TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 6: Love, Justice, Mercy, and Social Responsibility

Question C: How Does Community Generate Responsibilities toward Others?

Since justice and injustice always presuppose an interpersonal relationship, they plainly are related to community. Not all communities come into existence in the same way or have the same character. Responsibilities in all of them, however, flow from moral principles.

1. A Morally Good Life Must Be Not Only Individual but Communal

Human persons not only are individuals; together they make up communities. Much modern thought erroneously assumes that individuality is natural and community artificial. But our relationships are as primordial and real as our substantiality, and our communal reality is as natural and essential to our fulfillment as our individuality is. Vatican II teaches: “Humankind’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other” and affirms that “social life is not something added on to the person” (GS 25).31

a) Human persons are created for communion. That human persons are inherently interdependent is evident: a human is naturally a social animal. Human sociability, moreover, transcends that of any other species, for language is a powerful and supple means of communication, enabling men and women to cooperate in endless and ever new ways. Indeed, they become self-conscious and establish their individuality only within interpersonal relationships.

Only divine revelation makes clear the full significance of human persons’ social nature. The beginning of the book of Genesis tells how God created humankind male and female in order that man and woman, with their different gifts, might complement one another, and so form a communion. Interdependence—people’s need for one another and their inability to fulfill themselves as isolated individuals—is clear: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gn 2.18). Subsequent chapters make it clear that sin underlies divisions among people and their difficulty in communicating with one another (see Gn 11.1–9). Thus, Vatican II teaches: “God did not create human beings for life in isolation, but for the formation of social union” (GS 32). This natural vocation to community belongs to human persons as made in God’s image, foreshadows the revelation of their likeness in communion to the Trinity, and is the natural foundation for their calling to enter into communion with the divine family.32 Consequently, human “solidarity must be constantly increased until that day on which it will be brought to perfection. Then, saved by grace, humankind will offer flawless glory to God as a family beloved of God and of Christ their brother” (GS 32).

b) The principles of morality are not individualistic. Integral human fulfillment, the ideal distinguishing moral good from moral evil, “is not individualistic satisfaction of desires; it is the realization of all the human goods in the whole human community” (CMP, 7.F.3). The modes of responsibility following from this first principle, especially the Golden Rule, exclude not only choices unnecessarily restricting concern about goods but also those which involve inadequate regard for other persons.

c) The basic human goods are not inherently individualistic. The good purposes for which people act have two aspects. One is that of a concrete goal, which appeals to imagination and feeling. The other is that of a benefit or set of benefits, which are hoped for inasmuch as they are intelligibly good. For example, the purpose of treating a throat infection with an antibiotic includes both the goal of eliminating the soreness and the benefit of restoring health by killing the bacteria. Concrete goals, insofar as they are the objects of imagination and feeling, are particularized: if achieved, they fulfill the emotional desire of an individual (or of a group bound together by feeling) to the exclusion of other individuals (or groups). The result is that, at the level of imagination and feeling, your goals are not mine, their goals are not ours.

Unlike concrete goals, however, hoped-for benefits, insofar as intelligibly good and volitionally pursued, are not particularized. These benefits are participations in the basic human goods, which are the starting points of all practical thinking (see CMP, 5.B, 5.D, and 7.D). “Understandable goods do not have anyone’s proper name attached to them” (CMP, 24.A.7). As a result, at the level of understanding and will, your benefits can be mine, their well-being can be ours.33

d) The basic human goods often must be pursued as common goods. The point to be explained here requires an understanding of common good. If an agent—a person or group—acts rationally for the sake of one or more goods, hoping that not only the agent but another or others will be benefited for their own sake, at least one good for which the act is done is common to the agent and the other or others to be benefited. (How this works out in various cases will be explained in 2, below.) Common good refers to such a good, whether one agent acts with the hope of benefiting another person or group, or two or more agents act together with the hope of mutual benefit. So, the point here is that the basic human goods often must be pursued through actions done in the hope of benefiting not only the agent but also another or others for their own sake.

