TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question G: What does it mean to say without qualification that a person “is good”?

1. “Good” is not said of people without qualification—that is, without specifying a limited aspect or role of their lives—merely because they flourish in health and strength, in knowledge and esthetic appreciation, or in any form of excellent performance (see S.t., 1–2, q. 56, a. 3; q. 57, a. 5). One can be a good specimen of the human male or female, a good scientist or an individual of good taste, a good violinist or a good linguist, without being a good person.

2. We say without qualification that people “are good” if and only if they are morally good. Moral goodness resides centrally in a person’s choices. One is not considered morally good merely for having made a few good choices, but for making a set of morally upright commitments and living by them consistently. Since moral goodness depends on free choices, it is in one’s own power. For fallen humankind, of course, the right use of freedom is impossible without grace; but by the redemptive work of Jesus, grace is won for fallen humankind—men and women can be good.

The notion of moral goodness will be clarified in chapters seven and eight. For the present, it is enough to notice that the moral challenge arises from the multiplicity and distinctness of creator and creatures, self and others, and the various dimensions and capacities within oneself. One can act in ways which preserve and harmonize all this richness or in ways which are exclusive of some constituents and disruptive of community and integrity. The former ways of acting point to more abundant life; the latter to a constricted existence. As in other domains, goodness in the existential domain is on the side of fulfillment; moral evil is a kind of existential self-mutilation.

3. Of the various basic human goods, the reflexive ones, which pertain to the several levels of harmony, also pertain to the existential dimension of the person. In other words, peace within oneself, with others, and with God is essential to being a good person, because peace is the goodness of the person as moral—that is, as free in self-determination and in relating to others.

4. It follows that moral uprightness is an essential part of human fulfillment. It leads to harmony on all levels. In living a morally good life, one utilizes and respects all the aspects of the self which are given prior to choice; the distinctiveness and unity of one’s experience, feelings, intelligence, interests, and powers of execution are simultaneously furthered. Similarly, in living a good life, powers and gifts one has prior to choice are in harmony with the life which executes one’s choices. Likewise, in living morally good lives, distinct persons become intimately united in communion without losing those things which make their personalities distinctive; rather, they make the most of their different gifts. Last but not least, in living morally good lives in communion with others who will to do the same, persons are gathered together from fallen humankind into a family in friendship with God. (The formation of this family, primarily the work of God in Jesus, will be considered in chapters twenty through twenty-three.)

5. The other human goods—the nonreflexive or substantive ones such as life and health, knowledge, and skilled performance—are realized in definite states of affairs distinct from one’s choices. For instance, the dedicated physician is interested in health in his or her patients’ bodies, the scientist in knowledge in the thought and discourse of a scientific community, the athlete in skillful performance in a game. By contrast, the various levels of harmony are not primarily realized in definite states of affairs which result from the carrying out of choices. Rather, the existential goods (self-integration, practical reasonableness and authenticty, justice and friendship, and friendship with God) are personal and interpersonal spiritual realities which primarily exist in upright individual and communal choices themselves.

According to the explanation given, moral goodness is only one aspect of the total fulfillment of human persons. Moral goodness primarily pertains to the will, by which one makes choices which either contribute to or detract from the various forms of personal and interpersonal harmony, which are most essential to the fulfillment of persons as persons. Someone can be physically sick, mentally retarded or ignorant, and inept and unsuccessful, yet be morally good. Such an individual will be recognized as a good person, although he or she might be considered unfulfilled. A morally good person need not be one whom the Greeks would have called “happy” and contemporary secular humanists would say has “adequate quality of life.”

6. These existential goods do have psychological and symbolic-expressive dimensions. Friends, for example, feel friendly and make friendly gestures. But feelings and gestures cannot substitute for mutual good will; sincerity and sound commitments are essential. Peace in the sense of sharing in the existential goods can thus be present even when appropriate feelings and gestures are not. To put it more concretely, people whose feelings are inappropriate because of psychic illness or whose gestures are socially and culturally inept may indeed be more or less crippled and limited personalities; but if they make upright use of their freedom, they are nevertheless called “good persons” without qualification.

The relationship between moral uprightness and human fulfillment has been considered in answering this question. Moral goodness—participation in the existential goods—is an intrinsic part of integral human fulfillment. The normative principles of morality have not yet been articulated. Thus, this treatment might appear circular, but it is not. The effort here has been to explain the role which moral goodness, whatever it may be, plays in the overall full-being of persons; chapters seven and eight will be devoted to clarifying what moral goodness is.