THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Reality of the Human Person

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, any “social teaching” that does not respect the dignity of every human person, that interpretation is by definition incorrect or faulty.  Admittedly, we’ve been picking on Catholic social teaching, but that’s only because the Catholic Church has the most comprehensive — and misunderstood, even by (or especially) by Catholics — body of social thought in the world today, at least from a personalist point of view.


Of course, we’re not really singling out the Catholic Church, but those who insist on misinterpreting what that institution is saying.  What we’re really interested in is not promoting Catholicism (or any other faith), but in applying the natural law on which Catholic social teaching just happens to be based.

Thus, as we have stressed on this blog, the focus of Catholic social teaching — and of all natural law faiths and philosophies — is the dignity of the human person under God.  In all such teaching, the human person is a special creation, differing both in degree and in kind from every other creature, sentient, animate, or inanimate. (Ut Unum Sint, § 28; Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990, 154.) We do not think that the Great Reset or similar proposals address this adequately if at all.

Mortimer J. Adler


As developed by Karol Wojtyła within the framework of Aristotelian-Thomism and Catholic social teaching, personalism focuses on the reality of the human person and each person’s unique dignity (Thomas D. Williams, L.C., “What is Thomistic Personalism?” Alpha Omega, Vol. VII, No. 2, 2004, 164), the “quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” (“Dignity,” Meriam-Webster Dictionary.)  From the standpoint of inalienable rights, dignity is the right of a person to be valued and respected for his own sake, and to be treated with justice. (Cf. “Person,” Black’s Law Dictionary.) In Thomist philosophy, every single human being, because he is a human being, is automatically a person, and therefore “worthy, honored, or esteemed.”

Respect for human dignity is realized through recognition and protection of the sovereignty of each human person under the ultimate sovereignty of God.  That in turn means recognition and protection of each person’s fundamental rights and social status or place in society (Rufus Burrow, Jr., God and Human Dignity. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006, 165.)  Limiting the discussion to Wojtyła’s thought, there are five essential characteristics of personalism:

Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II)


·      Binary Character.  All persons are distinct from things (Wojtyła, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” Person and Community, op. cit., 178-179.).

·      Human Dignity.  All persons have rights by nature and are individually sovereign under the highest sovereignty of God (Ibid., 177-180.).

·      Determinable Instead of Determinate Nature.  All persons have determinable characteristics; all things have determinate characteristics. (Wojtyła, “The Personal Structure of Self-Determination,” Person and Community, op. cit., 187-195.)

·      Self-Determination.  All persons have free will (Ibid.  See also Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person. Boston, Massachusetts: R. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979.).

·      Political Animals.  All persons associate by nature within a consciously structured social order, being both individuals and members of society. (Wojtyła, “The Problem of the Theory of Morality,” Person and Community, op. cit., 146.)

But what do these characteristics mean?

Binary Character



From the standpoint of Aristotelian-Thomist natural law theory, personalism presupposes the existence of God, which can be known by reason (See Canon 2.1 of the First Vatican Council, the first article in the Oath Against Modernism, and § 2 of Humani Generis. N.B. This does not mean that God’s existence has been proved by reason, only that it can be).  Purely religious aspects of personalism are faith-based and are not directly relevant to this discussion.

Thus, personalism necessarily assigns a unique character to human beings, God’s special creation, not to humanity, which is an abstraction created by man.  Personalist thought therefore sees two types of relationships in society — relationships to other persons, and relationships to things. (Cf. Wesley Hohfeld, Fundamental Legal Conceptions (1919).)



Human beings are therefore somebodies instead of somethings, and we relate to one another by the interplay of rights and duties.  A right is the power to do or not do some act or acts in relation to other persons, while a duty is the obligation to do or not do some act or acts in relation to other persons. (Wojtyła, “Thomistic Personalism,” Person and Community, op. cit., 165.)

Relations to things are not the same as they are to persons.  Things have no rights, but persons have rights to and over things that define their relationships to other persons with respect to things. (A thing can be treated as a person, as with the legal fiction called a corporation. Conversely, a person can be treated as a thing called a slave. Aristotle described a slave as an animate tool without the capacity to acquire and develop virtue. Politics, 1253b; 1260b, 1-2. For the purposes of this discussion, we take as a given that chattel slavery is incompatible with personalist thought.)

Things, even artificial persons such as corporations and governments, are only objects.  Objects can only act (in the philosophical sense) through human agents, and not on their own behalf.

Human Dignity


No, it's not about the theater. . . .

Thomist personalism divides reality into persons (which have dignity) and non-persons (which do not have dignity).  Relations with persons therefore require a different ethical paradigm, an entirely different set of rules, than that which governs non-persons.  Primarily, this means that persons are entitled to justice, defined as a rendering to each what each is due. (Wojtyła, “On the Dignity of the Human Person,” Person and Community, op. cit., 177-180.)

Personalism takes into account the transcendent character of human actions and human dignity as they relate to persons as both subject and object of actions, i.e., as that which acts, and that which is acted upon.  This vests each human being in his capacity as either subject or object with an absolute character as a human person. (Wojtyła, “The Will in the Analysis of the Ethical Act,” ibid., 19-21; Wojtyła, “In Search of the Basis of Perfectionism in Ethics,” Person and Community, ibid., 55.)

Each human being is therefore not only required to act as a person (duty), but he is entitled to be treated as such (right).  This implies there are moral absolutes that govern our relations with other persons, even in the so-called social sciences, such as economics, where norms have traditionally been considered arbitrary or merely expedient.


Determinable Instead of Determinate Nature

All things conform to their common nature with only minor variations.  In contrast, human beings as persons make choices.  As a result of conscious decisions, persons become virtuous or vicious, thereby becoming more fully or less fully human.


Persons are responsible for their own acts.  This is because the human person is a rational animal who when educated properly can distinguish truth and falsehood as well as good and evil.  Further, because the human person has a spiritual nature, the motivation to act virtuously or viciously is internal instead of being imposed externally, even if we live in or inhabit “structures of sin.” (Evangelium Vitae, § 24.)

Political Animals

Human persons are naturally members of society, neither isolated individuals nor indistinguishable members of the collective. (Wojtyła, “The Problem of the Theory of Morality,” Person and Community, op. cit., 146.) We are beings who relate to others in a consciously structured moral manner as an essential aspect of what and who we are. (Ibid.)

Interestingly, some of these essential characteristics seem at first glance to be contradictory — but we’ll start to explain why they are not in the next  posting on this subject.