The need to pursue the basic human goods as common goods is most obvious in the case of some of the reflexive goods. Take friendship: it can be realized—for example, in marriage and in the new covenant—only by persons who, regarding the very communion they share as inherently worthwhile, are ready to act for one another’s benefit, even in the absence of any other self-interest.34

But the substantive goods, such as life itself and knowledge of truth, also generally are pursued as common goods. For example, people cannot survive unless others care for them when they cannot take care of themselves—during infancy, when they are sick, and so on. Nobody spends the whole of life as a solitary, and few people survive for long except as members of a community (a family or substitute for it), in which at least one member acts to ensure not only his or her own survival but the survival of the other members. Similarly, no one knows much that he or she does not learn from others. Almost all people’s ideas and information come from others’ thinking and observations, and are accepted on their word. Thus, human knowledge depends on a shared interest both in other persons and in the truth. That community of interest presupposes that acts of knowing and of communicating knowledge can benefit both the agent and others together.

2. Communities Are of Several Diverse Sorts

Persons who live together constitute a potential community; it becomes an actual community through action for a common good. Different ways of acting for a common good generate different sorts of community. Some are formed by mutual consent, others by unilateral initiative, and still others without any choice on the part of the persons involved.

a) Every interacting group of people is a potential community. Humankind as a whole is a potential community, insofar as all human beings are neighbors who live on the same planet, are naturally related, and share common concerns. All men and women should treat one another justly in the broadest sense and also in the sense of acting fairly (or, at least, not unfairly) toward one another, whether or not any prior undertakings have been made. So, Vatican II teaches: “Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the common good of the entire human family” (GS 26).35

Any more limited group of people whose actions affect one another—say, a group of people riding on an elevator—also can be thought of as a potential community insofar as its members, like humankind as a whole, are thrown together and have some moral responsibilities toward one another. Still, groups in which the interrelationships of the members are not shaped by any member’s action for a common good—say, the occupants of an elevator who jostle one another and look out only for themselves—remain only potential communities. In not acknowledging their common interests and finding suitable ways to live and work together, the members fail morally, for example, if the occupants of the elevator do not considerately make room for one another and try to make sure that each passenger reaches his or her destination. But until they begin to act for a common good, they are a community in potentiality rather than in actuality.

b) Some organized groups are not really communities. Particular groups of people can become organized either by mutual choices or by a unilateral initiative. Either way, a group can be organized for entirely self-interested reasons, in which case no real community is formed. For example, a man and woman can enter into an agreement to exchange sexual intercourse for money, each willing whatever benefit the other gains purely out of self-interest, not only without love but even without respect for each other. Again, if someone unilaterally does something that benefits another, but does it only for selfish reasons, that act does not establish community. For example, a politician who donates to charity solely to win votes does not form community with those whom the charity assists.

c) A group of people becomes a community in one of four ways. Particular groups can become true communities either (i) by the members’ recognizing one another as persons and treating one another fairly, (ii) by mutual choices, (iii) by unilateral initiatives, or (iv) by the members’ accepting responsibilities arising out of a natural human relationship.

i) Sometimes extrinsic conditions bring two or more persons together, so that their actions affect one another’s interests. For example, a group of people find themselves on a crowded elevator; two students register for the same tutorial course. Without sharing any other common purpose, people in such a group can recognize their actual relationship and, although they make no mutual commitment, wish to live together in accord with the requirements of fairness. Insofar as they are shaped by this common interest, various individuals’ actions establish among them a minimal community, which is shaped and limited by the conditions that hold its members together.

ii) Sometimes two or more persons make choices by which they accept responsibilities toward one another. For example, two people agree to play a game of tennis or a couple marry. Here, forming the community is itself a communal act, for those who belong to the potential community join together to bring about their community and perfect it.

iii) Communities sometimes are formed by a unilateral initiative: some persons make choices in virtue of which they accept and have moral responsibilities toward others, and these others come to have responsibilities even though they have not made any choice to enter into community. For example, a couple make choices that lead to their becoming parents, and so constitute a community of parents and children. The children have responsibilities toward their parents, even though they did not choose to be members of that community. Again, the Good Samaritan chooses to help an unconscious victim of crime, and so actualizes his potentiality to be the victim’s neighbor. The person helped owes the Good Samaritan gratitude and has a special duty to return the favor should it be needed.

