Moral Theology and Human Flourishing

In several previous columns, I suggested that there are serious problems with the two major ways in which people in our society customarily frame moral questions: either in terms of the utilitarian “harm” principle (“I should be free to do what I want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else”) or Immanuel Kant’s “universalizability” principle (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”). Catholics can get themselves and their interlocutors deeply confused if they accept either of these two principles as the grounds upon which moral questions must be resolved. The Catholic Church is neither utilitarian nor Kantian in its approach to moral questions.

Modern ethicists tend to focus their attention solely on discrete, individual acts as conceived of and chosen by a completely rational, self-possessed, autonomous being. Modern moral philosophy, because it presupposes that human beings are fundamentally individual and autonomous beings, has the problem of justifying to these self-regarding, self-interested individuals why they should consider becoming “other-regarding.” “Why be moral?” is thus one of the key questions of contemporary ethics.

And since for modern man, “freedom” always means “freedom from” any and all external constraints, it follows that any and all moral rules tend to be considered undue impositions on one’s freedom. Thus when students ask me about the Church’s moral teaching, they’re basically asking me to justify why anyone or anything should be allowed to constrain their “freedom.” And – trust me – most of them have set that particular bar very high: indeed, oftentimes almost out of sight.

            The Church, by contrast, generally prefers for us to think about our individual acts in the context of deeper reflections on the meaning and character of a whole human life and its attendant obligations to God and neighbor. Following a long tradition that goes back to Aristotle and beyond, the Catholic moral tradition understands man as by nature a social and communal being. We are made in the image of a God who is both one and three – that is to say, in the image of a God who is fundamentally communal. Thus, we realize our humanity most fully when we are not closed in upon ourselves, but, like Christ, give ourselves to others selflessly.

As John Paul II was wont to say repeatedly, quoting a passage from the Second Vatican Council:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . .as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (Gaudium et Spes 24)

Freedom on this view is not understood to be essentially “self-protective,” keeping oneself sequestered apart from incursions by others on one’s autonomy. Freedom, on the Catholic view, is understood to be a freedom for others, a freedom for devoting oneself to God and to the providential care of others, in the image of the God who providentially cares for us.

            Heroic virtue: The Choice of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (Benjamin West, 1764)

Classically the moral life was understood to be transformational. We are born fallen, untutored, and uncivilized – sweet and cuddly, yes (when we’re not screaming or throwing up), but with potential for both great good and horrible evil. What the classical moral tradition believed justified moral rules and virtues was that they were the disciplines needed to transform us from our untutored, fallen self to the perfected self we were meant and created to be.

So, for example, when as Catholics we talk about the “natural law,” we should understand that human nature is not static, it is teleological: it is directed to the goal (the telos) of authentic human flourishing. The problem with many moral systems – even some forms of natural law thinking – is that they attempt to derive the basic moral rules from our fallen, imperfect human nature.

Of course, this is impossible because our fallen, imperfect human nature is the most unlike the person we are meant and created to be. Thus the moral rules and virtues that are meant to transform us from our fallen, imperfect self to our more perfect self will be the ones most contrary to the self we are now, and when we come upon them, we are most likely to find them not only difficult (which, like any worthwhile discipline, they are), but also noxious and even distinctly “un-natural.”

Is heroic virtue “natural” for humans?  How about kindness, compassion, generosity, and unselfishness? We call these dispositions “humane,” but we know that most humans don’t usually exhibit them. This is because we know both what human beings should be, as well as what most of the time we actually are: namely, inhumane. We can’t be other than “human,” but we know we aren’t yet what we should be and, with God’s grace, can become. We are most “human” when most like Christ.

Catholic moral theology is at its best, then, when it spends time (as John Paul II did so effectively) describing the positive goal of human flourishing to which the moral life is meant to direct us, and then showing how the moral rules and virtues are the necessary means for reaching that end. Discussing the moral rules first is to put the cart before the horse.

One of our biggest problems, I would suggest, is that even when young people know the moral rules, because they have no conception whatsoever of the Church’s notion of freedom and human flourishing, they have no notion of the reason for those rules, and thus the rules remain alien: idealistic, unrealistic, and thus, for the most part, irrelevant.

Start with the end. In the end is our beginning.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.