This is a short and highly accessible essay by the eminent John Finnis entitled, “What is the Philosophy of Law?“ Readers of CLR Forum will know that Finnis is the author of one of the most important books of jurisprudence of the last century, Natural Law and Natural Rights, which represents the keystone in the revival of natural law thought in contemporary times.
In this short piece, Finnis explains in summary form what the philosophy of law (or jurisprudence — he believes the terms are synonymous, for reasons he discusses) is and what its tasks are to be. Why is this relevant to religion? Well, grossly oversimplifying (and I mean really grossly and highly incompletely), though it does not appear in this essay, one of the basic common goods described by Finnis in NLNR (see pp. 89-90 and 371-410) is the good of religion (obliquely adverted to in this essay at page 4 as one of the common goods “of other associations of society”). And inasmuch as a society provides for freedom of religion, the philosophy of law “consider[s] precisely how far choices made today for one’s political community should be determined or shaped by choices made in the past, in the form of contracts, wills, constitutions, legislative enactments, customs, judicial decisions, and the like.”
Two little noteworthy items in Finnis’s new piece. First, Finnis gives a very clear and easily digested explanation for why the statement “an unjust law is no law” is true (he has done this before, and this essay does it succinctly). Again, I am oversimplifying, but the criticism has been: well of course an unjust law is a law — in fact, whether a law is really a law has nothing to do with its morality or ultimate justice. Finnis says:
Natural law theory has no quarrel with – indeed, promotes – a distinction or bifurcation between intra-systemic [legal] validity (and obligatoriness) and legal validity (and obligatoriness) in the moral sense. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to see such a distinction at work in the famous tag — “An unjust law is not a law.” Such a way of speaking is not self-contradictory, paradoxical, or even remarkable: “an insincere friend is not a friend”; “a logically invalid argument is no argument”; “a quack medicine is no medicine”… So too in the famous tag or theorem: “unjust law” (lex iniusta) here refers to an intra-systemically valid legal rule or order, and “not law” (non lex) signifies that, moral limits having been transgressed, this same law lacks validity (as law) in the moral sense (i.e., legitimacy) and thus, as such, lacks moral obligatoriness. (8-9) (footnotes omitted)
The second item to note is the conclusion, in which Finnis is discussing the philosophy of law’s tasks and its future. I was especially struck by Finnis’s emphasis of the importance of “common custom” in maintaining a healthy legal system.