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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question B: How are sensible goods and bads distinct from intelligible goods and bads?

1. The central meaning of “good” clarified in question A refers to what is understood as fulfilling. The corresponding meaning of “bad” refers to what is understood as a privation of fulfillment. But “good” and “bad” are used with secondary meanings to refer to what is sensibly appealing and repugnant. In both senses, whatever is called “good” provides a positive motive for behavior, and whatever is called “bad” provides a negative motive. However, what is good or bad in the secondary sense is not always good or bad in the primary sense.

2. This complexity in the uses of the words “good” and “bad” arises from the complexity of the human person. By nature, human persons are both sentient and intelligent. Their sentient nature is similar to that of other animals; their intelligence and freedom of choice are distinctive. Emotions are aroused by sentient awareness of what is suited or unsuited to the person as organism. Free choices are made on the basis of judgments about what will fulfill or prevent the fulfillment of the person as a whole.

3. Although complex, the acting person is one self. A person lives in a single world, and behavior must be adapted to all aspects of the reality of this world. Hence, normally a person’s outward behavior is motivated at once by both emotion and will, directed both toward sensible pleasure (or the avoidance of its opposite) and intelligible fulfillment (or the avoidance of its privation).

4. For example, a person imagines good food and experiences the emotional appeal of eating it. If there is no reason not to eat, one sees the point of doing so and proceeds without having to make a choice. If a choice is necessary, in addition to the emotional appeal of the imagined food, there will be some reason for eating—some respect in which doing so will be considered fulfilling. Again, a martyr has a good reason to choose to suffer rather than be unfaithful. But in addition to the intelligible good of religious fidelity, the martyr needs motivation at the emotional level, such as affection for Jesus, attachment to others who are suffering, or fear of the pains of hell.

5. In many cases, emotion and will work together harmoniously in motivating action. Emotion advances possibilities, intelligence considers reasons for acting on the possibilities proposed, and will initiates action. If all goes well, what is done brings about results which are both pleasant (the sensible good is experienced) and fulfilling (the intelligible good is served). For example, a person takes pleasure in eating a meal, and the meal also serves health, sociability, and other human concerns which provide reasons for eating.

6. Choices are necessary only if emotions advance two or more possibilities, which are considered in deliberation. Thus, when one acts by choice, some emotional impulses are integrated as motives of the action and satisfied if it succeeds. But others, which advanced options other than the one chosen, remain unsatisfied, with more or less attendant frustration. For example, if a person on a diet chooses to eat a rich meal, the emotional appeal of the food is satisfied, but the emotional repugnance toward one’s shameful obesity is overridden.

7. The distinction between sensible and intelligible goods and evils is most obvious when a choice for an intelligible good overrides emotional repugnance to a sensible evil which will be experienced in the chosen act itself. For example, one chooses to undergo painful dental treatment for the sake of the intelligible good of healthy, functioning teeth. But in undergoing the treatment, one experiences pain. Unlike the intelligible evil of the loss of one’s teeth, the sensible evil of pain is a positive reality. Thus, sensible evils are not privations, and sensible goods are only partial aspects of the intelligible goods which fulfill a human person as a whole.

Felt pleasure and pain evoke strong emotional reactions and shape behavior, generally in a way which has survival value for the organism affected. As a positive sensation, pain is real; however, pain is no less beneficial to the organism than pleasure. In other words, in general the experience of pain ought to occur; it belongs to a healthy organism as part of its survival equipment. Thus pain does not have the character of privation, and so it is not intelligibly bad.2

2. Roger Trigg, Pain and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 166, describes the case of a young woman who did not enjoy a normal sense of pain: “As a result she suffered considerable physical damage regularly, and it merely went unnoticed or was regarded with indifference.”