Apr 28, 2017
But again, friendship and knowledge are merely two of many aspects of our well-being and fulfillment as human persons. We human beings are complex creatures. We can flourish (or decline) in respect of various aspects of our nature. For example, we are bodily creatures—organisms—and therefore can flourish (or decline) in respect of our physical health. We are rational, and therefore can flourish (or decline) in respect of our intellectual well-being. We are moral agents, and therefore can flourish (or decline) in respect of our character. Although we are individuals, relationships with others in a variety of forms of friendship and community are intrinsic aspects of our flourishing, and not merely means to the fuller or more efficient realization of common individual goals. And we can certainly flourish (or decline) in respect of the richness and quality of our relationships. The list could go on. My point is that the human good is variegated. There are many basic human goods, many irreducible (and irreducibly different) aspects of human well-being and fulfillment.
The variegated nature of human flourishing, and the fact that basic human goods can be instantiated in an unlimited number of persons in an unlimited number of ways, means that we must make choices. Of course, many of our choices, including some serious and even tragic ones, are choices between or among morally acceptable options. No moral norm narrows the possibilities to a single uniquely correct option. But moral norms often do exclude some possible options, sometimes even narrowing them to one. How can that be?
Among those who share the view that morality is, in a deep sense, about human flourishing, there are two main schools of thought. The first, known as utilitarianism (or, more broadly, as consequentialism), proposes that people ought always to adopt whichever option offers the best proportion of benefit to harm overall and in the long run. (This is the thought that Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of utilitarianism, gestured toward in his proposal that morally good action is action that promises “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”) There are many problems with this proposal, but the most fundamental is that it presupposes, quite implausibly, that different realizations of the human goods available in options for choice (e.g., this human life, that friendship, this part of someone’s knowledge, those aesthetic or religious experiences) can be aggregated or netted (and thus substituted) in such a way as to render the idea of “the net best proportion of benefit to harm” (or “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”) coherent and workable.
This is a mistake. To say, for example, that friendship and knowledge are both basic human goods is not to say that friendship and knowledge are constituted by the same substance (“goodness”) manifested in different (but fully replaceable) ways or to different degrees. They are, rather, two different things, reducible neither to each other nor to some common factor of value. To say that friendship and knowledge are basic human goods is merely to say that they have this, and only this, in common: each can provide us with a reason for acting whose intelligibility as a reason is dependent neither on some further or deeper reason nor on some subrational motivating factor to which it is a means. Thus, “goodness” is predicated of different aspects and instantiations of our well-being and fulfillment as human persons not univocally, as utilitarianism supposes, but rather analogically.
This point can be seen by reflecting on what is lost or foregone in choices between truly good, but mutually exclusive options. The good of the option that is not chosen is simply not to be found in the option that is; this is why regret is possible even when we make good choices. If the utilitarian presupposition of commensurability were sound, then the “best” option would contain all the good contained in the other options, plus more. There would be nothing to regret.
The alternative to utilitarianism, at least for those who believe that ethical thinking proceeds from a concern for human well-being and fulfillment, is what is sometimes called “natural law” ethics. Its first principle of moral judgment is that one ought to choose those options, and only those options, that are compatible with the human good considered integrally—that is to say, with an open-hearted love of the good of human persons considered in all of its variegated dimensions. The specifications of this abstract master principle are the basic moral precepts that Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths seek to live by and to teach their children to respect, such as the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), the Pauline Principle (“never do evil that good may come of it”), and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (stated most vividly in the maxim that one ought to “treat humanity, whether in the person of yourself or others, always as an end, and never as a means only”). When applied to the basic human goods as opportunities for them arise in the concrete circumstances of life, these precepts yield fully specific moral norms such as those forbidding murder, rape, torture, enslavement, and genocide. The movement of thought from our grasp of the many dimensions of human well-being and fulfillment to the first principle of morality and its specification in the form of more concrete norms of conduct is fundamentally—and decisively—the work of reason.
And yet, the great monotheistic traditions of faith propose many of these norms also as revealed truths—propositions whose truth is guaranteed to us in virtue of their status as divine commandments. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, confidence in what reason discloses as precepts of natural law is enriched and enhanced by God’s gracious act of revealing to us what He, in willing our integral good, requires of us in the leading of our lives. Reason and faith are not in conflict or even tension; on the contrary, they are, in the words of Saint Pope John Paul II, the “two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth.”