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A Primer for Love: Personalist Ethics

One need not search far to find the supreme ethic by which we should evaluate all of our actions. The holy scripture is clear that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and that we must love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:36, 39). Love for God and neighbor must serve as the basis for any ethics. Here I am primarily interested in examining the love-for-neighbor portion of this supreme ethic within the context of personalism. This discussion will provide valuable insight, because personalism lends itself to the development of a love-for-neighbor ethics, given that the concept of the person is primary and foundational. Thus, a personalist ethics must start with and address ethics in terms of individuals. My particular interest is to construct a primer for personalist ethics indicating how a love for neighbor is achieved through and in our individual lives.

Five basic concepts are particularly important to assembling a personalist, love- for-neighbor ethics: person, community, end, act, and law. Among most busy, practical-minded people within contemporary society (especially within the business world), the third concept—the notion of an end or goal—tends to dominate their attention. Much of a person’s workaday language focuses on goals, objectives, targets, and bottom lines. So it makes sense to begin with the notion of an end, springboard from that concept to the other four, and then tie all of them together into one cohesive system of ethics, an ethics driven by the overarching command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Before launching into a discussion of particular ends, such as business goals, it should be noted that ends come in different forms. Therefore, some important distinctions must be made. The first distinction is the difference between a relative end and anabsoluteend. A relative end is a conditional goal, to be pursued only to the extent that certain conditions are met. An absolute end remains a goal no matter what. It may, in fact, be desired partly for its consequences, but an absolute end would still be desired even without those consequences. Closely related to the notion of an absolute end is the notion of an ultimate end. An ultimate end is an absolute end, but one desired simply for itself, without any further or ulterior motive. The ultimate end is the single goal to which all activity is subordinated.

The ancient pagan philosophers held that happiness—understood in a general way as a perfect or complete good—is that single, ultimate goal. No matter what else we may seek or desire, we all seek happiness. Everything that we do, we do for the sake of happiness. Furthermore, it is foolish to ask why someone wants to be happy. The desire for happiness is one desire that is simply given. Everyone wants it, and for no other reason but for its own sake. People disagree about what happiness is in particular, and, in fact, we may be quite wrong about the happiness that we pursue, thinking that our happiness will be found in something that is actually quite disappointing when we achieve it. But the desire for happiness itself is universal, common to everyone.

According to Christian ethics, complete happiness is found only in God, who “satisfies with good things” (Psalm 103:5). Thomas Aquinas points out that although everyone desires happiness in a general way, not everyone looks to God for that happiness. In fact, God must reveal the way to such happiness, because it surpasses human reason (I Cor. 2:9). The two-fold command to love, with which we began, expresses that way.

This happiness, then, is the ultimate and absolute goal of everyone whether he or she recognizes the authority of God’s command or not. A classic example of a relative goal is money. Money may appear to be desirable for its own sake, but in reality, it is desirable only for what else it can get us. The nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill noticed the psychological phenomenon of transferring to money the pleasure that we derive from the things that money can buy. He thought, for this reason, that money actually became a part of happiness: “It may, then, be said truly that money is desired not for the sake of an end, but as part of the end. From being a means to happiness, it has come to be itself a principal ingredient of the individual’s conception of happiness” (Utilitarianism, Chap. 4).

Mill thought of happiness as a kind of pleasure, even if an illusory one, but he noticed that this psychological transference occurs in us by what he called “strong association.” Nevertheless, thinking of money as a part of happiness is a confusion of the purpose of money. When we desire money, what we really want are real goods, not merely the tokens by which we buy or earn those goods. If we could have all the real goods that we desire without having or using money, then money would have no value. Thus, money by itself cannot be an absolute end.

Because money is a relative end rather than an absolute end, profit-maximization can never rightly be understood as an unconditional goal. It is true that publicly traded corporations, for instance, have profit-maximization as their reason for being, but the pursuit of money is always a conditional one. In fact, a business entity that pursues short-term (e.g., quarterly) profit exclusively, as an absolute and unconditional goal, is an unhealthy business. It does not even maintain its value for shareholders, because its prospects are unstable. It invites hostile takeovers, leveraged buy-outs, consequent liquidation, flight of capital, roller-coaster market value, and short-term trading (even churning).

Therelative value of money as an end is a clue to what conditions are necessary for a company to flourish in the long run. Any relative end or goal has to be seen in the light of an absolute goal to which it is related (that is, subordinated). As our personalist, love-for-neighbor ethics applies to cooperative enterprises—and every business or society is a cooperative enterprise—the common good of those who are cooperating is the absolute goal. In order to better understand this common good, we now turn to the other four key concepts mentioned at the outset: person, community, act, and law.

