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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question D: What are the goods which fulfill human persons?

1. Since human goodness is found in the fullness of human being, one begins to understand what it is to be a good person by considering what things fulfill human persons. Things which do so are human goods in the central sense—that is, intelligible goods.

2. These goods are aspects of persons, not realities apart from persons. Property and other things extrinsic to persons can be valuable by being useful to persons. But the basic goods by which they enjoy self-fulfillment must be aspects of persons, not merely things they have (see S.t., 1, q. 5, a. 6; 1–2, q. 2, aa. 1–3).

Frequently in the Old Testament blessings extrinsic to persons themselves are understood to follow from God’s promise to Israel: full warehouses, huge flocks, oxen loaded with goods, strong city walls, and so on (see Ps 144.13–14). Such things surely are human goods, but they are not directly and in themselves fulfillments of persons. They are extrinsic things persons can possess and use, but they do not guarantee personal fulfillment even in the bodily, intellectual, and cultural dimensions, much less in the existential or moral dimension (see Ps 73).

Thus, in many cases, something is not understood to be good or bad in itself, but by its relevance to something else. An empty gasoline tank is understood as bad by a person who wishes to drive somewhere, not because the empty tank is itself humanly bad, but because it prevents the person’s doing as he or she wishes. Getting to the desired destination normally seems good not in itself but for the sake of what can be done there. For example, a man wishes to get home to eat dinner. As in this example, any intelligible chain of human purposes always ends in some goods appealing in themselves, because they contribute directly to the fulfillment of persons. Similarly, what interferes with, damages, or destroys good at any level is considered bad. But all humanly significant bads in the end are reduced to privations of the basic human goods.

Here we are concerned not with useful goods which are only means to personal fulfillment, but with goods which are appealing and can be sought on their own account, because they directly contribute to the fulfillment of persons.

Goods which are sought after on their own account are called “ends” to distinguish them from merely useful, instrumental goods which are called “means.” John Dewey and others have denied that there ever are final ends for human activity; they say that any good always is a means to some further good.4 This view is sound to the extent that it focuses on the open and dynamic character of good. Furthermore, goods which can be sought for their own sake also can be regarded as means to an ulterior purpose or, more importantly, as contributions to a larger whole, all the way to the largest whole which is the consummation of everything in Christ (see Eph 1.9–10).

But the view that there are no final ends for human activity is unsound to the extent that it breaks down the distinction between what persons are and what they have, between things constitutive of the fulfillment of persons and things merely instrumental to it. Moreover, heavenly fellowship in no way is for the sake of anything ulterior; the fulfillment of God’s plan is an end which in no way is a means to anything else.

3. One can distinguish human goods by noticing the assumptions implicit in one’s practical reasoning and that of other individuals and deliberative assemblies. In considering reasons in favor of proposals, deliberation quickly reaches some good which is taken to be not merely a means to an end but an aspect of personal fulfillment. Much effort is directed, for example, toward preserving life and health, and one needs no reason beyond themselves for concern about these goods. True, they can be considered means to other goods intrinsic to persons, but they can also be sought for themselves.

4. There are different senses in which a good can be said to be “sought for itself.” The human goods which fulfill persons should not be considered mere outcomes one wants and seeks—as the goals one will enjoy if action is successful. Such outcomes have the character of accomplishments rather than of self-fulfillment—that is, they remain extrinsic to the person. Basic human goods must instead be considered aspects of what one might call human “full-being.” They are sought for themselves in the sense that they are judged to be humanly fulfilling. They provide reasons for intelligently wanting something and choosing to act for it as a goal.

5. Persons and groups can take an interest in basic human goods and commit themselves to their service. For example, the human good of peace is not simply the resolution of a particular conflict; it is the harmony of persons which peacemakers commit themselves to and seek to serve by working for the resolution of conflicts. Basic human goods are thus greater than the particular things people do to participate in them.

6. The early chapters of Genesis suggest what the basic human goods are. Sin is presented as making people worse in every aspect. In their bodily reality, they are doomed to die—the great good of life is forfeited. In their intellectual life, they are ready to believe lies and think crookedly—the good of truth and knowledge is surrendered. In their reality as cooperators with God in the work of procreation and dominion over the earth, they are condemned to experience pain in their labor—fruitfulness now carries with it burdens as well as fulfillment. Moreover, harmony is lost on all levels in the existential domain. There is inner conflict, manifested by ashamed self-consciousness; there is discrepancy between the capacity for intelligent action and what is actually done, a discrepancy which issues in self-deception, rationalization, and untruthfulness; there is interpersonal conflict, expressed in the shirking of responsibility, the hint of male-female tensions, and murder; and there is alienation from God.

God is depicted in Genesis as giving an order: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2.16–17). (It is worth noticing that this “order” sounds more like a bit of good advice than like an arbitrary edict. From the outset, God is pictured more as a lawgiver than as a lawmaker.) The man and woman disobey, and so disrupt their harmony with God (see Gn 3.6).

The committing of the sin and its subsequent rationalization entail elements of self-deception and self-betrayal: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gn 3.6). The first point is wishful thinking, the second irrelevant, and the third an irresponsible belief. The serpent had lied (see Gn 3.4–5). When questioned, the man blames the woman—and God for giving her to him—and the woman blames the serpent (see Gn 3.12–13).

