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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question E: What are the principal inadequate theories of the human good as a whole?

1. Unlike the views criticized in C above, there are several inadequate theories of human good which do not go wrong in their understanding of the meaning of “good” and “bad” but which fail to recognize the richness and complexity of human fulfillment. They err by mistaking a part for the whole.

2. Some think the human good consists in getting what one wants—that is, in the aspect of human goods which is their realization in accord with one’s wishes.5 People who get what they want are considered happy. This is not the same thing as hedonism, since it takes more than pleasure into account. But it is inadequate all the same. For on their theory, what one wants is settled either before one’s choices or by one’s choices. If the former, then, supposing “what one wants” constitutes the good of human persons, the whole existential domain (the domain of freedom and choice) is thereby reduced to serving desires which are given before choice. If, on the other hand, what one wants is settled by choice, then, again supposing it constitutes the good of persons, morality is subjective; since the rightness of choices depends on their relationship to human good (see 4‑H), and human good in this case is whatever one chooses. Hence, the view that getting what one wants constitutes the human good as a whole is not adequate.

As definite possibilities of the fulfillment of human persons, goods have a real objectivity, even though they are not actual entities. Many subjectivistic and relativistic theories suggest that whatever one wants or chooses, or whatever a particular group of people happen to care about is “good for them.”

True, the plurality and richness of human possibilities and the openness of human goods to development leave room for pluralism, diversity, and creative initiative. However, human goodness is the fullness of which human persons are capable, insofar as we are creatures of a certain sort, endowed with some definite capacities and opportunities for being and being more.

Although God had a choice whether to create human persons or not, even he could not make us what we are—which includes a definite set of possibilities—and then arbitrarily decide what sorts of things would be our goods (see S.t., 1, q. 21, a. 1, ad 3; q. 25, a. 6). For instance, God cannot create an organism for which mortal illness is a good. Much less can individuals and groups arbitrarily determine what is “good for them.”

The objectivity of human goods led some thinkers in the idealistic tradition—Nicolai Hartmann is an example—to make an opposite mistake. They supposed that the goods, because they are objective, must be real apart from and prior to human persons.6 While it is true that all created goods preexist in the perfection and the wisdom of God, the basic human goods considered in their own being are created realities. As created, human goods have no reality apart from the individuals and groups of persons in whom they can be and are realized, for these goods are nothing but certain realizations of the possibilities of persons.

3. Some think the human good consists in the full exercise of one’s properly human capacity, the ability to reason. Aristotle is the best example of this view. Aware that human fulfillment is not simply the realization of some state of affairs, he holds that the human good is a lifetime of action. But he fails to accord adequate recognition to human goods other than the exercise of reason. Thus he thinks that fulfillment consists simply in the reasonable ordering of life and the use of reason in philosophical reflection of the highest sort.7

4. This view, and any similar to it, is inadequate. Either one can opt for a good other than the exercise of reason or one cannot. If one can, human fulfillment is not reducible to the exercise of reason—it must include the other good for which one can opt. If one cannot, any basic shortcoming in one’s life must be due to ignorance, disease, or some other factor beyond one’s control which has impaired the use of reason—not to wrong choice. But in this case, radical moral evil is impossible.

5. Some think fulfillment consists in living a life which executes a difficult project in an excellent way. Nietzsche is the best example of this view. It makes no difference what the project is. What count for him are the effort, creativity, and skill which go into carrying out whatever it may be. On this view, life should be a work of art; the greater the art, the better the life.8

6. Although Nietzsche does see that human fulfillment must consist of more than getting what one wants and being what one is, his account also is inadequate. It is vulnerable to a dilemma similar to that used against Aristotle. Nietzsche denies the reality of moral evil, but he bitterly criticizes those who do not accept his notion of the human good—pointless criticism if there is no objective standard of morality to support it. Moreover, Nietzsche’s theory is essentially individualistic, with no room for community, and is incompatible with the Christian belief that human fulfillment depends on cooperation with God’s work.

The appeal of the three theories criticized here can be accounted for as follows. The satisfaction of basic needs is of service to the good of life and is likely to be of service to human fulfillment in its other aspects. Those who idealize liberty and who wish to create the conditions for its uninhibited exercise assume that in the right situation people will use liberty to fulfill themselves individually and communally in all the basic goods. The exercise of intelligence is related to at least two of the basic human goods: namely, truth and practical wisdom. Creative work also is a human good, and all the human goods, in their open-endedness, call for a creative approach to life.

Yet all three of these approaches fall short. None takes into account the whole variety and richness of human fulfillment. Human freedom of self-determination is essential to all of the existential goods; the three approaches ignore or deny this freedom, and so they misconceive and oversimplify the personal and interpersonal, existential dimension of humankind.

Moreover, none of these three approaches has a conception of human fulfillment which really fits the requirements of faith. Just as the Incarnation did not annul the human nature of Jesus but perfected it (see GS 22), so sharing in divine perfection cannot annul human fulfillment for us. But if one attempts to reconcile the Christian vocation with any of the three approaches (including Aristotle’s), the attempt will be blocked at once. All of them involve such limited conceptions of human good that they leave no room for its transformation by grace into an integral part of the heavenly fulfillment of all things in Christ.

5. See Ralph Barton Perry, General Theory of Value: Its Meaning and Basic Principles Construed in Terms of Interest (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), 115–45. Though Perry defines value as any object of any interest, his ultimate moral theory moves a long way in the direction of a satisfactory account of human fulfillment. Others who adopt a view similar to his elaborate it less plausibly.

6. See Nicolai Hartmann, Ethics, vol. 1, Moral Phenomena, trans. Stanton Coit (New York: Humanities Press, 1932), 183–244.

7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics i, 1098a5–19; x, 1177a12–1178b32.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought is diffuse and frequently expressed poetically; thus, it is difficult to cite a single source in his work to illustrate his position as summarized here. However, I think my summary a fair reflection of his later position, as represented, for example, by Twilight of the Idols; or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1954), 463–563. For a critique of atheistic existentialism, including Nietzsche: Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile: Modern Atheism: A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from Its Roots in the Cartesian “Cogito” to the Present Day, trans. and ed. Arthur Gibson (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1968), 867–967.