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Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Persons


Faith teaches that all creation as it comes from God’s hand is good. Yet this seems in conflict with the reality of the bad. Some explain the bad as an illusion, others as a positive reality.

To suppose that badness is an illusion leads to the theory that goodness lies in enlightenment. To suppose that badness is a positive reality leads variously to the notions that good consists in separation or segregation from evil, in gaining power to limit or control evil, or, in the case of hedonism, in having pleasure and avoiding pain. None of these views is rationally defensible or compatible with Christian faith.

Using “good” and “bad” in their central senses, Christian faith instead understands badness as a privation, a real lack of something which should be present; while goodness is fullness of being. For limited and imperfect beings, goodness lies in realizing their potentialities in a way which leads to being and being more.

The sensibly good and bad must be distinguished from the intelligibly good and bad. Only the intelligibly good and bad are so in the central sense according to which the good is fulfillment and the bad privation. Nevertheless the sensibly appealing and repugnant also are factors in motivating behavior, because the human person not only differs from other animals by having intelligence and the power of free choice, but is like them in having a sentient nature. In many cases, an action leads both to pleasure and to fulfillment. But sometimes the two sources of motivation are at odds, for example, when one chooses painful treatment for the sake of health. In such a case, it is clear that the sensible evil of pain is not a privation.

Since human goodness (using “good” in its central sense) consists in the fullness of human being, one naturally asks what things fulfill human persons. These basic human goods are not apart from persons, not extrinsic goals which people desire and hope to reach. Rather, they are aspects of persons in their individual and communal flourishing. Basic human goods can be distinguished by noticing the assumptions implicit in people’s practical reasoning; when the question is why to do something, deliberation quickly arrives at a good which is not just a means to an end but itself an aspect of individual and communal personal fulfillment.

Scripture and reflection both point to the same basic goods. Harmony is the theme of several: self-integration (harmony among aspects of the self), practical reasonableness and authenticity (harmony among moral reflection, free choices, and their execution), justice and friendship (harmony among human persons), and religion (harmony between humankind and God). This latter, the good of religion, should not be confused with God himself, nor with the divine life in which Christians share by adoption; it is by itself only one human good alongside the others. Besides these, there are also goods which fulfill dimensions of the person other than the existential: life and health, knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, satisfaction in playful activities and skillful performances.

Some err in their understanding of the human good by underestimating the richness and complexity of human fulfillment. It is often supposed, for instance, that human good consists in getting what one wants; but this either reduces free choice and moral effort to serving desires given before choice, or else renders morality subjective. Again, Aristotle and others maintain that human good lies in the full exercise of one’s properly human capacity, the ability to reason; but a human being is more than an intellect, and fulfillment consists in more than reasoning. Others, such as Nietzsche, say fulfillment lies in the individualistic execution of a difficult project in an excellent way; but this leaves no room for community or for cooperation with God’s work.

St. Augustine’s view is that the human good consists in peace, by which he means harmony in oneself, with others, and especially with God. However, he understands peace as an ultimate desirable condition, to be realized in heaven, and so takes too narrow a view of fulfillment. His account is nevertheless important for the place it gives to various forms of personal and interpersonal harmony.

The human goods which are forms of harmony pertain to the existential domain. This is to say that “peace” is the goodness of the person as moral. It follows that moral uprightness is an essential part of human fulfillment. A person is called “good” without qualification if, and only if, he or she is morally good. Moral goodness resides centrally in choices, and especially in making and living by morally upright commitments. The human goods of self-integration, practical reasonableness, friendship, and religion therefore primarily exist in upright individual and communal choices.

While always concerned about the goods of the existential domain, the morally upright person will also necessarily be interested in the goods of the other domains (life and health, knowledge, skillful performance). For these latter not only are humanly fulfilling in themselves, but also are, in effect, the vehicles for the existential goods. Yet even one who chooses rightly and acts on their behalf cannot always realize these goods in practice—for example, one cannot always be healthy, cannot always be successful in one’s work, and so on. Christian hope therefore looks forward to integral human fulfillment in heaven in regard to these goods as well as the goods of the existential domain.