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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons

Question H: How are existential and substantive goods related to one another?

1. As was explained in question F, persons are called “good” without qualification if they make morally upright choices and so share in the existential goods. But what about the other basic human goods—the substantive ones—which also can be loved for themselves and can be ultimate reasons for choices? One can, for example, choose to jog for the sake of one’s health, with no concern for anything beyond health. How do the substantive goods fit into the overall fulfillment of a good person?

2. The existential goods are realized primarily in right choices, but something more than choices is needed if substantive goods are to be realized. It is necessary to do things which bear upon them—to jog for one’s health, to study in order to learn, to practice in order to perform and then actually to perform well. Nor will fulfillment as a whole be achieved by one who is indifferent to substantive goods or slack in carrying out choices which bear upon them.

3. Although primarily interested in cultivating the goods of the existential domain, the upright person fully appreciates the goods of the other domains. Necessarily so. One simply cannot have a friendly relationship with another person unless one shares common interests with that person and does things together with him or her. Similarly, one cannot pursue religious fulfillment apart from activities in which one seeks to promote bodily well-being or skillful performance or thoughtful reflection; religion which does not make a difference in daily life is meaningless (see Jas 1.23–25; 2.14–17). As one cannot make music without sound, so there must be some substance to the harmony which existentially perfects persons and communities. This is to say that the substantive goods are the “stuff” of a morally good life—they are vehicles for the existential goods.

4. Similarly, one will not enjoy real self-integration if one does not care about one’s nonexistential dimensions. And the integration of these other dimensions into one’s existential self requires that one fulfill them in concert. It is true that no one can give precisely the same attention to health, to intellectual knowledge, to skillful performance, and so on; the emphasis will be different for different people. But everyone must at least give appropriate attention to all these dimensions—it will not do to neglect any. Similarly, those who really care for others will not stop at having good will toward them. They will be concerned and will seek to remedy the situation if others are hungry, ignorant, unskilled, or needy in any other way. To love others means being concerned about everything from which they suffer and interested in every good which will fulfill them (see Mt 25.31–46; Rom 13.10).

Justice is concerned with the impartial distribution of burdens and benefits pertaining to means to all human goods, and also directly to the fulfillment of nonmoral aspects of persons—for example, health, education, opportunities for play, and so on. Similarly, if one wishes to express one’s love for another, one gives a gift, shares a meal, or something of the sort. All such friendly acts involve some contribution to or sharing in human goods other than love itself. Interpersonal relationships, including the religious relationship of humankind to God, would lack substance if they did not center around substantive goods such as life and truth, which are realized and experienced when a group of persons eat and converse together as at a banquet.

The immediate reason for this complex relationship between the existential and the substantive goods is that the former are forms of harmony—that is, various levels in which unity and diversity are perfected by love. Harmony cannot be a mere form; it requires some definite content. Music cannot be harmony without harmonious sounds; sounds have many characteristics studied by physics which human art can only respect and cannot change; yet the art and beauty of music centers upon harmonies which human art creates among sounds. Similarly, the harmonies in which moral goodness consists must have some real content, and this content is drawn from the other domains in which persons participate.

5. The goods of the existential domain can only be realized in and through human actions. For example, justice is realized only in choices which are just, in the justice which is done in carrying out such choices, and in resulting arrangements and institutions. By contrast, there are two distinct ways in which the substantive goods can be realized.

6. First, they may come naturally. Health, for instance, can be a blessing one enjoys without deliberately doing anything to promote or protect it. In such cases, the good is not present in any peculiarly human act but only in the functions which occur naturally in the bodily self.

7. Second, these goods also come about through choice and action. One is healthy, for instance, because one is careful to exercise, gets needed medical care, and so on. In such cases, the fulfillment of the person who acts, lies in being the cause of the good; while the fulfillment of the person in whom the good is realized (who may or may not be the same one who acts) lies in some condition or state which is an instance of the good. For example, the fulfillment of one who feeds the hungry lies in voluntarily feeding them, while the fulfillment of the hungry lies in being fed. This makes it clear why it is possible to do morally upright acts in the service of substantive goods yet fail to realize them; one can be faithful in doing what is good yet not successful in bringing about what is good.

8. Still, the substantive goods remain basic forms of human goodness, and they are closely connected with the existential goods. Ordinarily, for example, one cannot consistently pursue goods such as life and truth, without at the same time taking care to promote goods such as self-control and social justice. Conversely, an attack on a good such as life violates existential goods as well: Abortion not only kills an unborn child but also violates its right to life.

9. Faith, specifically the doctrine of the resurrection, makes it clear that life is itself one of the basic goods of the human person. Life is no less a personal good for being a gift prior to one’s choice. And one can make choices with respect to it—to protect it or attack it, to hand it on to others or impede its transmission, and so on. There is an implicit dualism in the view that bodily life is not an intrinsic good of persons but only an instrumental good; for this implies that the real human “person” is one thing and the body something else, apart from the person.

10. Integral human good thus includes both existential and substantive goods. The existential goods primarily are realized in and through choices themselves. Since choice has a communal dimension, however, existential goods cannot be perfectly realized in an imperfect community. Thus, given the imperfect character of the world, the world cannot give perfect peace. As for the substantive goods, such as life and truth, they require effective action, which is not always possible even for persons of good will. People can therefore be morally good yet unfulfilled. But the Christian promise of fulfillment includes the realization of all the goods; in heaven the upright will be happy.

11. This account clarifies the role of morality in human life. Moral requirements are supreme in human life; there is nothing more important than choosing rightly. But other human goods are also basic. A sound morality will guide choices toward human fulfillment in all its aspects. The upright person is concerned not only to choose rightly but also to serve all the human goods.

Insofar as they perfect persons called to everlasting life, basic human goods belong not merely to the passing world but to the heavenly communion of fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. The fulfillment for which Christians hope will be clarified in chapters nineteen and thirty-four. Here these clarifications may be briefly anticipated.

The Christian promise is of a fulfillment which includes the satisfaction of a great desire, unending joy, a noble life of individual excellence, a perfect community with interpersonal intimacy and personal liberty, and everlasting life after death. And this promise excludes—except during the brief span of this life—frustration, misery, failure, and loneliness. Moreover, the Christian promise is open not only to an elite (Aristotle and Nietzsche) and not only to future generations (Marx), but to every human person.

What is more, the fulfillment which is promised is for flesh and blood persons, not disembodied spirits; for persons who share a common life, not souls merged into the One or isolated in ecstasy; for persons whose present lives in this world can make lasting contributions to the promised fulfillment, not those mystics and philosophers who consider life here and now a necessary evil which offers nothing of true human fulfillment.

The Christian promise of fulfillment calls upon individuals to establish their own identities by free commitments: by the commitments of faith and personal vocation. The Christian is to live a rich life in which potentialities are realized in an orderly and ever-expanding way. Even the frustration, misery, and failure which are inevitable in this life can be made to contribute to fulfillment, and whatever contributes to fulfillment here and now is treasure which will last forever.