Human Values pp 70-101 | Cite as

Incommensurability and Basic Goods: A Tension in the New Natural Law Theory



In the ‘new natural law theory,’ the idea of basic goods plays a pivotal role.l Because, together, they comprise the elements of ‘integral human flourishing,’ the basic goods maintain continuity with the Aristotelianism that Aquinas bequeathed to the natural law tradition.2 Because their status as goods, on this view, is self-evident (per se nota), they provide this new natural law theory with a firm foundation for ethics while enabling it to skirt old worries about deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’3 Because the basic goods are mutually incommensurable, they leave intelligible room for practical reasoning to operate ‘creatively’ in shaping an individual’s practical concerns.4 And because even their instances are incommensurable with one another, they allow this view to be ‘good-based’ in an obvious sense without compromising the Pauline Principle — the precept that evil is not to be done that good may come of it.5 The basic goods thus position the new natural law theory to provide an attractive and well-founded view that frames morality within a broader conception of human flourishing, leaving appropriate room for individuality while preserving strict moral principles.


Basic Good Fundamental Reason Moral Evil Evaluative Dimension Significant Choice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    This link to Aristotle, via Aquinas, is an important theme in all of the authors discussed here. It is mentioned, variously, in Germain G. Grisez, ‘The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, I—II, Question 94, Article 2’, Natural Law Forum 10 (1965): 168–201; Germain G. Grisez, The Way of Lord Jesus, Vol. 1: Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983; hereafter CMP): 184–5; John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, corrected edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982 [1980]; hereafter NLNR): 103; Mark C. Murphy, Natural Law and Practical Rationality (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001; hereafter NLPR): ch. 1; Alfonso Gbmez-Lobo, Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002; hereafter MHG). Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    These worries are centrally addressed by John Finnis. See John Finnis, ‘Natural Law and the “Is”-“Ought” Question: An Invitation to Professor Veatch’, Catholic Lawyers 26 (1980–81): 266–77; and Finnis, NLNR, esp. 36–42.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Russell Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    See the works cited in note 2. I have omitted Timothy Chappell from this list: Timothy Chappell, Understanding Human Goods: A Theoty of Ethics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998; hereafter UHG) defends many of the tenets of the new natural law theory; and that work as well as his later writings, such as Timothy Chappell, ‘The Implications of Incommensurability’, Philosophy 76 (2001): 137–48, take up the argument that the incommensurability of goods undercuts consequentialism. Chappell, however, seems less clearly committed to the source thesis than are the other writers I discuss. In addition, unlike the other writers, who aim to give exhaustive lists of the basic goods, Chappell holds that there is no necessary limit on the number of types of goods.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    On this point, Murphy cites Gisela Striker, ‘Origins of the Concept of Natural Law’, Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 2 (1986): 79–94.Google Scholar
  6. 30.
    See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols (Westminister, MD: Christian Classics, 1981): I, q. 5 a. 3.Google Scholar
  7. 46.
    For instance, Joseph Raz, Practical Reason and Norms (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990): 19n., holds that all reasons are facts, and that ‘facts are not individuals but logical constructs.’ Compare T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998): 57. As Jonathan Dancy has pointed out to me, this claim that reasons are not individuals (or particulars) can be accepted by those particularists who are concerned instead to deny that the generalities which are reasons are always reasons whenever they are instantiated.Google Scholar
  8. 47.
    I am indebted to Linda Wetzel for discussion of the possibility of general instances. Compare Linda Wetzel, ‘What are Occurrences of Expressions?’, Journal of Philosophical Logic 22 (1993): 215–20.Google Scholar
  9. 49.
    I put forward one such purported counterexample in Henry S. Richardson, ‘Beyond Good and Right: Toward a Constructive Ethical Pragmatism’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 24 (1995): 124. As far as I can see, Finnis is not fully committal on this point, but instead stresses the defensive maneuvers that would protect the thesis that every instance of a basic good is, as such, good: Finnis, NLNR: 62.Google Scholar
  10. 52.
    Note that TI applies pairwise to instances of goods. It follows from this that the commensurability it denies is what has been called ‘weak’ commensurability. Strong commensurability obtains only if there is some one dimension — such as pleasure or utility, substantively interpreted — in terms of which the reasons for and against every option in every pair of options agents ever face can adequately be represented. Weak commensurability demands only that for each choice there be some dimension in terms of which one can adequately array the reasons, allowing that different dimensions might play this role for different choices. See David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value, Aristotelian Society Series, Vol. 6 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987): 258–9.Google Scholar
