Personalist Ethics

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The expression "personalist ethics" has a wide range of applications. The feature common to the diverse and, at times, contradictory positions of which it can be predicated is that all insist on defining value in terms of persons in community. For all advocates of personalist ethics the human person is central and foundational. Personalists note, first of all, that ethical questions arise only for persons, because only persons are capable of determining their lives by their own free choices. Only persons stand in need of moral norms to help them, prior to choice, discover which alternatives are morally good, i.e., truly fulfilling of human beings as persons, and which are morally bad, i.e., inimical to their fulfillment as persons. In addition, according to all forms of personalist ethics the norms for making true moral judgments and good moral choices are grounded in the being of human beings precisely insofar as they are persons.

Diverse forms of personalist ethics give widely different and frequently contradictory answers to such questions as the meaning of person, the source, scope, and universality of moral norms, the meaning of personal fulfillment, etc. Thus the expression "personalist ethics" can be and has been predicated of a wide spectrum of ethical thought, ranging from such disparate forms of existential personalism as those espoused by Martin buber, Jean Paul satre, Gabriel marcel and others, through the type of situation ethics championed by Joseph Fletcher, for whom persons are "front and center," and the varied types of phenomenological analyses of ethics found in such writers as Max Scheler and Dietrich von Hildebrand, to several types of personalist approaches advocated by contemporary Catholic theologians as diverse in their thinking as Louis Janssens and Karol Wojtyła (Pope john paul ii). This article will focus on the emergence of "personalist ethics" in current Catholic thought and on the form of personalist ethics developed by Karol Wojtyła.

Development of Catholic Personalism. The personalist movement had its beginnings in the 19th century thought of such figures as J. M. Seiler and J. B. Hirscher, but it was not until the 20th century, with the work of O. Schilling and Fritz Tillman in fundamental ethics and the efforts of Dietrich von hildebrand, Herbert Doms and others in marital and sexual ethics that the "personalist" approach took root in Catholic ethical thought. Personalist writers were representative of Catholic thinkers who faulted the standard manuals of Catholic moral theology for their legalism and minimalism and insensitivity to the personalism central to the gospel. These authors stressed the gospel call to love as Jesus did and to live a new kind of life made possible by personal union with Christ and the community of his disciples gathered in the Church. This phase of Catholic personalism culminated prior to Vatican Council II in the work of Gérard Gilleman and Bernard Häring, with the former's The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology and the latter's The Law of Christ standing as landmark works reflecting this early phase of Catholic personalism.

Vatican II gave impetus to this movement. It did so preeminently by the emphasis it placed, particularly in Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae on the inherent worth of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and called to be, with Jesus, a child of God and member of his family. Gaudium et spes insisted on the objectivity of moral norms, but taught that these "are drawn from the nature of the human person and human action" (n. 51).

Personalist Ethics of Karol Wojtyła. Among contemporary Catholic proponents of personalist ethics Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) is by far the best known. His rich but complex thought in its ethical dimensions can best be understood initially by focusing on four key ideas: the centrality of free choice; the significance of the human body; the personalist norm for making good choices and the human person's call to love; and the mystery of Christ as the deepest revelation of what it means to be human.

Freedom at the Core of the Person. Wojtyła seeks to deepen the Boethian definition of the person as an "individual substance of a rational nature" by stressing, with St. Thomas, the fact that the person, as person, is not a mere individual instance of a rational nature, but subsists in that nature as a being in mastery of itself, with dominion over its own actions. It is for this reason that the person is truly incommunicable, sui iuris. Through his freely chosen acts the human person determines himself and gives to himself his identity as a moral being. The acting person constitutes himself as a person, as one utterly unique from others, by his freely chosen acts, which are not mere physical eventshappeningsbut rather constitutive elements of the being of the person. In short, we are the persons that we are because we make ourselves to be our unique selves by the actions that we freely choose.

The Significance of the Body. While stressing that it is through free, self-determining actions that we make ourselves to be the persons that we are, Wojtyła insists that ontologically all members of the human species, from conception onward, are persons. Rooted in the being of the human person is the natural capacity to make free choices, although, it is true, this capacity must be developed before it can be exercised. Yet for Wojtyła every living human body, consciously aware of itself or not, is a person. The human body is the expression or sign or indeed "sacrament" of the person, for the human body is an integral and constitutive dimension or aspect of the person. By stressing the bodily character of human personhood, Wojtyła separates himself from some purely phenomenalist types of personalism according to which only those members of the human species who are actually conscious of themselves as selves are persons.

Self-consciousness, self-cognition, and self-determination through free choice are indeed, for Wojtyła, the hallmarks of the person. Nonetheless he insists that our personhood is rooted in our being, and the being of the human person is inescapably bodily or corporeal. Thus the human body is the expression of the human person; the body participates in the dignity of the person. It is not some tool or instrument of the person. It is thus a good of the person, not merely a good for the person.

The "Personalist" Norm. Wojtyła holds that the basic normative principle that should inwardly shape our free choices and actions is the personalist norm. Negatively expressed, this norm states "that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end." Stated positively, this norm holds that "the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love."

Love, for Wojtyła, is at heart a gift freely given. It is rooted in the willingness of the acting person to give to other persons what is their due, to revere and respond fully to their awesome dignity as persons. To love another, moreover, we cannot be guided by blind choice. Rather we must be guided by the truth, and by the truth of persons. Our whole endeavor, then, must be to discover the goods that are truly perfective of human persons, the goods meant to flourish in them and contribute to their being fully themselves. Such goods include the good of life itself, of knowledge of the truth, of peace and harmony and fellowship with others and with God. The personalist norm requires that we will that persons flourish in these goods. It requires, above all, that we never make another person an object of enjoyment or use.

Thus, for Wojtyła, sensuality, or the natural and spontaneous response to the sexual values of another person, and affectivity, or the feeling of tenderness one experiences when in the presence of another person are not of themselves authentic human love. Rather, they are the raw materials of love and they must be integrated into a wholehearted response to the irreplaceable value of the person as such, as a good to be loved for its own sake. Thus bodily union through sexual coition is right and good only when it is an expression of the communio personarum brought about by the irrevocable gift of one person to another in marriage. If it is not the expression of this kind of personal communion, it is a lie.

The Mystery of Christ and the "Human." Wojtyła's personalism is at its depths a Christian personalism, for he sees in the mystery of Christ's Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection the ultimate disclosure of what it means to be human. Indeed, because of the reality of sin and of the concupiscence which entered into the human heart as a result of sin, Wojtyła holds that it is only in union with the redeeming Christ that human persons can fully be themselves and respond to the call of love that God has put into their hearts. Christ has revealed to us the depths of God's love for human persons and the glorious vocation to which human persons are called: to love, even as they have been and are loved by God in Christ, with a total, complete, disinterested gift of their very selves, of the persons they have made themselves to be by their self-determining choices, to other persons in love. In and through Christ, human persons can redeem suffering and conquer evil, including the evil of death. This can be accomplished by enduring evil in love for God and those irreplaceable and priceless bodily beings, human persons, whom God has created for their own sake.

See Also: personalism.

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