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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question C: How do mistaken views of the good and the bad lead to false accounts of what is good for human persons?

1. The view that badness is an illusion leads to the theory that human goodness is enlightenment. Certain Eastern religions hold that this enlightenment ends in nirvana, loss of self, absorption into the ultimate unity. According to Gnostic heresies, enlightenment transforms one’s attitude and raises one above the seeming conflict of good and bad. Spinoza and Hegel among modern philosophers and Christian Science among modern religious movements are examples of a Gnostic approach.

2. The view that badness is a positive reality also leads to mistaken theories.3 The Pharisees, taking this view of evil, thought that it could be avoided by separation and purification. In the Middle Ages, the Manichaean heresy identified badness with bodiliness. Currently, secular humanist ideologies which seek human good in empowerment imply that badness is a positive reality to be overcome. For example, pragmatists like Dewey regard the bad as the challenge to human ingenuity set by various environments; revolutionaries like Marx think of the bad as social structures which must be destroyed so that others can emerge.

3. Hedonism is the most widespread view which considers badness a reality on a par with goodness. In this view, the good is pleasure and the bad is pain. This view rests on a confusion between sensible and intelligible good and bad. Moreover, hedonism is incompatible with Christian faith (see S.t., 1–2, q. 2, a. 6; S.c.g., 3, 27). St. Paul emphatically rejects it, ascribing its appeal to lack of hope for resurrection (see 1 Cor 15.32–34). Christian spirituality has always stressed the importance of being ready to forgo pleasure and endure pain for the sake of higher and more genuine goods.

4. Rational reflection confirms the previous analysis and Christian wisdom’s evaluation of hedonism. Suppose a device were invented which could create experiences somewhat like motion pictures, but communicated directly to the brain, so as to make the experience a total one in which the individual’s awareness of being a spectator was eliminated. Suppose, further, that one could select a lifelong program on this device and consign oneself—or one’s child or best friend—to this pleasurable and all-absorbing existence. Would there be any point to doing so? Evidently not. No amount of guaranteed pleasure and avoidance of pain would make up for the fact that one was not really living a life. Living is more than experience; it is real relationships, which mean involvement with other real persons in a real world. For human persons, these real relationships come to be in and by acting. As we shall see, they are an important part of what is humanly good. Thus hedonism is to be rejected along with other mistaken views of the good and the bad.

If one confuses sensible and intelligible sources of motivation and takes pleasure and pain to be basic principles of human action, one’s conception of action will be distorted. There is an intelligible aspect under which one can choose pleasure and seek to avoid pain, namely, the lessening of tension or increase in harmony among various parts of oneself. This good, especially in its conscious aspect, is peculiarly individualistic. Thus, emphasis upon pleasure and pain tends to focus concern upon oneself and to distract attention from the larger possibility of finding one’s fulfillment by participation in community, ultimately in heavenly fellowship.

3. Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 23–30 and 81–85, like many others who give values an ontic status prior to entities which bear or participate in them, allows disvalues including moral evil the same metaphysical status as values. However, this mistake is a consequence of his failure to recognize principles beyond the value phenomena he was exploring, together with his effort to absolutize the phenomena in order to exclude various reductionistic theories of values.