The First Principles of Practical Reason
Basic Intelligible Human Goods

The good is that which all things desire. Now all things desire to bemost fully. Thus, good is a property of being. But man is conscious of that towards which he tends. He knows himself from within. He knows that he tends not simply towards one limited intelligible human good, but a number of them. These basic intelligible human goods are principles, that is, starting points; they are the motivating principles of human action. They are the ultimate reasons why we do anything at all. Each one is a natural inclination within the human person, and each one perfects us as human persons. They are aspects of human flourishing or human well-being. Below is a list and description of each basic intelligible human good.

Life: The human person has a natural inclination to preserve his life; for he sees his life as basically good. Human existence is a rational animal kind of existence. It is basically good to be as a rational animal, created in the image and likeness of God, in the image of knowledge and love (intellect and will). Human life is specifically "cognitive" life, a life having the potential of self-expansion through knowledge and through love. Everything else in the physical universe exists to serve human life and is valued according to its ability to do just that. Thus, everything in the physical universe is instrumentally good, while human life alone is basically good (the human person alone was willed into existence for his own sake).

Truth: This human person, who is fundamentally, intelligibly, and intrinsically good, desires to know truth for its own sake. Knowing is a mode of existing. In knowing anything, one becomes what one knows ("the intellect is in a way all things"). Knowledge is a kind of self-enlargement. Man always desires to be more fully, and he exists most fully as a knower, as a see-er. His ultimate purpose in life clearly has something to do with knowing, which is his highest activity and, according to Aquinas, "the highest mode of having". As Josef Pieper writes: "Knowing is the highest mode of having because in the world there is no other form so thoroughgoing. Knowing is not only appropriation which results in "property" and "proprietorship." It is assimilation in the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower." (Happiness and Contemplation, 65-66)

Beauty: This human person we've been talking about has, at the same time, a natural inclination to behold the beautiful, to see it, to intuit it, to contemplate it. And so he visits art museums, gazes at the sunset or the beautiful face of a child, and he even contemplates the beauty of divine providence. His ultimate purpose has something to do with intuition, especially the intuition of beauty.

Skilled Activity: Man is a maker. He brings all his sense and intellectual powers to bear upon the project of producing works of art, such as paintings, poetry, sculptures, buildings, monuments, etc., or playing games for its own sake, such as hockey, football, chess, soccer, card games of various sorts, etc.

Sociability: The human person inclines to harmony between himself and others. He is a social and political animal. He is born into a family and discovers himself through others, such as his parents and siblings. He tends to establish friendships. But he is glad to "see" his friends, to "hear" their voices. Ultimately, he wills to share the good that has come to him. Above all, he desires to share what he "sees" or knows with others. And others desire to share with him all that they have been gratuitously given, especially what they possess in knowledge (for knowledge is the highest mode of possessing anything). These others enable him to see what he was unable to see before. He is enlarged by the perspectives they bring to him, and they likewise are enlarged by what he brings them. His friendships are not merely utilitarian (unless he suffers from a psychopathology of sorts). Rather, the highest kind of friendship he seeks is benevolent friendship (EN 8. 3, 1156b6). He has only a few genuine friends with whom he can share himself on such a profound level. But he inclines towards them, because goodness is self-diffusive, and the more he is given, the more he wills to share what he has been given, and this is above all the case with what he "sees" or beholds, that is, what he knows, what he intuits or contemplates.

Religion: Man aspires after what is higher than himself because he is aware of his thirst, among other things. The human heart is restless, and it will remain so until it rests in the vision of God. For man beholds his own finitude and the finitude of creation. He aspires to what is beyond the temporal to the eternal, yet he cannot transcend the limits of his nature. But he dreams about it (as we see in Plato). He seeks to know the giver behind the gift of his existence, that is, behind the gift that is creation. As a spiritual nature, he is open to the whole of reality, the whole of being (universal being). He seeks to know the "whole of reality", that is, to possess the bonum universale (the universal and total good). We know from revelation that he is not going to attain it on his own. He might think, as Plato did, that death will free him from the temporal in order to enter into the realm of the "really real" so as to contemplate subsistent beauty. And that might very well be the case. But revelation tells us that this can only happen through God's initiative. He cannot, of his own nature, attain God. If he is to attain the bonum universale, it can only be through another gratuitous giving (distinct from creation), which we call divine grace.

