John Finnis on the Moral Status of the Fetus

From the American Catholic blog. Look at the clear thinking going on, the direct challenge to secularists and others working to establish the culture of death. Then compare this to our preoccupation with global warming and other dubious fads, the confusion (as the essay below states) between morality and moral status in our didactic discourse, our inability to self-organize (at least on the hierarchical level) thus binding the nascent creativity of many of our priests and laity (the fact we accomplish as much as we do despite the handicaps proves the point), and so forth. American Orthodoxy is at a crossroads and it no longer acceptable to waste another decade arguing about unity and mission like we have the last four. This has to stop.

One other point. I find in the essay the philosophical rationale for a point I’ve been making for years about the claim that the unborn fetus (latin: little one) is merely “potential human life.” While the culture of death advocates use the claim to deny the moral standing of the unborn child, I argue that it in fact confirms it. Potential is function of being. Potential cannot exist apart from being. The fact that an unborn child has “human” potential affirms its humanity; its being is “human,” that’s why it possesses human “potential.” The pro-abortion argument in other words, doesn’t even work polemically.

Source: American Catholic Blog

Last Friday, John Finnis, whom I and many others consider to be one of the foremost living Catholic intellectuals, debated philosophers Peter Singer and Maggie Little at the Princeton conference Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words (Mirror of Justice‘s own Rick Garnett discussed the constitutionality of legalized abortion on Saturday). My friend, Ryan Anderson, over at Public Discourse has published a revised version of Prof. Finnis’ opening remarks, which are well worth the read. Here are two snippets from the piece (be sure to read the whole thing at Public Discourse):

The thing about moral status is, if you believe in morality at all, that it is not a matter of choice or grant or convention, but of recognition. If you hear anyone talk about conferring or granting moral status, you know they are deeply confused about what morality and moral status are. The very idea of human rights and status is of someone who matters whether we like it or not, and even when no one is thinking about them; and matters, whether we like it or not, as at bottom an equal, because like us in nature as a substantial kind of being.

About the moral status of the fetus, it’s clear, I suggest, beyond doubt, after forty years of intense philosophical discussion, that there’s no credible halfway house between, on the one hand, acknowledging that whether we like it or not the fetus—indeed the embryonic baby from the outset—has the same radical equality of nature that we all have despite myriad differences, and on the other hand joining Peter and Jeffrey in denying two things: (1) denying that the primary question is one of fact—shared nature as beings all having or capable of developing (given only food and protection) rational characteristics and activities, and (2) denying equality or ethical or moral entitlement to rights such as life until some time after birth (and here I think Reiman’s position will prove more stably defensible than Peter’s in making that years after birth; but of course neither of them can limit their denial of human equality to conditions of infancy; the denial extends to various sorts of disablement and decay). And each of them goes wrong from the outset in making “moral status” the fundamental predicate in the discussion, instead of predicates of the form “person,” “rational nature,” “kind of being.”


  1. Dear Fr. Jacobse,


    Just a comment on the discursive resources we use.

    It seems to me that, while Roman Catholicism has helpful resources for tackling this all too important moral problem that we face today, I think we can agree that it is prudent to be patient, and that, ultimately, we have to trust the Holy Spirit to provide us with the necessary wisdom to use the rich spiritual treasury and resources handed down to us by the Holy Fathers, to enlighten us, and perhaps slowly but surely, synthesize better an authentically Orthodox and Patristically nuanced understanding about, and approach to, the manner in which the Orthodox Church (in America, especially) practically relates itself to the public, civic arena.

    We pray that our culture no longer be a culture of death, not by mere coercion of men’s laws, but by the Divine Grace of God transforming each one of us broken members participating in contemporary U.S. culture.

    I hope I have not said anything to upset. I realize that my opinions may be out of line. If so, forgive me.

    Pray for me a sinner.


  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Agreed Ric, but this requires that we engage our minds and draw proper distinctions. We won’t acquire the necessary wisdom apart from engagement, just like you don’t know a thing about walking until you start to walk. All that is lacking is the will, and in the absence of concrete and honest engagement we risk confusing the follies I mentioned above with the clarity that is necessary and which, as you said, the Holy Spirit can provide.

    The sentence contrasting Divine Grace with “mere coercion of men’s laws” posits a dichotomy, but strikes me as a political statement couched in God-speak. I’m not really sure what you mean by it since I didn’t mention anything about legislation. I don’t mean this in any offensive way.

    I appreciate your comment Ric but it is not necessary to say forgive me and all that. I mean this with all good will. Disagreement isn’t a sin, it is just a disagreement. Good intentions are presumed of all contributors here. Good will is evidenced by respect for other contributors, and a willingness to engage the ideas with intellectual honesty.

  3. I apologize. I didn’t know that by “engaging secularists” you implied purely and only at the level of discourse, bracketing out question of their legislative import. And, yes, I agree that we need to make proper distinctions.

