Still There! A Meditation on the Universal Inclination to “the Good”

saint-thomas-aquinas-1476In yesterday’s post I discussed the overall disconnect from reality effected by nominalism and its successor movements (e.g., Cartesian, Kantian, nihilist). Increasingly we live in our heads and no longer view reality itself as a reliable indicator of what is; we claim a kind of right to determine our own individual notion of reality.

This notion is so widespread today that many don’t even recognize the logical absurdity of such utterances as “Well it may be true for you, but not for me.” Never mind little niceties like the principle of non-contradiction, which says that “A” cannot at the same time be “Not A.” Most moderns are content to claim that they live in their own silo, in their own individual world, in their own head. Increasingly, they do not recognize any debt to a reality “out there” or to their need to make rational claims easily understood by others.

In yesterday’s post I listed the five universal natural inclinations discussed by St. Thomas in both his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics and in various places in the Summa Theologica (e.g., I IIae qq. 6-10, I q. 5 inter al). Here they are again:

  1. The natural inclination to what we see as good
  2. The natural inclination to self-preservation
  3. The natural inclination to the knowledge of the truth
  4. The natural inclination to sexual intimacy and the rearing of offspring
  5. The natural inclination to live in society

Today I would like to discuss just the first one and leave the others for future posts. Because the ideas of nominalism and its successor movements are lodged very deeply in the minds of many—even pew-sitting, catechism-reading Catholics—the notions on the list may seem to you to be naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Some consider this approach dangerous because it exudes a confidence in our capacity to discover and be inclined to the good and true that some fear is too vague to form the basis for a moral vision.

Because I have written extensively on our human tendency to prefer lies to truth, I pray that you, dear reader, will not accuse me of naiveté. Despite whatever sinful tendencies may cloud our natural inclination to what is good, true, and beautiful, our nature has not changed; we are still wired for the good. We must, in spite of our tendencies to darkness, never forget that we were made for the light and that somewhere under all the layers of denial and sin lies a heart and mind wired for the truth and unhappy with anything less. I might add that the very same Jesus who remarked that many prefer the darkness because their deeds are evil (Jn 3:19) also said that we who are evil know how to give good things to our children (Mat 7:11). Both of these things are collectively true of us.

So again, I would argue that although these inclinations are not lived out perfectly (they are only inclinations) they are hard to completely refute because they are so obviously present in the whole of humanity. As such they form a bridge from the illusion of radical individualism and the “right” to invent our own reality, back to a universal and common understanding of reality. If reality is merely something we “invent” (as our post-nominalist world insists), then how does one account for the existence of such universal human inclinations, which seem to demonstrate a received and common human nature and the existence of goodness and truth “out there” for which we are wired? We must continue to insist on this as a way out of radical individualism and back to a common perception of basic truth.

Let us then press on to the discussion of the first human inclination: The natural inclination to what we see as good.

The principle described and defined – No one is inclined to do what he sees as harmful to himself; we naturally pursue what we consider beneficial. Even when we make sacrifices such as hard work, fasting, or yielding to someone else’s needs, we do so for the sake of some higher goal or good.

So “the good” is not merely that which is immediately pleasurable or preferred. But neither is the good merely that to which we are bound by moral obligation, as if it were wholly separated from happiness or even opposed to it. (I’ll expound further on the morality of the good below.)

Interestingly, St. Thomas did not actually define the good. It is so primordial that it defies description. It is known only as that to which the appetite moves the will (cf 1 Ethics 1). The good is what we desire.

The principle experiencedThat people act for what they see as good is a fundamental inclination shared by all. We are attracted to what we perceive will bless or augment us and are averse to things that will curse or harm us. We desire what seems good and are repelled by what seems odious or harmful.

This appetite for the good is so axiomatic that we do it almost without thinking. With very little deliberation, we are almost instantly drawn to basic and necessary goods such as food, shelter, and safety. The same is true for more spiritual things such as what we see as just, true, good, and beautiful. We also, in an almost instinctive sense, seek other perceived goods such as a sense of well-being, honor, respect, and esteem.

This movement toward what is seen as good is universal among human beings. We do well to ask from whence it comes and why it is so universal. It is more than instinct because human beings, unlike animals, will often forgo lower desires for the sake of higher ones. A person may fast for spiritual gain or to be admired for looking thinner. A young man may become a solider and enter a dangerous war in order to be thought brave; he may even forfeit his life to save his friends.

There must be something deeper here than mere physical instinct because many metaphysical goals are often more profound than merely physical ones. For the sake of uncovering new knowledge, new lands, or truth, many have risked life and limb. Some have set sail or voyaged into the very heavens in order to see what is on the other shore or in the skies above. Others have dedicated their whole being to the pursuit of truth and God Himself. This is not only to answer the physical question “What?” but also the more deeply metaphysical question “Why?”

We are intensely drawn to what we see as good. Everyone is wired this way; there are no exceptions.