Marriage: Man is inclined to marry, to give himself completely to another, to belong to another exclusively in one flesh union. Even a marriage consummated by sexual union is a kind of knowing. Mary says to the angel Gabriel: "I do not know man" (Lk 1, 35). The giving of oneself in the marital act is a revealing of oneself to the other. One allows oneself to be known, and one gives oneself in order to be known by the other in a way that is exclusive and thus closed off to others. Marriage is a special kind of knowledge of persons. Love wills that the other see or behold what it knows, especially conjugal love. And both husband and wife will to beget human life, because goodness is effusive, and their unique conjugal relationship is good. They desire that a new life, the fruit of their love, share in what they know, namely the relationship they have with one another (as well as with others, with creation, and with God).

Integrity: Man is inclined to seek integration within himself, an integration of the complex elements of himself. This is because he seeks to be most fully, and one (along with good, beauty, and true) is a property of being. He is inclined to bring about a more intense unity within himself, namely harmony between his actions and his character as well as his will and his passions. Bringing order to the passions (cultivating temperance and fortitude) is a means to an end. A person aims to be temperate and brave for the sake of possessing the highest good, the possession of which is threatened by excessive sensuality and/or by inordinate fear and daring.

The First Principle of Morality and Secondary Precepts of Natural Law

The first principle of morality is: Good is to be done, and evil is to be avoided. The whole of the moral life begins with this principle. Everyone agrees that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. But not everyone is in agreement as to what is truly good and what is truly evil. The nihilist denies that there is anything objectively good and evil. For him, morality is a matter of personal decision.

But it isn't all that difficult to arrive at a more specific understanding of what actions are good and what actions are not, for we know what is good. In man's case, the good is the entire spectrum of basic intelligible human goods. If good is to be done, then the intelligible human goods are to be pursued. And since evil is a privation, a lack of something that should be there, an evil action is one that involves a deficient will, that is, a will that is not fully open to the full spectrum of basic intelligible human goods. Below are some secondary precepts, more specific moral principles, that are derived from the first principle of morality.

Secondary Precepts

1. One ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the sake of some other intelligible or sensible good.

Comment: If good is to be done, then destroying what is good is evil and not to be done. Remember, you are what you will. You determine the kind of person that you are (character) by the choices that you make. If I do evil, I become evil, at least in part. If I choose to kill, I become a killer. If I choose to lie, I become a liar. By doing evil to achieve good, I still become evil to the degree that I will it.

2. One ought not to treat another human person as a means to an end.

Comment: Treat humanity as an end, never as a means, said Immanuel Kant. All the human goods exist in the human person. They are aspects of human persons. For example, friendship exists in the human person, as well as knowledge, life, and the appreciation of beauty. The human person is a human good, to be loved for his own sake. He should never be treated as an instrumental good, but as a basic human good. To use a person is to treat him as an instrumental good.

3. One ought not to treat certain others with a preference, unless the preferential treatment is required by basic intelligible human goods.

Comment: Treating certain persons with a preference is a violation of fairness. Equals should be treated equally. Familiarity with a person is no grounds for treating him with a preference over someone else. For example, if a person has been waiting in line longer than you, he ought to be served before you regardless of the fact that you know the person behind the counter. But sometimes preferential treatment does not violate equality or fairness. For example, you might have been waiting an hour in the emergency room with a broken arm, but it is not a violation of fairness that the person suffering a heart attack was not required to wait, but was attended to before you. Life is a basic intelligible human good, and this good demanded that he be treated before you.

4. One ought not to willingly act individualistically for human goods.

Comment: Man is a social animal, and many goods can only be achieved through cooperation with others. It is good to recognize our limits and need for others. Acting individualistically for human goods will fail to instantiate them.

5. One ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear, aversion, hostility, or desire.

Comment: A specifically human action is one that pursues intelligible goods, for man is specifically an intelligent creature. To act purely on the basis of emotion is to act animalistically, not humanly. Examples of acting merely on the basis of emotion, rather than on the basis of reason, might include eating merely in response to hunger, or having sex merely because you feel like it, or having another drink merely in response to the desire for a drink, or running merely because you are afraid, or ceasing to act merely because you experience aversion, or hitting merely because you are angry. Children behave on the basis of emotion. Maturity is about learning to behave rationally. A morally mature person does not merely respond to emotion, but rationally considers the course of action to which his emotions are propelling him. In this way, he allows his emotions to move him, but not determine him. Emotion can help in the execution of reason's command, but only brute animals are determined by their sense appetites. The human person ought to determine himself via reason.

Also, engaging in a mood altering behavior because you want to experience certain feelings, such as the feeling of having your life in order or having all your problems behind you, is also a less than human way of acting and thus a violation of this precept. And so drug use, or excessive use of alcohol is morally deficient or evil.

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