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Personalism: Harmony between Anthropology and Morality

The way we understand humans shapes the way we think about many things, especially our morality.  If we look at the various moralities on loan from the history of philosophy, we see that they all aim to elucidate a common problem, the problem of human happiness (flourishing, fulfillment).

Plato thought of it as the liberation that comes with wisdom; Aristotle called it virtue and contemplation; Augustine and Aquinas, adopting a biblical worldview, said it was communion with the Christian God; Thomas Hobbes thought of it as the complete satisfaction of the appetites of a naturally and intractably egoistic human nature; Kant believed it was living a life freely directed by what he called the “moral law,” which, for him, is a law of practical impartiality; Jeremy Bentham said it was pleasure maximized; Nietzsche thought of it as creative self-expression untrammeled by Christian conventions; secular humanism sees it as a kind of progressive evolutionary perfection; for classical Hinduism it is freedom from desire; for the Taoist it is a journey of interiority and detachment; and for many in Jacksonville Beach, where I live, it is the possession of and benefits accompanying upon a burnished and bronzed body that has no more than 13% body fat.

Anthropology And Morality

Each of these views presupposes an obvious question: What is that thing that you are interested in happiness for?  What are humans?  Quid est homo?

Our answer, as already said, will shape our morality to a large degree.  If one misconceives the nature of humans, then one is likely to adopt a distorted view of happiness; and if one misconceives of true happiness, if such exists, and I believe it does, then one risks adopting a faulty view of the pursuit of happiness, which is another way of referring to the moral life.

So our anthropology (our conception of human beings) and our morality (our understanding of how we should live our lives in order to be happy) are closely related.


I want to introduce an anthropology and correlative morality called personalism.  In philosophy, personalism refers to any of various systems of thought which maintain that the essential attribute that distinguishes and elevates in value humans from all non-human created realities is their personhood; human beings are persons.  But that’s about all the systems share.

I mean to use the term as understood and defended by John Paul II.  By it he meant at least three things.

First, personalism holds that human persons are unified entities composed of body and soul.  So every person is both bodily and ensouled: call them ensouled bodies, or embodied souls, either will do.

Because they are always also bodily, we know a human person exists whenever we know a living human body exists.  As soon as the biological organism that in part constitutes the person comes into existence at the one-cell stage of development, we can be certain that a person has come into existence.

Second, in virtue of being persons they possess special value.  The term the saintly pope used most often to designate this value was “dignity.”  Human dignity, he said, is intrinsic to each precisely in virtue of being a person.  It does not arise because of some status conferred by society, or aptitude, or skill; not from one’s education, nationality, or net worth.  Humans are something incomparably greater than any part or even the whole of sub-human material creation.  Human worth cannot be measured by standards of value assigned to things.  For John Paul II, person is the most august metaphysical title that any entity can bear.

Third, personalism holds that this intrinsic value has implications for how we treat humans.  Although we admire the beauty of scarlet macaws and wonder at the strength of great apes; humans and humans alone are due respect; we treat them justly, indeed our bound to do so—“ought” to—because they are persons.

The person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love.  We are just to a person if we love him… Love for a person excludes the possibility of treating him as an object of pleasure… [But love] requires more; it requires the affirmation of the person as a person. (John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 201, emphasis in text)

Why Personalism?

Personalism is a reconciling via media between two influential modern trends of thought, each of which affirms important truths, but which alone is inadequate.  The first, individualism, acknowledges the singular good, the interests of individuals, but at the expense of communities.  Although at its best it can give rise to a polity that privileges individual freedoms and promotes self-initiative; at its worst it fosters selfish self-interest.  The common good, to which lip service is paid, is collapsed into crass majoritarianism, and majorities tend to be manipulated by those with the most power.

The second is collectivism, which has given rise to various expressions of totalitarianism.  It starts out with a lofty notion of the interests of all; exalts docility to the whole as a mechanism for caring for parts, but ends by dissolving the good of persons into the elusive “greater good” of the whole.  Individual freedoms are sacrificed, along with creativity and initiative; the whole, embodied in a minority invested with power, speaks for all, knows what’s good for all, and harshly punishes non-conformity.

Personalism acknowledges the dignity and accompanying claims of individual persons, but also, affirming their communal nature, acknowledges the centrality of the common good for their fulfillment.