iv) Sometimes two or more persons find themselves naturally related in a way which entails responsibilities; by acknowledging and accepting these, they develop human community. For example, brothers and sisters find themselves intimately related in such a way that they not only should treat one another fairly but should love and help one another. Similarly, a woman who finds herself pregnant as a result of rape is a mother; she develops this parent-child relationship by accepting her responsibility not to destroy her child.

d) Communities established by mutual choices are of two sorts. Communities constituted in the second way—by mutual promises or commitments—again are of two sorts.

i) The community can be limited to cooperation in a specified act or set of acts for the sake of their specific purpose or set of purposes. The mutual choices are promises, which may or may not be legally binding, and interpersonal relationship between or among the community members is not sought for its own sake. Still, the common action of the agents constitutes community insofar as they seek to benefit one another not out of pure self-interest but out of willingness to join in a fair and otherwise just relationship. For example, two tennis players agree to play a fair game, a group of men form an equitable business partnership. While those involved in such relationships may not be interested in community for its own sake, they do form communities insofar as they wish not only to benefit themselves but to act justly toward one another.

Communities of this kind can and often do differ from one another in important respects. The community between the tennis players may be limited to playing that one game; yet it may involve legal obligations on both sides, for example, if the two are professional athletes and their agreement is a contract to play an exhibition game. Although also strictly limited in its purpose, the business partnership may be established by a complex legal agreement, with the expectation that it will last indefinitely.

ii) The community can be open-ended: it can extend to cooperation for the sake of sharing in some kind or kinds of good, where the sharing transcends the limits of the purpose or purposes of any particular act or set of acts. The action forming the community is not merely a means to some other good; and the interpersonal relationship itself is sought for its own sake and may be the primary good sought. Once a community of this sort has begun to exist, concrete purposes for at least some of its actions can be specified and altered without changing the community itself. Some very important communities are of this sort: friendships, marriage, and the Church.

Such a community sometimes can be established without any lasting, covenant commitment. For example, two people sitting next to each other on a long flight discover that they have much in common and agree not to watch the movie so that they can spend the time in conversation; they talk seriously about what is closest to their hearts and, though not expecting to meet again, briefly enjoy real friendship. However, open-ended communities tend of themselves to endure, and often are established by explicit commitments. For example, a man and woman marry, committing themselves to live together for the sake of their marital relationship itself, having children, and fulfilling their vocation.

e) Communities established by a unilateral choice are open-ended. When people make unilateral choices to benefit others, thus establishing community with them—as a married couple do when they have children—the community always is open-ended, since the good of the interpersonal relationship itself is not merely chosen as a means to an end but intended for its own sake. Even if, as in the case of the Good Samaritan, the relationship begins with one person’s acting for a definite purpose to benefit another, that benefit is not the common good which the agent intends, because the agent does not personally share in it: the Good Samaritan does not recover from an attack as the robbers’ victim does. The Good Samaritan intends to benefit the man he helps because he intends neighborliness or friendship with him as a common good, in which both share.

Someone might object that the community the Good Samaritan establishes with the victim is not open-ended in the same sense as the community parents establish with children. The Good Samaritan makes no lasting commitment, conducts no ongoing relationship, and serves only the limited purpose of rescuing the injured man. However, the Good Samaritan is not motivated to rescue him simply by that benefit to the victim. He is a Good Samaritan precisely because he cares about the victim for his own sake, and wants to be a good neighbor to him. In principle this intention is not limited by the particular benefit which it motivates the Good Samaritan to bestow. Of course, a good neighbor’s responsibilities to strangers are not the same as those of parents to children, but both communities are open-ended insofar as they are defined, not by limited purposes extrinsic to the relationship, but by the good of the interpersonal relationship itself.

This point becomes clearer when the interpersonal relationship the Good Samaritan establishes is considered as a participation in the communion established by the new covenant. Jesus establishes this communion by his unilateral redemptive act, by which he intends to save other human individuals from sin and death, precisely so that they can share with him in heavenly communion. He commands his followers to extend covenantal communion to others, and uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach this lesson. In the parable, he makes the point that, by what the Good Samaritan did, he made himself the neighbor of the man who needed help—established community with him. In caring for the victim as he did, the Good Samaritan necessarily intended communion with him.

