Should an Oxford University philosopher be allowed to teach theories that condemn homosexuality?

The dreaming spires of Oxford.
The dreaming spires of Oxford.
Image: Reuters/Peter MacDiarmid
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Legal and moral philosopher John Finnis is an original thinker, eminent within his field, and highly controversial. The Oxford University professor, who mentored Supreme Court judge Neil Gorsuch while the latter was a Marshall Scholar, has a moral theory that argues there are several basic goods and it’s immoral to intentionally harm them. For example, life is a basic good and so, by Finnis’ moral theory, abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia are always wrong, as they cause direct harm to life. According to Finnis, heterosexual marriage is also a basic good, and one that’s further enriched by procreation. As such, he’s opposed to homosexual sex (and masturbation, adultery, and bestiality, which he groups in the same category).

Finnis’ views are not new (he first published his seminal work, Natural Law and Natural Rights, in 1980), but many Oxford students have recently had enough. As of writing, close to 600 have signed a petition, started last week, demanding that Finnis should be barred from teaching. The petition highlights some of Finnis’ most forceful language against homosexuality, including his claim in a 1994 essay that homosexual sex is “destructive of human character and relationships” and so should be “repudiated” (he distinguishes this from, say, “eating excrement” which Finnis characterizes as merely “offensive.”) Finnis says petition misrepresents his position, and he stands by his writings. “There is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them,” he told the Oxford Student in an interview published Jan. 8. “The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all nonmarital sex acts and has been republished many times….”

Finnis’s views on homosexuality will strike many as abhorrent, but are they theoretically morally defensible? Whether or not Finnis’ views can be considered moral is “begging the question,” says Justin Weinberg, philosophy professor at University of South Carolina and creator of philosophy blog Daily Nous, as the answer depends on which moral theory you use as a measuring stick. Finnis’ views are moral when judged by his own moral theory, but other moral theories would say the opposite.

From the perspective of whether or not Finnis’s views are correct (as in, whether the arguments are well-grounded and logical), there are plenty of philosophers who find his theories unconvincing. Martha Nussbaum, law and ethics professor at the University of Chicago, argues that Finnis’ views on homosexuality are “inherently theological” and so have no rational basis. Weinberg agrees, noting that though Finnis, who is Roman Catholic, presents his views as secular, his arguments depend on theological reasoning. “For example,” Weinberg writes in an email, “even if we accepted Finnis’ claim that it is good to be part of a married heterosexual couple whose only sexual behavior is vaginal intercourse without contraception, what possible secular basis could there be for thinking that other kinds of relationships (same-sex marriage; long-term-but-unmarried heterosexual couple; heterosexual couple that sometimes engages in, say, oral sex) are wrong?”

Finnis argues that these other relationships harm the good of heterosexual marriage. “But how, exactly,” ask Weinberg, “is this thwarting happening? It’s not.” Weinberg adds that Finnis’ views are based on weak arguments (“I find the premises of the Catholic position literally unbelievable, the reasoning built upon them—aimed more at preserving church doctrine than following the arguments where they lead—unconvincing, and the conclusions implausible,” he writes) and, as such, supporting Finnis’ view seems “cruel and irresponsible.”

Similarly, Mark Murphy, legal philosophy professor at Georgetown University, says he’s not persuaded by the idea that heterosexual marriage is a fundamental human good. “The ‘marital good’ as Finnis describes it is extremely complex: a lifelong union of man and woman, consummated and sustained by ongoing one-flesh union, oriented toward procreation,” Murphy writes in an email. Based on Finnis’ description of heterosexual marriage and why it constitutes a fundamental good, Murphy believes that Finnis is in fact describing a collection of important goods that can be realized in a relationship, rather than one unified fundamental good. “And so I think, contrary to Finnis, that marriage as he describes it is not a basic good but a privileged way in which a variety of other basic goods can be realized in a human life,” Murphy says. “If marriage is not a basic good, but a way of realizing other goods (even a very important way of so realizing those goods), then the argument against homosexual conduct that Finnis offers doesn’t get off the ground.” Furthermore, in Murphy’s view, the “unreasonableness of homosexual sex” does not necessarily follow from the notion that the marital good is a fundamental human good. “I think the argument fails quite badly,” he adds.

Regardless, every academic Quartz spoke with agreed that Finnis should be free to teach. Kimberley Brownlee, legal and moral philosopher at the University of Warwick in the UK, cites 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who noted that even when the vast majority think a highly unpalatable view is false, it might still be true or even partially true. “If it’s completely false, we still benefit from hearing it because it prods us to remember the arguments for the views we do hold,” says Brownlee.

Mill did allow that some things should not be said—but dependent on the setting, rather than the content of the speech. For example, Mill would not condone someone who espoused violent views in front of a crowd who were riled up and on the brink of rioting. Yet Mill would allow those very same views to be written or discussed in a different setting. “It’s the forum, the enclosed space, that matters,” says Brownlee. Aside from those particularly heated circumstances, she says, “[I]t’s excessively paternalistic to say your audience can’t handle it. Respect an audience as capable of reasoning.”

Academic freedom is like general freedom of expression but “on steroids,” says Brownlee. “[Academics a]re meant to be opening frontiers of knowledge, finding new information, and hopefully building up more wisdom.” Other than plagiarism and misrepresentation of data, she says, there are no restrictions placed on academics’ expression; creating such censorship “impedes the development of scholarship.”

To many, Finnis’ views are unquestionably wrong. But there can still be value to hearing his opinions; at the very least, it provides an opportunity to articulate why they are incorrect. As Brownlee says, “We risk becoming complacent, unreflective defenders of the dominant view if we don’t allow ourselves to be challenged.”