We do well to ponder this universal inclination to the good (physical and metaphysical) as well as why we all agree on what is good (at least fundamentally). Indeed, beyond the merely physical desires for food, shelter, clothing, and safety (which we all agree are good things to be sought), many metaphysical goods are also universally esteemed. Everyone wants to be treated justly, to be free, to be esteemed, to be respected in basic ways, and to have access to what he sees as beautiful and good. No one wants to be hindered, robbed, treated unjustly, scorned, or mocked. As for social goods, heroism is universally esteemed over cowardice, telling the truth over lying, acting justly over exploiting, earning and sharing over stealing and destroying, honor and trustworthiness over treachery and unreliability. Self-control and personal discipline are esteemed. Personal responsibility and accountability are esteemed while irresponsibility and casting blame are not.

Indeed, writers throughout the centuries (and movies in the modern day) appeal to basic human longings for justice, intimacy, meaning, affirmation, challenge, and belonging to craft books, dramas, and books that appeal to our universal longing and inclination for these things we call “the good.”

We desire these things and are inclined to them even if we do not live them perfectly. They are wired into us in a way that is hard to deny by any truthful admission of our experience as human beings. This is our experience of the universal principle of our inclination to the good.

The principle distinguished – This does not mean that all human desires are lawful or free from evil. It does not mean that whatever we want is morally good. But neither is all that we desire purely egocentric or utterly individualistic. St. Thomas and those before him did not live in the post-nominalist world of radical individualism and thus should not be seen as affirming it at all.

Rather “the good” is what is capable of moving all human beings; it is what all human beings desire. As such, it is distinguished from merely what one or a few people desire. In a pre-nominalist world freer of radical individualism, St. Thomas and others before him could confidently point to “the good” and speak of it as that which all men esteem and can understand (by reason) as good through study, education, perception, and personal experience.

St. Thomas and the ancients were not unaware of the deep difference between real and apparent good. Despite our overall grasp of the good and what constitutes universal appreciation of the good, there are individual assessments of the good that do not coincide with and may even oppose what is truly good. Passions such as anger or lust can cloud individual decisions so that we may reach for what seems apparently good to us in the moment but is not really good for us and/or others in the long term. Such individual choices must be evaluated against better and higher goals to see why they are not only sinful and wrong but are self-defeating (because they substitute apparent good in place of what is truly good).

The principle reiterated – Despite the human tendency to misjudge the good in this way, the fundamental point remains valid: human reason and will are profoundly oriented to the truly good and beautiful; we will never be happy without that. We are wired for the truth. Whatever we do to try to suppress this (e.g., repeated bad choices, rationalizations, or surrounding ourselves with false teachers), ultimately we cannot shake our orientation toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. We are wired for it and cannot silence that small, still voice of God within us saying, “This is the way; walk in it,” whenever we would stray to the right or the left (cf Is 30:21). A thousand misapplications of pursuing the good cannot jettison our deeper desire to lay hold of what we know is truly good. We will either move toward it or else remain sad and angry trying to resist it.

Recovering this crucial insight into our natural inclination is an important milestone on our way out of the radical individualism and skepticism of our day. Because the inclination to the good is so universal it is a first countermeasure against individualism. The individualistic claim of a right to construct a reality that is true for me cannot account for the universal inclination to the good observed everywhere in the human family. Simply put, there are basic goods to which we are all inclined. And this inclination, though not perfectly lived, points inward to a received and common nature, and outward to actual goods out there that are the objects of our inclinations and desires.

I understand that this type of post is heavy reading. I will discuss the other universal inclinations in future posts, but not tomorrow. This sort of stuff is best read in smaller bites with time to digest in between courses!

N.B. I have based some of my post today on reflections made by Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P. in his lengthy book The Sources of Christian Ethics (pp. 401-456).

2 Replies to “Still There! A Meditation on the Universal Inclination to “the Good””

  1. Indeed, Monsignor this post is heavy reading but it opens my heart and mind on what my very depth, my inmost being searches and longs for – the good, the beautiful and the truth and powerfully you declare, the just, too. The world truly is unjust for we are born not really equal, some with full mental and physical complement and attributes and some with disabilities; many are poor, few are rich; some with good families and some with dysfunctional families, etc. Definitely, this is the very challenge we are given that this distortions of life be our focus in order to know, love and serve one another and in doing so come to know, love and serve the One True GOD. If we just focus on me, my, myself and I, only for my own good, then we are at a lost for we cannot find ourselves without loving and doing good to others. This nominalism and individualism is a play of words to distract us for our search of the the truly good, the natural inclination.

  2. Msgr said, “As for social goods, heroism is universally esteemed over cowardice, telling the truth over lying, acting justly over exploiting, earning and sharing over stealing and destroying, honor and trustworthiness over treachery and unreliability..”

    Even these things are sometimes clouded by the idea of “what is advantageous to me is good,” yet, how interesting when a situation occurs when many versions of a story are being told (I’m thinking of the commission of a crime)and no one can figure out the truth. When one produces hard evidence of the truth, all involved gravitate to that version. I think this kind of example illustrates best for me how important the truth is; that there is indeed a Truth, and knowing it changes outcomes. Objective truth matters.

    Not until the virtues of heroism, truth, justice, trustworthiness and others besides, are absent, does their value become evident. I think we as a civilization are reaching the point where the absence of these things is bringing the problem home to nominalist thinkers.

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