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Superpersonal Personalist Ethics

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo

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Personalism. In the realm of ethics, this school of philosophy regards its object - the person - as the definitive value that measures the goodness or badness of an act. Negatively affecting a person is wrong. Using a person as a mere means to an end is wrong. Subjecting a person to undue suffering (or maybe even due suffering) is wrong. Such a list could continue for a long while, but the point has been established: in a personalist conception of ethics, the person, as such, is what supplies ethical norms and moral obligation. This being said, there is a glaring difficulty that must be addressed in the whole personalist conception of morality. That problem, is, of course, God.

What, one might ask, is the problem with including God in a personalist ethics? After all, it seems quite normal for human persons to be expected to act in a certain way towards God. This is so; without delving into the intricacies of divine command theory as positing merely hypothetical necessities, it can be said that there are prescriptive norms governing man’s relating to God. However, what of the reverse? Must God act in a certain way towards other persons. The problem now reveals itself.

Recall Plato’s Euthyphro. When piety is identified as what is loved by the gods, Socrates questions what comes first: being loved or being pious. He asks, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (10a) What he means is this: do the gods make the pious pious by loving it, or do the gods love the pious because it is pious? In other words, which is primary: that which is pious, to which the gods are subject, or that which is loved, to which what is pious is subject? Socrates is distinguishing between a standard and what is measured by the standard. He is also asking whether the gods can be subject to a standard.

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Relating this back to personalist ethics, the (relatively) same question can be asked. Are persons ethically-relevant because God treats them so, or does God treat persons so because they are ethically-relevant? If the latter is dismissed - for who wants to subject the Almighty to some standard - then the former must be granted. Namely, the worth of persons is based entirely in the will of God. If He had felt differently about persons, they would not be worthwhile. This, unfortunately, goes against everything most personalists would want to say about the person. After all, since ethical behavior is tied into the essence of the thing, what is being said, in effect, is that the essence of a person does not carry with it any sort of moral call necessarily. At this point, the personalists are all in an uproar, gathering pitchforks and torches. What can be done? Should God be subjected to a standard of morality? Must there be some sort of principle of treatment of persons that the perfect being must Himself answer to? This seems far-fetched, not to mention theologically unsound. Luckily, there is a solution. In a word: the superperson.

Talmoryair I.jpg What, one might ask, is a superperson? Quite simply, the superperson is a person who is qualitatively better than all other persons. What does this mean? Well, in the traditional understanding of a human person, man is classified as a rational animal. However, this does not mean that man is on the same “level” of being as other animals. Man is different, different in a way that no addition of qualities could ever make a non-rational animal a man. Thus, it might be said that man is qualitatively different from all other animals. Because of this, man is both object of and subject to different ethical principles. For an animal to kill a man is not an evil act, as animals are outside of the ethical realm. As Nietzsche observes, “But to animals belongs innocence.” (1) For man to cruelly and wantonly torture an animal, on the other hand, is certainly wrong. Similarly, for a man to kill another man is wrong. But what of our superperson? As the entire purpose of this diversion was to clarify what sort of ethical responsibilities this entity (God) might have towards man, what can we say about the moral obligations of the superperson? Quite simply, God does not need to treat man in the same way man must treat man. As God is as different from human persons as rational animals are from all other animals, God has no need to act “morally” towards human persons. God can use man as a mere means to an end. While there might be some restrictions about wanton cruelty, as there were for man in regards to animals, the overall ethical sphere concerning non-Godly persons collapses.

Now, it should be fairly obvious that the personalists are reconvening with torches and sticks and clubs and fire again. However, what further explanation can be demanded? If human persons truly are essentially moral objects with moral obligations tied to what they are, then the ethical treatment of humans cannot be tied to God’s will solely. But if God is not allowed to be “under” a moral principle — if He is not obligated to act in a certain way towards persons — what other explanation is there than that God transcends — in the proper sense of the word — the obligations human persons experience towards other human persons? There are none. God is “super-personal” — He is a person that is qualitatively unlike all other persons. Of course, this leads to an interesting catch in the whole moral realm. Just as animals cannot act immorally against man — because they are removed from the moral sphere - similarly, man could not act immorally against God, as God is removed from the “personal moral sphere”, being Himself part of the “superpersonal moral sphere”. So, to go back to Plato: what is pious cannot be a proper treatment of God, for propriety and right treatment are no longer meaningful when God is so far removed from mere human morality. Of course, because of this, one can never be said to sin. Even those who went so far as to kill God cannot be said to have acted wrongly, and are not in need of the forgiveness of the Father, for their action is comparable to a wild beast slaying a man.
  1. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 49.
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