John Finnis’ Theory of Divine Law

When I was talking to Josh about the overarching question of my project – ‘How is scientific law related to legal law?’ – one of the points we came up with was this: in the past, people thought that all things should obey God’s Law. The sun moved in the sky because God commanded it, and people lived in harmony because God commanded it. Back then, people did not make the distinction between scientific law and legal law, and this is why both disciplines use the same word.

We thought about this for a while, and agreed that if I wanted to investigate this, I’d have to do some difficult and tangential historical research. We agreed that we would declare it ‘beyond the scope’ of the project, even though it would be interesting to know.

Happily, John Finnis went ahead and proposed a theory of Divine Law in Natural Law and Natural Rights, using modern analytical techniques. So now I can talk about it after all.

The theory of divine law is a theory that there is some entity out there that created both legal laws and scientific laws. These types of laws are still separate, and in fact, people were well aware of this since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle. However, these kinds of laws share a common origin and are part of natural order.

The Unmoved Mover

Finnis ‘proves’ the existence of something, which some people call God, through a famous argument that dates back at least to Thomas Aquinas. The argument certainly does not prove the existence of the Judaeo-Christian idea of God, and so using the word ‘God’ here is misleading. To avoid this confusion, we shall instead call the entity proved here ‘X’.

The Argument:

(1) There are things in the world that might or might not be true (are ‘contingent’). An example is ‘a human walking on Mars.’ This may or may not come to pass some day.

(2) There are contingent things that in fact are true (for example, a human walking on the Moon). If a contingent thing is true, then a state of affairs must have caused that thing to become true. For example, all whole variety of things caused humans to walk on the moon. There are obvious things like innovations in rocket technology or humans deciding it would be a good idea, but also less obvious things like the existence of humans in the first place.

(3) But the things that caused a human to walk on Moon must themselves have causes, because they are also contingent. We cannot go back to infinity, because this is a vicious regress – the source of truth can never be found.

(4) Therefore, if we go back far enough, there must be some object which can cause things to happen, but is itself uncaused. This is object is X, the ‘unmoved mover’.

Finnis describes four orders of things: the physical world, the logical world, the world of practical reason, and the world of art and technology. He holds that the argument of the unmoved mover holds for all four of these orders, i.e. the existence of the moon, the truth of logic and of maths, moral values and the beauty of art were all caused by unmoved movers.

Finnis says that this argument is conclusive, not speculation. It does not tell us how X causes things, merely that X must exist.

Speculation upon the Nature of X

At this point, Finnis concedes that the argument will not logically take you any further. He poses the following speculations, which certainly seem reasonable and get you very far:

  1. There is only one X, or, if there are multiple unmoved movers, it is sensible to call the set of all unmoved movers X.
  2. There is already one source of uncaused causing that we know about in everyday life: the exercise of free will in performing acts. Free will, though influenced by various things, has no cause, yet humans can cause things to happen.
  3. Is it not plausible, then, that X’s uncaused causing is analogous? Is it not plausible that X’s causing is a creative act of will, just as our building a house or writing a poem is a creative act of will?
  4. There are objects in the world that would serve no purpose if humans weren’t around, such as the seven basic goods. Therefore, if X created the universe through an act of will, it must care about us.

Once you have a X that wilfully ‘created’ the universe, and a X that cares about humans, it seems a lot more plausible to rename it God.

The Will of X

One could then call the creative intention of X the ‘Divine Law.’ Finnis says there are several important caveats to this:

  • This theory does not determine the specific content of the Divine Law. It only argues that Divine law exists, and suggests where natural law comes from and why it should be followed.
  • Divine law is greater than any particular system of statements – it is greater than all descriptive and normative statements, and also greater than other kinds of things like artistic statements (whatever those are).
  • Viewing a painting is a participation in the basic good ‘Aesthetic Experience,’ but it is not equal to that basic good. The basic good is infinitely greater. In the same way, the seven basic goods are a participation of the Divine Law, but they are not equal to that law, and the moral component of the Divine Law is infinitely greater than the basic goods.
  • For the above three reasons, the Divine Law is mysterious to us, and impossible to ever fully understand.

Reflection vs. Revelation

X created logic and natural reason. Therefore, when we think reasonably, we are participating in the Divine Law. In this sense, when we logically deduce something, we are both ‘creating’ it in our own minds, and ‘discovering’ it in the greater mind of X. This is one answer to the question ‘Is maths created or discovered?’ or ‘Is law created or discovered?’ – we are in fact doing both.

Once you have an X with will that cares about humans, is it not plausible that Xwould reveal itself, and its intentions to humans? Finnis, as a Catholic, believes that not only can this happen, but it actually did happen 2015 years ago. Finnis therefore contends that knowledge such as the basic goods can be found through two sources: (1) philosophical meditation that employs correct reasoning, or (2) studying the materials revealed to humankind by God/X.

The different types of law

If you accept Divine Law, then the relationship between physical law and legal law becomes straightforward: they are both manifestations of X’s creative intention. They have a common origin, and differ only in their application.

Criticsms of the theory of Divine Law

Objection to the argument of an Unmoved Mover:

You can dispute the premise that there are contingent things in the universe. Physics is already doing away with causality in much of its descriptions, and it seems possible that the whole universe is necessarily existing, and that there is no causality.

This argument becomes even more plausible once you move beyond the physical world. Finnis tries to use the unmoved mover argument to conclude that X created theoretical reason. This implies that statements like “there are infinitely many primes” are caused somehow. This doesn’t seem true, certainly not true enough that you can take it as an undisputed premise.

Objections to a Speculation on the Nature of X:

One of Finnis’ main premises is that human acts are, in some sense, uncaused causings because free will is uncaused. This is not unanimously accepted, and raises all sorts of issues of determinism.
A full discussion is beyond the scope of the project but, for example, the following (long but easy-to-read) series of articles has strong arguments that free will is entirely deterministic.

Objection to Revelation:

Say someone comes up to you and claims to be revealing the truth of X’s creative intention. Finnis does not offer any way to tell whether that person is telling the truth, and so how can we ever know whether X is revealing its intention to us?


I’m sure other people have thought more seriously about these kinds of arguments, but even the ones I’ve come up with here do serious damage to all three major pillars of the theory, namely (1) there is an X, (2) X cares about us and (3) X’s intentions are known.

Nevertheless, the theory goes a long way towards unifying legal law with scientific law, and is a nice addition to the project.

the all powerful x

Source: Finnis, J. (2011, first published 1980). Natural law and natural rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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