IS IT possible confidently to identify the basic human goods that enable men and women to flourish in every society and in every age? It is certainly a daring venture in our relativistic times, but, in his landmark work Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), this is what the philosopher and legal scholar John Finnis seeks to do.
Drawing on but expanding the insights of St Thomas Aquinas, Finnis identifies the seven basic goods as life: human vitality and health in its widest sense; knowledge: considered as a value in its own right rather than a means to an end; play: engaging in different enjoyable activities for their own sake; aesthetic experience: the appreciation of beauty; sociability: friendship with others; practical reasonableness: using one’s intelligence to address the challenges of life; and religion: pursuit of ultimate truth, whatever our conclusions about it may turn out to be.
These human goods are basic: each is valuable for its own sake, not as the means to a further end. And, Finnis argues, they are self-evident, not because we are born with some sort of philosophical certainty about them, but because we presuppose them in everything that we think and do.
For example, we assume the good of knowledge when we check the time or look up at the sky to see what the weather is doing. Christians see the basic human goods in the new and transformed perspective provided by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of them is given a decisively new twist, but they remain basic.
ALTHOUGH the past few months may have brought some unintended benefits for society and for the Church, it is striking that we have seen an assault on every single one of the basic goods that Finnis identifies.
Life has (arguably) been preserved by stringent lockdowns and other restrictive measures against the particular threat of Covid-19. But this basic good has been challenged when, to name just a few of the issues, those with possible heart attacks have feared to seek help; when treatable cancers have been left to grow more serious; and when male suicide has reached a two-decade high in England and Wales.
Knowledge has been undermined by the removal of education from a generation of young people, owing to the closure of schools and universities; extraordinary restrictions to life in these institutions, once students are allowed to return; and chaotic failures in the examination system, and consequent disruption to university admissions (Comment, 28 August).
Play has been disrupted by countless restrictions on sporting and leisure activities. The joyful spirit necessary to engage in it has been evacuated from the lives of many by enormous levels of anxiety and fear.
Aesthetic experience has been assaulted by the closure — perhaps for ever — of many theatres and concert venues; the redundancy of many artists; and the ban on singing in any circumstances.
Sociability has been hampered by the complete lockdown of society for several months; by the new virtue of “social distancing”; by face coverings that conceal the most expressive parts of us from one another; and, now, by the sudden imposition of the “rule of six” (News, 11 September) and the encouragement to neighbours to snoop on one another.
A welter of regulation has taken a heavy toll on practical reasonableness. Infantilised by the Government and other bodies, many people have become understandably nervous about making their own decisions and prudential judgements, and have been forced to fall back continually on ever-burgeoning guidance and directives.
The good of religion has been eviscerated by the closure of churches, prohibition of worshipping assemblies, and the removal of the sacraments — or their attenuation in ways that many (rightly or wrongly) find difficult to accept, such as anointing with cotton-wool buds, or communion in one kind only.
IN THE face of this head-on assault, and conscious of shameful failures in the past to be a safe environment, the Churches have tended towards over-use of the precautionary principle, emphasising caution, safety, and risk-aversion. We have often been content essentially to take government slogans and guidance and translate these into our own context (and, since I interpret such guidance for churches every day, I include myself in this).
We have been less successful, however, in providing an alternative to the pervasive climate of fear, which has now been intensified by recent announcements.
Some people have been able to offer such an alternative: my own favourite is the irrepressible fitness coach Joe Wicks, in his regular workout sessions on YouTube. But, in contrast, the Churches have not always communicated that the gospel is more about self-giving than “safety”; more about liberty in Christ than about regulation and restriction.
Ultimately, a society terrified by death — the fear that surely lies at the heart of the reaction to Covid — needs to hear again the hope-filled news that Christ has defeated it.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.