Persons are individual beings who can exist separately from other beings (at least at some stage) and who are able to deliberately chooseto act for an end. Thus, a person has four attributes: individuality, separability, intelligence, and free will. Individuality means that each person is unique, unrepeatible, and thus, to some degree, incommunicable. To be incommunicable is to have at least one attribute that no other individual can share. But because persons can know and choose, and therefore love, friendship among persons is not only possible but desirable. For, as indicated implicitly in the command to love God and neighbor, love is the greatest act of personhood.

Separability should be distinguished from actual separation. The fact that I once lived inside my mother’s womb does not count against my separability. At some stage of my existence—the present, at least—I live quite separate from my mother and from all other beings. I may always be in some sort of contact with others, but I am physically detached from them. But actual separation is not necessary for personhood. Even if I died before being born, I still had the ability to live a separate life, simply by being the kind of creature that separates from mothers in the course of a full life. Likewise, some future misfortune which would require my constant attachment to some form of life-support would not render me any less a person. My separability, as we understand it here, is one of my permanent features, simply because that is the kind of being I am.

Similarly, the intelligence required for personhood is simply the ability to know things beyond what I can sense with my body. I may never exercise that ability. If I do gain such knowledge, illness may someday impede me from ever using it again. But unlike other animals, a person is the kind of being that can think about and even know things which cannot be sensed in any bodily way. There are two kinds of knowledge with which intelligence is concerned: theoretical knowledge, which is desirable simply for its own sake, and practical knowledge (or know-how), which is desirable not only for its own sake but also for getting things done or made, that is, for acting to accomplish an end. Moral conscience is a kind of practical intelligence for distinguishing right actions from wrong ones.

Finally, a person has free will. The ability to make choices may remain undeveloped, never be exercised, or become permanently impaired. Nevertheless, simply being the kind of creature that would be able to make choices under the right circumstances is enough to be a person throughout one’s life. Free will is the basis for moral responsibility.

With the attributes of personhood firmly in hand, we have a good grasp on the first building block of the common good for our personalist ethics. The next building block, then, is community. A community is any network of interpersonal relationships. In a personalist, love-for-neighbor ethics, the highest use of the powers of personhood is to love other persons—that is, to will their good for their sake, not merely for one’s own. The common goodis the total good of all persons in a community. The common good includes the conditions that best contribute to the flourishing both of the community of such persons and of each person individually.

Law serves the common good, because it directs various human activities toward the common good (i.e., the flourishing of community). Since the common good is an essential factor in complete human happiness, law also is essential to human happiness. Given this essential role, we should examine the concept of law more closely.

Thomas Aquinas defines law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who has charge of the community. Thus, Aquinas’ definition has four elements. First, every law, generically, is an act of reason. Acts of passion (vengeance, envy, greed, and so on) may have the appearance of law, but if they are notreasonable, they are not true laws. In enacting laws, reason is acting in its practical rather than its theoretical capacity. Practical reason subordinates actions to their ends; so law is called an “ordinance” because it is an act of arranging actions to promote the common good. Second, as we already noted, the common good, as the end of law, is the total good of all persons under that law. Law must then establish the conditions that best contribute to the flourishing both of the community of particular persons and of each person individually. Third, an ordinance of reason for the common good is not a law until it is promulgated, that is, published in such a way that all who must know it in order to execute it can readily know it. Finally, the source of the law must be the person or persons in charge of the community. Officials in a community are the proper legislators only to the extent that they legislate for the common good and hold office legitimately, since legitimacy is necessary to maintain public order (a facet of the common good).

Although all laws must be promulgated, some laws are promulgated positively (that is, they are posited or enacted by a clear, verbal, historical act of the legislator) and some are promulgated interiorly (that is, known to their subjects immediately or by reasoning from principles that are immediately known). Positive laws are of two kinds: divine and human. Interior laws also are of two kinds: eternal and natural. Among these four types of law, there is a proper order: Eternal law, by which God governs creation, is the norm or standard for all other law. Natural law is the participation of rational creatures in eternal law. Positive laws, whether divine (e.g., the Ten Commandments) or human(e.g., the United States Constitution) express, apply, or further develop eternal and natural law. Positive law, to be truly law, cannot be contrary to either eternal law or natural law. If it were, it would work against the common good and thus would fail to meet the second condition required by the definition of law. Thus, law’s proper order remains a necessary element in an environment that promotes the common good, the absolute goal of any cooperative association.

