Human Values pp 184-216 | Cite as

Law, Liberalism, and the Common Good



There is a tendency in contemporary jurisprudence to regard political authority and, more particularly, legal intervention in human affairs as having no justification unless it can be defended by what I shall call the principle of modern liberal autonomy (MLA). According to this principle, if consenting adults want to do something, unless it does specific harm to others here and now, the law has no business intervening. Harm to the self and general harm to society can constitute no justification for legal regulation or prohibition. So pervasive is this understanding of legal intervention in human affairs, that it is common now to encounter arguments in favour of permissive laws on, for example, private drug use, pornography, and sexual and reproductive choice, based on the idea that to intervene in these areas would constitute a breach of the liberal ideal.


Common Good Liberal Ideal Moral Objectivity Legal Intervention Donor Gamete 
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. 1.
    J.S. Mill, On Liberty (London: Penguin, 1974): 68–9. For an opposing view, see Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Three Brief Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 [1873]).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    P. Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    H.L.A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) (quotations from 1975 edition).Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    John Finnis, “‘Shameless Acts” in Colorado: Abuse of Scholarship in Constitutional Cases’, Academic Questions 7 (1994): 10.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    John Finnis and Martha Nussbaum, ‘Is Homosexual Conduct Wrong? A Philosophical Exchange’, in Alan Soble (ed.), The Philosophy of Sex (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004; 4th edn), originally in The New Republic (1993); Finnis, ‘ “Shameless acts” in Colorado’; Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘The Use & Abuse of Philosophy in Legal Education’, Stanford Law Review 45 (1993): 1627–45; Nussbaum, ‘Platonic Love and Colorado Law: The Relevance of Ancient Greek Norms to Modern Sexual Controversies’, Virginia Law Review 80 (1994): 1515–1651; Gerard V. Bradley, ‘In the Case of Martha Nussbaum’, First Things 44 (1994).Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    Plato, Gorgias, 507e-508a, in The Collected Dialogues ofPlato, E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (eds) (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1961) (see Dialogues for notes up to and including 25).Google Scholar
  7. 26.
    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.1, 1094a, trans. W.D. Ross: The Works o fAristotle, vol. IX, ed. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925).Google Scholar
  8. 29.
    Aristotle, Politics III.7, 1279b, trans. Jowett, The Works of Aristotle, vol. X, ed. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921): ‘Of the above-mentioned forms, the perversions are as follows: — of royalty, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all’.Google Scholar
  9. 31.
    St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, q. 92 a. 1 ad 3: ‘The goodness of any part is considered in comparison with the whole; hence Augustine says (Confess. iii) that “unseemly is the part that harmonizes not with the whole.” Since then every man is a part of the state, it is impossible that a man be good, unless he be well proportionate to the common good: nor can the whole be well consistent unless its parts be proportionate to it’ (trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province; London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1927 (2nd edn, vol. 8).Google Scholar
  10. 38.
    Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Flamingo, 1994 [1931]): ch. 1.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    Julian Savulescu, ‘Procreative Beneficience: Why We Should Select the Best Children’, Bioethics 15 (2002): 413–26. See also John Harris, ‘Rights and Reproductive Choice’, in John Harris and Soren Holm (eds), The Future of Human Reproduction: Choice and Regulation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 5–37.Google Scholar
  12. 40.
    A similar list is suggested by Maureen McTeer in ‘A Role for Law in Matters of Morality’, McGill Law Journal 40 (1995): 893–903.Google Scholar
  13. 41.
    Rose and Another v. Secretary for Health and Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (2002) EWHC 1593 (ADMIN).Google Scholar
  14. 59.
    On the inconsistency inherent in moral relativism, see David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002): 19–20, where he also quotes W.V. Quine’s remark: ‘He [the cultural relativist] cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up’ (‘On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World’, Erkenntnis 9 (1975): 313–28 at 327–8).Google Scholar
  15. 63.
    World Population at the Turn of the Century (New York: United Nations, 1989): 8.Google Scholar
  16. 64.
    ‘Immigrants Needed to Save West from Crisis’, The Guardian 22 March 2000. See also: Expert Group Meeting on Policy Responses to Population Ageing and Population Decline, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations Secretariat, New York, 16–18 October 2000.Google Scholar
  17. 66.
    ‘Adam Lay Y-bounden’ (c. 1450), in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. D. Davie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981): 21. ‘Ne had the apple taken been… Ne hadde never our Lady /A been heaven’s queen.’Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jacqueline A. Laing 2004

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations