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Finnis' Seven Basic Reasons for Action


Explanations > Needs > Finnis' Seven Basic Reasons for Action

Life itself | Knowledge and aesthetic experience | Excellence | Friendship | Self-integration | Self-expression | Transcendence |  So what?


Law professor John Finnis originated (and then developed with others) a set of motivating reasons that people use when considering why they act in given ways. He sees people as animate and rational, both individually and in combination. In other words we are motivated by animal drives as well as thinking and understanding experiences that lead to moral action.

He talks about the factors that motivate us as 'human goods' that can be found by asking 'Why do we do that?' and seeking the value of what we do. He also notes that '...the basic forms of good are opportunities of being; the more fully a  man participates in them the more he is what he can be'.

Here are commentaries on these (Note that Finnis revised his list several times. This is the 1987 version.).

Life itself

As animate creatures, we are motivated to live and continue living. For this we need food, health and safety. This may be considered a basic good. As animals, we are driven to find food and drink to sustain the body, to find shelter from the elements that make us feel uncomfortable, to find a mate and produce children, and to ensure our progeny survive to become independent themselves.

Knowledge and aesthetic experience

Beyond basic living, we find pleasure and value in learning and experiences that can help us learn. The seeking, sharing and use of knowledge distinguishes humans from many animals who live very much on their instincts.  He notes that '...human persons can know reality and appreciate beauty and whatever intensely engages their capacities to know and to feel.' Beauty adds richness to our lives as we experience it as pleasurable, even just for its own sake.

Excellence in work and play

When we act, we can do so casually or with more intense purpose. In doing so, when we complete something to a high standard, we gain a pleasurable sense of achievement. This can be found in both work and play contexts. There is benefit in excellence in work as it not only creates substantial value, it also helps progress our careers. In play, we practice for real-world situations and find release for our creative drives and desires for achievement that may not be possible in the workplace.

Finnis commented that 'Human persons can transform the natural world by using realities, beginning with their own bodily selves, to express meanings and serve purposes. Such meaning-giving and value creation can be realized in diverse degrees.'


Beyond basic achievement we find pleasure in connecting with other people, forming close bonds that affirm and extend our sense of identity. Friends also help with basic needs when they help us in times when we are less able to help ourselves. Friends take us out of ourselves, focusing on joint activity and on being less selfish in what we do. They connect us with the social world and give opportunity for much additional meaning in our lives.

Finnis noted the value of 'Various forms of harmony between and among individuals and groups of persons—living at peace with others, neighbourliness, friendship.' When we are friends with others, we are not their enemies and they are not ours. We hence forgive each other more as we accept friends as having good intention. This assumption changes how we act towards them and hence how they respond.


We are seldom in harmony within ourselves as different values and beliefs conflict and we can even have contradicting personalities that emerge in different situations. This conflict itself causes inner stress and as much as we can integrate and harmonize our inner selves, the more we can live at peace. In this way, cognitive dissonance creates a motivation tension that drives us to change how we think.

Finnis said that 'Within individuals and their personal lives, similar goods can be realized. For feelings can conflict among themselves and be at odds with one’s judgements and choices. The harmony opposed to such inner disturbance is inner peace.'

Self-expression (or practical reasonableness)

In seeking to find harmony, we both work within and without, interacting with the world that reflects our inner personality and drives. We seek to create and express ourselves through autonomy, even as forces for social compliance may act to suppress inconsistent actions that appear to threaten group continuity and sustain hierarchies of control. We seek harmony among our judgements, choices and performances so we can find peace in consistency between our inner selves and how we externally express ourselves.

Finnis commented that 'One’s choices can conflict with one’s judgments and one’s behavior can fail to express one’s inner self. The corresponding good is harmony among one’s judgments, choices, and performances—peace of conscience and consistency between one’s self and its expression'

Transcendence (or religion)

In many ways we have a need for a God of some kind, or at least something to believe in that offers deeper meaning and transcendence beyond our humdrum lives. We may have religious experiences, perhaps born of our beliefs or leading to a change in what we believe. We also find comfort in the certainty it offers as well as the side benefits of friendship and social support. In this we extend the search for harmony outside and beyond us that is essentially unknowable other than a sensation of something much greater than ourselves.

On religion, Finnis pointed out that 'Most persons experience tension with the wider reaches of reality. Attempts to gain or improve harmony
with some more-than-human source of meaning and value take many forms, depending on people’s world views. Thus, another Peace with God, or the gods, or some nontheistic but more-than-human source of meaning and value.'

So what?

Finnis develops from ideas of natural law, that there is a greater order of things and that these drive much of what we do. His needs can be found in other models though Finnis gives yet another lens by which to help explain why we do what we do. And of course if you can understand motivation, then you can act on this to change minds.

See also

Grisez, G., Boyle, J. and Finnis, J. (1987). Practical principles, moral truth and ultimate ends. American Journal of Jurisprudence, 32, 99–151.


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