  11. 53.
    There are obvious Kantian grounds for doubting that all reasons are goodbased. For doubts about whether all practical considerations are reasons, see John Broome, ‘Normative Requirements’, in Normativity, ed. Jonathan Dancy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).Google Scholar
  12. 54.
    On the relation of being on a par, see Ruth Chang, ‘The Possibility of Parity’, Ethics 112 (2002): 659–88. Because of my focus, here, on deliberation and decision, I define ‘comparability’ more narrowly than does Chang by applying the term only to the case in which items can be ranked all things considered.Google Scholar
  13. 55.
    On the distinction between evaluative incommensurability and incomparability, see Henry S. Richardson, ‘Commensurability’, in Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edn, ed. Lawrence Becker (London: Routledge, 2001): 258–62. I had not realized until researching the present chapter that Grisez has long insisted on the distinction between comparability (‘commensuration [that] occurs in choice’) and commensurability (‘commensuration… antecedent to choice’): Grisez, CMP: 156. This distinction lies behind my insistence that the commensurating scale be a real property or a dimension of goodness; for if this restriction were not imposed and one could simply pick or construct a dimension, of course it would always be possible to construct it so as to reflect the comparative status of two options as antecedently determined by choice.Google Scholar
  14. 57.
    Hence, they do not proceed in the spirit of Isaac Levi, Hard Choices: Decision Making Under Unresolved Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  15. 58.
    See Henry S. Richardson, Practical Reasoning about Final Ends (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994): ch. 6.Google Scholar
  16. 62.
    Cf. John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain G. Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987): 258; and Murphy, NLPR: 268, n. 14.Google Scholar
  17. 64.
    On this distinction, see also Candace Vogler, Reasonably Vicious (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), esp. 66–71. Vogler is, in some sense, working within the Thomistic tradition. A rigorous distinction between normative requirements and the considerations that contribute to the balance of reasons, developed independently of this tradition, is found in Broome, ‘Normative Requirements ’.Google Scholar
  18. 65.
    To see what I mean by ‘residue,’ here, consider the kind of case that Slote invokes in explaining the idea of satisficing. Thus, consider a house-seller, and suppose that it first appears that the only relevant consideration is the price. Then suppose, however, that once the bids start going over $1 million, the seller starts saying things to himself like ‘if I sell it for that much, I’11 have difficulty avoiding the taxes that come with a failure to reinvest my capital gains in my new primary residence.’ As soon as he has said that, he has made clear that price is not, after all, the only consideration that matters. Hence, in this case, the dimension of price could not capture all of the reasons, without residue. For a general argument that the idea of satisficing only incompletely captures the importance of evaluative multi-dimensionality, see Henry S. Richardson, ‘Satisficing: Not Good Enough’, in Satisficing, ed. Michael Byron (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  19. 77.
    See, for example, F.M. Kamm, Non-Consequentialism, the Person as an End-in-Itself, and the Significance of Status’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 21 (1993): 354–89.Google Scholar
  20. 78.
    Samuel Scheffler, ‘Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues’, in Consequentialism and its Critics, ed. Samuel Scheffler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988): 249–50.Google Scholar
  21. 79.
    It may well be that, as argued in Timothy Chappell, ‘The Implications of Incommensurability’, Philosophy 76 (2001): 137–48, the distinctions between promoting, respecting, and not attacking basic goods suffice to defeat a maximizing consequentialism. Even if so, Scheffler’s challenge lives on, as in the case about to be described, to threaten the ability of a good-based view such as the new natural law theory to maintain the Pauline Principle.Google Scholar
  22. 80.
    Richard Brook, ‘Agency and Morality’, Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991): 197. I discuss this case in Richardson, ‘Beyond Good and Right’: 118.Google Scholar
  23. 82.
    This is obviously only a cursory and preliminary examination of the theoretical options available for coping with such difficulties. Perhaps, for instance, one should introduce temporally indexed distinctions into the basic modes of practical orientation so as to distinguish between (a) now successfully attacking a basic good and (b) now acting so that I will have successfully attacked a basic good. Perhaps, by contrast, the notion of an ‘attack’ on a basic good should be shorn of success conditions, such that the attack on the life of the two children is complete even before it is settled that the lion will eat them. See the useful discussion in Whitley Kaufman, ‘The Lion’s Den, Othello, and the Limits of Consequentialism’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 37 (1999): 539–57.Google Scholar
  24. 84.
    Here, I follow Rawls’s rejection of a ‘Cartesian’ conception of practical justification: John Rawls, A Theory ofJustice, revised edn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971]): 506.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Henry S. Richardson 2004

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations