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Meet The Heavyweight Moral Philosopher Who Mentored Neil Gorsuch


On September 9, 2011, the Notre Dame Law School hosted an all-day conference whose visiting speakers included some of the most eminent names in legal and moral philosophy, among them professors Germain Grisez, Robert P. George, Joseph Boyle, John Keown, Patrick Lee, Dean Timothy Endicott, and the Rev. Peter Ryan.

Not that this took away from his renowned scholarly and intellectual acumen, but only one name on the list was not listed as a professor but as a judge for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals: the Honorable Neil M. Gorsuch.

What was President Donald J. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, an Episcopalian judge, doing at this conference among predominantly renowned Catholic academics? He, one among equals, was honoring a man who inspired all of these great minds, one of the most influential living philosophers in the world, the Catholic natural law theorist John M. Finnis.

Oxford University Press was honoring Finnis with the distinguished privilege of publishing a five-volume work of his essays, and by republishing Finnis’ magnum opus, his 1980 book “Natural Law and Natural Rights,” which was one of the most significant books of the twentieth century to be written on natural law theory. As a result of this honor the conference was held at Notre Dame Law School, where Finnis taught when he was not at Oxford, spending his time between the two schools.

A Philosopher of Human Life and Dignity

As a moral and legal philosopher, Finnis has done breakthrough work on natural law and natural rights, and has written widely on such issues as abortion, gay marriage, and sexual ethics, exuding a pro-life perspective and one that defends the dignity of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman on the basis of natural law theory.

Finnis supervised Gorsuch’s doctoral studies at Oxford and directed Gorsuch’s dissertation on the moral and legal implications of assisted suicide and euthanasia. This was the beginning of the work that would eventually become Gorsuch’s authoritative book on the topic, “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”

One of Finnis’ protégés, who also did his doctorate under the Oxford philosopher, is Princeton professor and heavyweight intellectual Robert P. George. On his Facebook page, George made public these comments about Judge Gorsuch a week before President Trump even nominated him, referencing these men’s mutual connection and debt to Finnis:  “Judge Gorsuch is a friend of mine and someone I greatly admire. He would be a superb Supreme Court justice. He is intellectually extremely gifted and is deeply committed to the (actual) Constitution and the rule of law. He will not manufacture ‘rights’ or read things into the Constitution that aren’t there or read things out of the Constitution that are.”

George continued: “Judge Gorsuch’s excellent book, *The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia* is published under my general editorship in the Princeton University Press New Forum Books series. He also contributed a fine essay to a collection of writings in honor of John Finnis that I co-edited with Professor John Keown of Georgetown. Professor Finnis, the eminent Oxford legal and moral philosopher who revitalized the study of natural law in Anglo-American analytical philosophy and jurisprudence, was Judge Gorsuch’s doctoral dissertation supervisor.  (He also supervised my doctoral work and Professor Keown’s.)”

A Heavyweight Defender of Society’s Most Vulnerable

Many stories have come out already about why conservatives should be optimistic about Gorsuch as the Supreme Court nominee. These included a judicial history of supporting religious liberty, including siding with both Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor when their religious liberties were being threatened by provisions from Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Also noteworthy is Gorsuch’s defense of the sanctity of human life in both his book and published articles on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

While Gorsuch has not commented publically on abortion and Roe v. Wade remains the most hot-button issue in public discourse when a Supreme Court seat becomes vacant, the fact that Gorsuch is a protégé of Finnis should bring much hope in this area. Not only has Finnis written against the immorality of abortion through a consistent philosophy of natural law and natural rights, he has also publically debated some of the biggest advocates of abortion in academia.

In a debate Finnis partook in, squaring off against the ethicists Peter Singer and Michelle Little, both known advocates of legal abortion, Finnis made a powerful and poignant argument about the very language that is used in denigrating and dehumanizing unborn lives.

About the moral status of the phrase ‘the fetus,’ I will just say this. As used in the conference program and website, which are not medical contexts, it is offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, manipulative. Used in this context, exclusively and in preference to the alternatives, it is an F-word, to go with the J-word, and other such words we know of, which have or had an acceptable meaning in a proper context but became in wider use the symbol of subjection to the prejudices and preferences of the more powerful.

Finnis’ point, so often overlooked in our cultural discourse, is that outside of its medical usage the phrase “the fetus” is offensive, as it is deliberately used to dehumanize an unborn child and, by consequence, make it easier to justify an act as atrocious as abortion by manipulating the reality.

“It’s not a fair word, and it does not suggest an open heart,” Finnis said. “Those of you who have an open mind or a fair heart may wish to listen to every speaker at this conference, and see whether they are willing to speak, at least sometimes, of the unborn child or unborn baby, and to do so without scare quotes or irony.”

Many doctoral students who have worked under Finnis have become his intellectual protégés. Among these are George and Keown, who have done significant scholarship of approaching moral and legal issues from a Catholic natural law perspective. Perhaps Judge Gorsuch, another Finnis protégé, will be able to bring such a perspective to the Supreme Court.