3. Moral Principles Generate Communal Responsibilities

Where people are constituted as a community in any of the ways described, their community-forming choices do not by themselves create new moral responsibilities; instead the choices bring about new responsibilities only by opening up fresh possibilities for pursuing human goods and bringing relevant moral principles to bear in fresh ways.

a) Moral responsibilities flow from moral truth. In communities formed and sustained by mutual consent, members obviously would have no communal responsibilities without their consent; yet their consent does not create their mutual responsibilities out of nothing. A moral responsibility is a claim made by moral truth upon one’s choices, and the moral responsibilities of persons in community are claims made on them by the truth about the common good. Community-forming choices do not create any new moral truth but they do bring moral truth to bear in new ways, by creating opportunities for the community members to realize certain human goods together, and also by putting various of their goods at risk in new ways, so that they become vulnerable to one another’s irresponsible behavior.

So, for instance, children can have serious responsibilities toward their parents, although they had no choice about being their children. Moreover, even after undertaking something by a promise or commitment, under some conditions one does not have a responsibility to fulfill it. This shows that the choice involved in the promise or commitment was not a sufficient condition of the moral responsibility.

b) Fairness and other moral principles undergird communal duties. The requirements of justice in the broadest sense and in the sense of fairness give promises and commitments their moral force (see B.4.a, above). Because many goods can be achieved only as common goods, one is obliged to enter into community when it is obligatory to pursue such goods. Even when it is optional, someone who decides to pursue them must undertake responsibilities toward others. If undertakings have been uprightly made, fulfilling them usually will benefit those to whom they were made, while failing to fulfill them generally will be unfair. That is why such choices can create responsibilities in justice in the narrowest sense, according to which justice simply is a matter of individuals and groups fulfilling their prior undertakings.

Since the responsibilities undertaken by a promise or a commitment arise from prior moral principles, sometimes they can be deliberately left unfulfilled without injustice (see B.2.a, above).

c) Fairness is essential for all genuine community. Although justice in the broadest sense extends beyond fairness, in a special way community rests on fairness as its foundation. As the Golden Rule makes clear, fairness is not simply a detached impartiality, a disengaged objectivity such as one brings to esthetic judgments. Rather, it is an impartial concern for all other people, modeled on one’s concern for oneself and those near and dear. Such concern presupposes insight, not clouded by emotions such as self-hatred or unruly desire for immediate satisfaction, into the goods in which people must participate in order to be truly fulfilled. It also presupposes recognition of others as persons, distinct from oneself but sharing in the same inherent worth, and open to fulfillment in the same human goods.

It is impossible always to pursue every possible good for oneself or promote every good in those near and dear. But one should avoid doing anything to harm oneself and loved ones, unless there is an adequate reason for choosing to do something which causes harm incidentally, that is, as an unavoidable side effect. Thus, it is a pressing demand of fairness to be considerate of others, not intentionally to harm them or thwart their legitimate interests, and in making choices not to accept any side effects to others at odds with their upright will without good reasons for doing so—reasons they themselves, if they can grasp them and are reasonable, should appreciate and be able to accept.

If a group’s members act thus toward one another, each can identify with the others in the way required for genuine community. Each can trust the community to safeguard his or her own interests, while the community can trust each member to serve common interests and set limits to the pursuit of individual interests. In this way, radical conflict is avoided and the basic harmony necessary for community is established.

31. The great emphasis in Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the person is entirely misunderstood if it is interpreted in an individualistic sense. Many passages make it clear that the true dignity of human persons is inseparable from their social nature; for example, John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 453, PE, 267.219, explains: “This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings.” Of course, confirmed individualists find such passages paradoxical and are likely to suppose wrongly that the teaching is inconsistent.

32. See John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem, 6–8, AAS 80 (1988) 1662–70, OR, 3 Oct. 1988, 3–4. Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.12.1162a16–18: “Between man and wife friendship seems to exist by nature; for man is naturally inclined to form couples—even more than to form cities.”

33. See Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 32 (1987): 114–15.

34. For a fuller explanation of this point, see Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 141–44.

35. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 439–42, PE, 267.153–65; Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 292–96, PE, 270.132–45, calls attention to the worldwide social question, including the need for a public authority of the world community, with an appropriate relationship to nation states.