    Knowing now that your comments were not related to legislation, yes, I was assuming a dichotomy between the laws of men (in the Enlightenment conception of a social contract, as opposed to, say, natural law) and the commandments of God given by revelation. Correct me if I’m wrong to draw that distinction.

  4. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Well, it’s a distinction that on its face uses Roman Catholic categories. I wouldn’t draw such a strict delineation between civil law, natural law, and revelation. Natural law is really a function of the conscience. Reason is related to conscience (one informs the other) but both are enlightened through the nous, an enlightenment that often occurs through moral effort, the resistance against sin, the subsuming of the passions through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

    Civil law, ultimately, is a function of the religious sensibility of a people crafting those laws. Thus it is related to the conscience and reason as well. This holds true regardless of what the religious beliefs of a people might be. Even secularists (secularism is a luxury of de-Christianized culture and can’t endure in the long term) and radical atheists still think in categories shaped by Christianity. Their expressions against or indifference to religion have as much to do with the modern revolt against authority as they do about the ostensible reasons for the non-existence of God.

    But, yes, I think “discourse” is very important. I believe truth enters the world through a word (a word after all created the world), and when truth is spoken, it always references Him who is Truth, even if the words mention nothing about God. It all flows from the Gospel, which, when preached, reveals Him who is Truth (“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”).

  5. cynthia curran :

    As St Paul wrote Pagans were aware of what is moral or not. Pagans from time to time did what was right. Take the stoics that beleive that adultery for men was as bas as adultery for women. However, the stoics could not accept the teachings of St Paul. Also, a lot of practical and even some moral laws in the Justinian Law code came from Pagan emperos. One dealt with a humane treatment of slaves that the emperor Cladius I enacted centuries earlier, this is usually is the combination of nature law from God and Civil Lae.

  6. Thank you, Father Johannes Jacobse and Cynthia, for your comments.

    I would certainly grant that civil law, natural law, and revelation are all related.

    If you can clarify, Father: Are you saying that the word, in a sense, can enter by way of the kinds of civic laws that are legislated? Thus, when people are forced by such law to behave in certain ways, this is capable of enlightening them?

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, civic law is supposed to conform to our proper nature as persons, which is to say, it is supposed to conform to our divinized nature.

    Would it be proper, then, to legislate laws that, in one way or other, compel all members of secular society towards the process of divinization? I ask this sincerely.

    If it divinization-promoting civic laws are appropriate for a secular society, how are we to define the limits to their application? For, if the love for God is necessary for divinity, is it then proper to legislate a civic law that likewise compels people to love God?

    Again, I ask sincerely. Thanks.

  7. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Yes, civil law has a didactic function as well as a regulatory function. I’ve seen troubled kids get arrested, and the arrest is the best thing that happened to them. They straighten out. I’ve seen adults get their DUI and it compels them to join AA and finally get a handle on their drinking.

    This works though when there is a moral framework preexisting and undergirding the law. If that framework shifts — if the moral sensibility informing the law shifts to something else — the civic laws will shift along with it.

    As for laws conforming to our “divinized” nature, their is no such thing as a “divinized” nature. There is only human nature and personhood. (Sin is an aberration, the corruption of human nature. A person is the most “human” to the extent he lives in God, or, to put it in biblical terms, to the extent he “walks in the Spirit of God.”) The law then, in an enlightened society, places the minimal expectation on people drawing from this moral vision — no murder, no rape, no thievery, etc. — that is, regulating behavior that is necessary for the functioning of a society through the threat of punishment.

    Civic law does not exist to make people holy, it exists for the right ordering of society. What constitutes “right ordering” however draws from assumptions that society holds in common — on moral universals, which is properly the domain of religion. That’s why the great debates between Christians and atheists popping up all over the place always end up addressing the question on whether one can be moral without God. (The answer is yes, but one cannot articulate a compelling moral vision beyond individual preference.)

    Keep this maxim in mind: Politics follows culture. Culture is the engine driving the codification of law, and culture is always informed by religious sensibility. This is true no matter what that sensibility might be.

    • “[One can be moral without God] but one cannot articulate a compelling moral vision beyond individual preference.”

      It is intriguing to me how the moral language used by men like Hitchens and Sam Harris (less so, Dawkins) is often an appeal to very lofty and noble moral standards. They use it to often critique the behavior of religious believers (and sometimes rightly so). They sometimes even seem to have a better understanding of some of the underlying principles of ethical thought than some Christians.

      However, they are never able to really explain why these values should carry any weight in the first place. From where do these “shoulds” and “oughts” derive to which they make such a strong appeal?

      • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

        Exactly. And they assert the moral principles without examining where they even came from. Hitchens, while correct in some of his criticisms as you point out, derives the moral logic informing the criticism from the the same tradition he criticizes! Moral relativism is always circular and the loop always closes in on the self in the end. This becomes even more apparent as we realize Hitchens is likely dying as he says it.

