Natural Law and the “Model of the Good Life”


While working as a law clerk in the federal judiciary, I had the opportunity to visit FCI Seagoville, a low-security prison near the Dallas metro area. If I remember correctly, one of the particularities of the Seagoville facility was its emphasis on the treatment of sex offenders – a topic that I find particularly interesting given the various philosophical questions involved, such as whether and how desires as such can be changed. And as debates continue over Supreme Court nominee Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s sentencing practices in sex crimes cases, I’ve been thinking about some of those issues and doing a little reading of fund.

Although I’m not sure if this is the approach used by FCI Seagoville, one of the best-known models of sex offender treatment is the “good life pattern(GLM). As its proponents explain, “According to the GLM, people commit offenses because they are trying to achieve some kind of valuable outcome in their lives. As such, delinquency is essentially the product of a desire for something that is inherently human and normal.

One of the fundamental assumptions of the GLM is “the basic premise that offenders, like all humans, value certain states of mind, personal characteristics, and experiences, which are defined in the GLM as primary goods”. And it is the list of these “primary goods” that I find particularly intriguing:

  1. “life (including healthy living and functioning)
  2. knowledge (how well-informed one feels about things that are important to oneself)
  3. excellence in play (hobbies and recreational activities)
  4. excellence in work (including master’s experiences)
  5. excellence in agency (autonomy, power and autonomy)
  6. inner peace (absence of emotional disturbances and stress)
  7. relationship (including intimate, romantic and family relationships)
  8. community (connection with larger social groups)
  9. spirituality (in the broad sense of finding meaning and purpose in life)
  10. pleasure (feeling good here and now)
  11. creativity (expressing oneself through alternative forms).

The list first caught my eye because in the past I encountered a strikingly similar breakdown of “primary goods” as reasons for action, albeit in a very different conceptual framework.

“New Natural Law Theory” is an approach to natural law thought generally associated with the work of philosophers Germain Grisez and John Finnis (some more recent proponents include Catholic scholars Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis). One of the main purposes of this project, as I understand it, was to make traditional natural law arguments more intelligible in secular terms. And indeed, the distinctive claim of ‘New Natural Law Theory’ (hereafter ‘NNLT’) is that it does not, strictly speaking, require any theistic postulate; instead, it simply emphasizes that human action is directed towards the achievement of certain “basic goods”, each of which is desirable in itself and serves as a sufficient justification for action. These basic goods are, on behalf of Finnis:

  • The life
  • Knowledge
  • Friendship and sociability
  • Player
  • Aesthetic experience
  • Practical reasonableness
  • Religion

The parallels between this list of “basic goods” and the list of “primary goods” of the Good Lives Model are truly remarkable. Both “life” and “knowledge” are explicitly included; ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ are functionally synonymous, as are the pairs ‘excellence in play’ and ‘play’, ‘relationships/community’ and ‘friendship and sociability’, and ‘excellence in free will’ and ‘practical reasonability’. “. And ‘creativity’ and ‘aesthetic experience’ are, at the very least, analogously related.

what really However, what is surprising about this correlation between GLM and NNLT property counts is the fact that no one else seems to have noticed. A cursory search of the academic literature does not seem to reveal a direct relationship between GLM and NNLT, despite the fact that these two disciplines (offender rehabilitation and moral philosophy) are both based on the same ethical vocabulary. These two distinct academic fields may simply have encountered the same basic set of ideas.

What can be said about the fact that the list of GLM goods is more complete? That is, there are three main goods on the GLM list that have no obvious correlates on Finnis’ list: work (in the sense of mastery achievement), inner peace and the pleasure. Why could this be?

As far as “work” is concerned, in my experience, it is mostly Protestants who argue for a view of work as a source of joy, and not just a necessary evil (a direction with which I personally resonate deeply, and which has led most Protestants throughout time to have a rather gloomy view of monastic life). I am therefore not particularly surprised that Finnis, as a Catholic, does not place much emphasis on this element; there is an immeasurable difference in the theological perspective at work.

The latter two are more difficult to explain – as a friend of mine pointed out to me several years ago, it doesn’t make much sense to exclude pleasure from the list of basic goods unless charging analytical dice. Human being clearly act (or at least appear to act) “for” pleasure as an end in itself, and humans seek an experience of inner peace for the same reason (one might even risk that “inner peace” is a subtype of first). ).

In short, without going into too much detail, I feel quite comfortable saying that the GLM list of primary goods is analytically more useful than the NNLT list of basic goods. The GLM list, that is, foregrounds a more comprehensive conception of human flourishing.

I’ve written before about what I think are some of the limitations of the NNLT paradigm, and I always agree with those criticisms. Of course, to identify the basic goods like basic goods would seem, in the first place, to implicitly posit a unifying principle linking them – some analogon to which the seven (or eleven) basic goods relate as analogues. This unifying principle, however, is what NNLT leaves ambiguous, in an effort to remain justifiable under the terms of something like Rawlsian “public reason.” And in the absence of such a metaphysical center which constitutes a criterion of evaluation of what can possibly be a basic good, why should not does pleasure count as a basic good? NNLT’s effort to elucidate a finite pattern of basic goods still seems, in my opinion, to be trapped in arbitrary narrowness and infinite iterability.

And beyond that, the uncanny resemblance between the GLM and NNLT ‘goods’ models suggests to me that NNLT as a system risks becoming – instead of a true way of ‘being-in-the-world’ -virtually” – a kind of self-improvement technology. And indeed, in the context of sex offender treatment, It is exactly what it is. The GLM approach is a theoretical mechanism for solving a specific problem – the commission of sexual offenses – rather than a broader framework for addressing reality as such. Its orientation is immanent, not transcendent.

To conceive of the moral life as the pursuit of a constellation of basic goods, whether aggregated or disaggregated, has always struck me as something quite different than to conceive of it as participation in and conformity to the Triune God – the Good as such, in which I live, I move and I have my being – which is always a reality that goes beyond my categories of “fundamental goodness”. For my part, in searching for a way to “be-in-the-world-virtuely,” I am not undertaking a sort of balancing act where I reason in terms of basic goods and their relationship to one another. Instead, I ask a simple question: “What would Jesus do?” It certainly does not mean that “everything is fine” – my understanding of the the person of Jesus is always informed and mediated by Scripture which has historically come to me through the church. But this is to underline the intrinsic unit of action embodied by the moral example (Christ) to which I seek to conform, and the relationship between this unity of action and its transcendent paternal origin. Insofar as “basic goods” have a place in this worldview, they are understood as facets of this single transcendent source towards which all things are directed.

And this, it seems to me, is the goal to which moral reasoning must really tend.


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