Perfectionism and subsidiarity: Comments on John Finnis' human rights and the common good

Daniel Schwartz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The principle of subsidiarity no doubt captures an important moral truth: the imperative to respect the dignity of persons and their choices translates into the imperative to respect the associations they choose to form. The principle shields some associations from outside intervention, even outside intervention that is aimed at and capable of making better persons of the members. Subsidiarists tend to rule against the political association in cases in which its ambition to perform a function or assume a competence conflicts with ambitions of lower level associations. Is this justified? I start from considering three attributes of the state which may justify this tendency. None of them is championed by Finnis23 and none of them can actually justify anti-state bias. The attribute of the state that, according to Finnis, does justify giving preference to the desires of lower level associations is the remoteness of the state's decision making from the initiatives of the citizens. I argue first that remoteness may matter but it is not the only thing that matters. The momentousness of the goals of the political associations gives a moral force to its ambitions that may to some extent countervail the weakening effect of the remoteness of its decisions. But what makes remoteness bad? In one place Finnis seems to suggest that one of the things that makes remoteness bad is that it increases the risk of a member finding herself asked to carry out policies that fail to reflect her initiatives. If we want to reduce this risk then we should perhaps, as I think many subsidiarists believe, let association membership be determined on the basis of affinity and shared beliefs. This, I note, clashes with a civic republican view about the nature of politics that may have been entertained by Aristotle. The last section considers instrumentality. According to Finnis, instrumental associations such as the state should not interfere with those of lower level associations, which are not instrumental and thus in some respect prior. However, I note, if non-instrumentality is the sole characteristic shielding associations from a state's intervention, then many of the associations that Finnis would like to see in principle protected from intervention become exposed to it.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)125-135
Number of pages11
JournalJerusalem Review of Legal Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2013

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All rights reserved.


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