Having analyzed end, person, community, and law, we have surveyed the landscape adequately enough to address the more precise subject matter of any ethical system: human acts. People do many things that are not properly human acts, because they are not done thoughtfully and freely. A truly human act is one in which we consider several goods and freely choose one of them. This requires the faculties of personhood, namely intellect and free will. A faculty is a capacity or power that can be conditioned or habituated to act one way rather than another. This habituation is an intermediate stage between mere ability and full actualization of a particular action. For instance, the average child has at least the mere, undeveloped ability to multiply numbers. Once she has learned multiplication tables, she has habituated her intellect to do simple multiplications. The habit that she has formed is more permanent than a temporary disposition or a short-term memory. She retains this habit even when she is asleep, so her knowledge is now more than mere ability, but it is not fully actual. It is in an intermediate condition. It becomes fully actualized when she is actually multiplying numbers.

Similarly, moral virtues and vices are habits. All concrete human acts (that is, acts involving deliberation and choice) are moral acts. That is, they are either morally good or morally bad. They tend to be morally good if one’s intellect and will are conditioned or habituated to recognize what is best (i.e., what would be most consistent with loving God and neighbor) in any situation and to choose it. They tend to be morally bad if one’s intellect and will are conditioned or habituated to prefer a lesser good to a greater good (e.g., preferring a creature to the Creator, (Romans 1:25)). A virtue is a good habit; a vice is a bad habit.

There are four main moral virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and moderation. In each case, the virtue (good habit) tends to perform human acts that avoid both the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. So prudence (or practical wisdom) is the habit of making good judgments about the acts that we choose to perform, avoiding both the vice of excess (e.g., the tendency to deliberate excessively) and the vice of deficiency (e.g., the tendency to act impetuously, without sufficient deliberation).

Similarly, the virtue of justice is the habit of giving to each other what is due, avoiding the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. For instance, a just judge avoids the vice of harshness (the overzealous tendency to impose excessive punishment) and the vice of negligence (the tendency toward undue leniency). Courage avoids both cowardice and rashness. Moderation, as its name indicates, seeks the right amount, avoiding gluttony and anorexia, for example.

These four cardinal virtues have been widely honored even in pagan antiquity. Christian ethics, in seeking happiness in God, adds three “theological” virtues to the list: faith, hope, and charity (I Cor. 13:13). Charity (or agape in Greek) is that supernatural love by which we fulfill the twofold command to love God and neighbor. Other kinds of love may help or hinder us in practicing the seven virtues, so it is of the utmost importance to distinguish charity from other kinds of love.

Love in the broadest sense is any attraction toward something. In this broad sense, love is the motivation for every human act, since even acts of avoidance arise from an attraction of some sort. I hate one thing because I love its opposite: I hate to die because I love life, I hate pain because I love pleasure (or at least the calm absence of pain), and so on. So virtues habituate us to love what is good, but vices corrupt our ability to love what is good, to the point that we hate goodness and come to love malice, violence, cowardice, laziness, and so on. Dante, in the Divine Comedy, envisions Mount Purgatory, the bridge between hell and heaven, as a series of seven terraces. Each terrace purifies the heaven-bound traveler of one of the “deadly” vices which are impediments to loving well. The first three (pride, envy, and anger) are misdirected habits of love—love for my neighbor’s inferiority, or downfall, or victimization. The last three are habits of excessive love (greed, gluttony, and lust) for desirable goods. The middle condition (portrayed at the very middle of the whole trilogy, by the way) is habitually weak love, love hampered by the vice of deficiency, taking the form of laziness, boredom, melancholy, and the like.

In practice, human acts often fall somewhere between the virtuous and the vicious, and, in fact, those making progress up the mountain of purgatory are not totally corrupted by vice. Often we recognize the better course of action but take the worse, struggling with ourselves to do better, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. When we succeed, our acts are continent and bring us closer to virtue. When we fail, they are incontinent and bring us closer to vice. Repeated acts become habitual. That psychological fact is key to understanding human choices and a personalist, love-for-neighbor ethics.

Sometimes our love is selfish, seeking some good or satisfaction for ourselves at the expense of others. Sometimes, our love, though not selfish, is needy and arises from our weaknesses. At other times, we may focus so wholeheartedly on another person that we forget our own desires and needs and see only what is good for the other person. At our best, our love for the other person’s good, a part of the common good, takes us beyond merely recognizing that good even to the point of giving ourselves, sometimes even totally, so that the other’s good may flourish. When our love is at its best, we have reached the highest level of human acts. We have actualized our powers of personhood (intellect and will) to their fullest. Such love is the ultimate act of personhood, the strongest bond of community, the absolute endand fulfillment of all law, the defining aspect of a distinctly Christian personalist ethics. It is this love alone—charity—that fulfills the twofold command. Charity, by embracing all the virtues, is the way to happiness.