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Chapter IX of Natural Law and Natural Rights begins with a reflection on the need and justification for authority. Finnis writes:

[T]he greater the intelligence and skill of a group’s members, and the greater their commitment and dedication to common purposes and common good, the more authority and regulation may be required, to enable that group to achieve its common purpose, common good.

For . . . the dedicated member of the group will always be looking out for new and better ways of attaining the common good, of co-ordinating the action of members, of playing his own role. And the intelligent member will find such new and better ways, and perhaps not just one but many possible and reasonable ways. Intelligence and dedication, skill and commitment thus multiply the problems of co-ordination, by giving the group more possible orientations, commitments, projects, ‘priorities’, and procedures to choose from. And until a particular choice is made, nothing will in fact be done. . . .

There are, in the final analysis, only two ways of making a choice between alternative ways of co-ordinating action to the common purpose or common good of any group. There must be either unanimity, or authority. There are no other possibilities.

* * *

Now there is no need to labour the point that unanimity about the desirable solution to a specific coordination problem cannot in practice be achieved in any community with a complex common good and an intelligent and interested membership. . . .

John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, IX.1.

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Cardinal George of Chicago is one of the Catholic Church’s sharpest thinkers and clearest voices on the relationship of law and culture in the United States today. I am working my way through his new book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World, and will occasionally post excerpts.

When American law was mostly common law, as it was when Holmes addressed his Boston listeners, its relationship to culture was harmonious, because the law was almost wholly derivative from the culture. The common law was conceived of as the distillation of shared practice, of culturally common activities. The law was not any judge’s say-so or even the say-so of the judiciary as a body; judicial declarations counted, rather, as so much evidence of the law. The law remained the common practices of the people, discerned more or less adequately by judges but not made or determined by them.

. . .

We live in an age of statutes, administrative rules, executive orders, treaties, and judicial decisions conceived differently—more creatively and more like legislation—than was the common law. Law characteristically is, for us, the purposive ordering of norms, first imagined, debated, and then given life, once and for all, on a certain date, down at city hall, up in the statehouse, or in a court in Washington, D.C. All these forms of law, these enactments, bind by dint of someone’s or some institution’s authority, not by dint of prior custom and practice. The modern relationship between law and culture is therefore fragile, more complex and problematic.

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