There is some disruption of the harmony between man and woman in this account (see also Gn 3.16); a more radical interpersonal conflict is depicted when Cain’s disturbed relationship with God leads to his killing Abel (see Gn 4.6–8). For this, Cain is exiled from God’s presence (see Gn 4.16). The sin of the man and woman also immediately leads to their loss of innocence and thus to an uneasy self-consciousness: “They knew that they were naked” (Gn 3.7). Pain and frustration become part of the experience of the procreative and creative work of woman and man (see Gn 3.16–19). And from this painful and frustrating labor there will be no rest “till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3.19).

7. One can infer the basic human goods from the privations which mutilate them. Harmony is the common theme of several. We experience inner tension and the need to struggle for inner harmony; the good is self-integration. Our practical insight, will, and behavior are not in perfect agreement; the goods are practical reasonableness and authenticity. We have strained relationships and conflicts with others; the goods are justice and friendship. We experience sin and alienation from God; the goods are the peace and friendship with God which are the concern of all true religion.

8. These forms of harmony on various levels can be called “reflexive goods,” in the sense that choice is included in their very definition: Part of the meaning of self-integration is choice which brings aspects of one’s self into harmony, part of the meaning of practical reasonableness and authenticity is choice and performance consistent with our insights, and so on. These are existential goods because they fulfill persons insofar as persons make free choices and are capable of moral good and evil.

9. Religion is a great blessing, for nothing in life is more important than liberation from sin and friendship with God. However, harmony with God should not be confused with God himself nor with the divine life in which Christians share by adoption. The human good of religion—that harmony with God which perfects human persons as human—is only one human good alongside others (see GS 11). St. Thomas Aquinas makes this point by distinguishing the virtue of religion from the theological virtues. The former, concerned with specifically religious acts, such as prayer and sacrifice, does not bear upon God himself as the latter do (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 81, a. 5).

10. There are other goods in whose definitions choice is not included; they fulfill dimensions of persons other than the existential one. Life and health fulfill persons as bodily beings; knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty fulfill persons as intellectual beings; and playful activities and skillful performances in general fulfill persons as makers and sharers in culture.

11. In sum, there are seven categories of basic human goods which perfect persons and contribute to their fulfillment both as individuals and in communities. Four of these can be called “reflexive,” since they are both reasons for choosing and are in part defined in terms of choosing. These are: (1) self-integration, which is harmony among all the parts of a person which can be engaged in freely chosen action; (2) practical reasonableness or authenticity, which is harmony among moral reflection, free choices, and their execution; (3) justice and friendship, which are aspects of the interpersonal communion of good persons freely choosing to act in harmony with one another; and (4) religion or holiness, which is harmony with God, found in the agreement of human individual and communal free choices with God’s will. The reflexive goods also can be called “existential” or “moral,” since they fulfill human subjects and interpersonal groups in the existential dimension of their being. The other three categories of basic human goods fulfill persons in the other three dimensions of their being. These goods can be called “nonreflexive” or “substantive,” since they are not defined in terms of choosing, and they provide reasons for choosing which can stand by themselves. These are: (1) life itself, including health, physical integrity, safety, and the handing on of life to new persons; (2) knowledge of various forms of truth and appreciation of various forms of beauty or excellence; and (3) activities of skillful work and of play, which in their very performance enrich those who do them.

One can supplement simple observations of the assumptions implicit in practical reasoning by directly asking questions: “Why are you doing this?” and pushing the line of inquiry until one comes to a normative principle which seems obvious. “Why do you work?” “To make money.” “Why do you want money?” “I have to eat.” “Why bother about eating?” “Don’t be silly. I’ll die if I don’t.”

The results of this sort of inquiry cannot be accepted uncritically. The raw data must be examined and sifted. One answer which is likely to appear is: “For fun.” It should not be taken at face value. In some cases, it merely indicates that someone is acting for the good inherent in the action, not for some extrinsic goal. In other cases, it more particularly indicates that the person is acting for a certain aspect—some experience—of the good of self-integration. One reduces tension, at least temporarily, by doing something one feels like doing.

Other responses to questions about reasons for actions also can be seen to indicate some part or aspect of one or several of the basic forms of human goodness. One drinks because one is thirsty. The behavior sometimes is spontaneous and unthinking; in such cases, thirst is a motive rather than a reason. But if one deliberately chooses actions which satisfy normal organic needs, one is acting for life (which includes health, safety, and so on). Again, a person acts out of patriotism. Patriotism is reducible to specific aspects of certain goods; it presupposes a particular view of what constitutes a good community and personal integrity.

Very often highly vague and obscure language is used to refer to human fulfillment. For example, someone might talk about acting in accord with reason, or living for self-realization, or acting out of love. Such notions work in one of three ways. Sometimes they summarize many or all of the basic forms of human goodness, as “peace” in the Bible and “happiness” in Greek philosophy do. Or a very broad concept can simply be a way of articulating the notion of good itself, as is the case with “self-realization” and “creative growth toward fulfillment.” Or, finally, a large concept can express a certain view about how human fulfillment is best pursued and most likely realized. “Love” often works this way, and it is given very different practical contents by different theories in which it plays a part.

4. John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), 210–77.