  8. Look at the clear thinking going on, the direct challenge to secularists and others working to establish the culture of death. Then compare this to our preoccupation with global warming and other dubious fads, the confusion (as the essay below states) between morality and moral status in our didactic discourse, our inability to self-organize …

    The real fight going on is not the fight against pollution or evolution. These are diversions and the EP is, indeed, very good at it. But the EP is not the Orthodox Church; he is just a voice increasingly performing out-of-tune with the Church. The real struggle is not even against the evil of abortion.

    The real struggle going on is to erase Christ from the memory of mankind. We praise the Catholics for doing a good job when defending life. It appears though that their clarity on this subject comes the expense of great confusion. The false teaching of Vatican II that Jews, Christians and Muslims supposedly worship the same God are going to lead them to reduce the Creed to one sentence: “We believe in One God.”
    The moment we say “The Father Almighty” we are in disagreement with non-Christians, because the Father must have a Son, and we know who the Son is: Jesus Christ! He is not a prophet and He is the Messiah who already came.

    Sadly, here on the AOI site, we too do not talk very much about Christ, Who is wondrous in His Saints.

    • George Michalopulos :

      Eliot, I like your reasoning. If I may come to the defense of the AOI, you are correct that we don’t talk that much about Christ, but that’s because (for me at least) the issue is settled. What we seem to fight about is the denigration of Christ by the faddists within the Church. These do infinitely more damage to the Church than all the Hitchens, Harrises, and Dawkings in the world combined.

      • What we seem to fight about is the denigration of Christ by the faddists within the Church.

        Who are those denigrating Christ? Vatican II certainly denigrates Christ.

        Secularism is defined as ‘the doctrine that morality should be based solely on the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state’.
        This is the claim that the Deceiver makes: he wants the well-being of mankind in the present life. When people start to notice his horns and cloven hooves, he is trying to explain it away. It is becoming increasingly difficult to explain away the brutality and the crimes of the Communist regimes. His strategy is to keep silence about it. The driving forces behind Communism were gigantic. The working-class was just an ignorant, manipulated mass.

        Similarly, the driving forces behind the culture of death are gigantic. They also claim that they are working for the well-being of people.
        Fr. John Breck

        The abortion and pharmaceutical industries, together with other vested interests, initially demanded that “extra embryos” from IVF procedures be used as a source for stem cells. This provoked moral outrage in some quarters, so they shrewdly upped the ante. Accumulated pressure from these and related sources have just led the New Jersey legislature to pass Assembly Bill 2840, a measure likely to have more far-reaching consequences than Roe v. Wade. The bill not only legalizes the cloning of human embryos. It allows those embryos to be implanted into a woman’s uterus, grown nearly to term, and then destroyed before birth, in order that their various body tissues and organs might be used for “therapeutic” ends.
        Increase the demand outrageously, and they’ll give you in any case what you originally asked for, and maybe more. Keep working this model, and eventually what was considered outrageous yesterday will seem reasonable today.

        “Increase the demand outrageously,” they said to themselves, “and they’ll give us
        what we originally asked for, and maybe more.” Now we’re on the verge of giving them fetal farms. What will it be next time?

        Eventually, at some point more and more people will start to notice Satan’s horns and cloven hooves in all of it. They will have to know where to run for safty: to Christ, the lover of mankind. But how to find Him in the web of lies surrounding us?
        Fr. George Calciu :

        Today, in the nest of lies which surrounds you from all sides, are you still able to distinguish the Truth from the lies as easily? Under the invasion of American and Protestant-style “evangelization”, in which partial truths of Christianity are preached before a satanic background of rock music and in the form of a “cheep sham spectacle”, full of shrieks and false tears, with miracles and healings falling upon your confused head, how can you find the true Christ in your heart?

        You were born, young man, not of desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but from God, Who became flesh for you and of Whose fullness you partook, and grace after grace you have received.
        This grace is a shield against fornication, to which your modern teachers push you. They tell you that liberty is the eradication of any obstacle facing you; that a good conscience is a talisman; that honor is an old-fashioned, obsolete notion; that sexuality is the unleashing of the beast within you; that your likeness to Christ is a story created by the priests; and that the love of God and neighbor is a new way of inhibiting your personality. Search in your heart, beyond this diabolic ticket of lies, and you will find the Truth, the only one that shall set you free! And the supreme Truth is the Resurrection, the Resurrection of Christ, as the lever for your own resurrection.

  9. Thank you, Father, for taking the time to kindly answer my questions. I appreciate it.

    Would you recommend any books or articles on the subject of the role the Orthodox Church has in civic society (including the points you made regarding civic law and how it relates to human nature and personhood), drawn from the consensus of the Church Fathers?

    Bare with me: I hesitate to inform myself from the Scholastic tradition (and its vestiges) of Roman Catholicism.

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