generally speaking, in Book VI of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s conception of science provides a basic frame of Finnis’s work. For example, they both share the view that science is aimed to grasp something eternal and necessary; they both think through sensation or experience or induction, we could also get to the eternal or necessary.

[13] In the Second Meditation, Descartes says, “Archimedes claimed, that if only he had a point that was firm and immovable, he would move the whole earth and great things are likewise to be hoped, if I can find just one little thing that is certain and unshakeable”. See Id, p. 17.

[14] Aristotle, Book VI, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Roger Crisp trans, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 104

[15] John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 32.

[16] This issue is so perplexed that at the beginning of analytic philosophy in the early twentieth century, Wittgenstein also expresses the same anxiety in his On Certainty, in which he shows to us the certainty of sensation is a kind of private, not public, knowledge.

[17] Finnis refutes his theory has fatal shortcomings and in his Postscript of Natural Law and Natural Rights, he says, “…the book has significant weaknesses. But its main purposes and main positions remain intact”. John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 425.

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