Personalist ethics, as pointed out by Josh Merlo in his piece, Superpersonal Personalist Ethics, are connected to the person. Merlo claims that God, as a “superperson”, is not subject to the same morality as man. In this way, God is free to treat man in whatever manner He desires, and man may treat God in whatever manner he desires, as God is outside the sphere of human morality. This argument is based on the idea that, “In the realm of ethics, this school of philosophy [personalism] regards its object - the person - as the definitive value that measures the goodness or badness of an act.” In this way, Merlo states that the person is the source of ethical norms, and thus all ethical imperatives are determined by man. However, man is not the source of moral obligations, he is the recipient of them. Brent Dean Robbins, PhD, states:
According to von Hildebrand, mental acts that are driven by the appetites, such as hunger, thirst, and sexual desire, are different kinds of acts than value-responses, such as respect, veneration, and love. Those who are familiar with Viktor Frankl’s work will recognize that Frankl likewise distinguished between drives and values. Whereas drives “push” a person from behind, values “pull” the person along. (1)
Value-responses is simply the proper response to some good that has value. This response, if good and proper, will be moral. The person demands a value-response, by virtue of being a person. Their value “pulls” a response from others, and a good response is moral. In this way, the essence of a person is tied to ethics, not because the essence drives such morality, but because it calls for it. As each person has this dignity, each person requires a proper value-response, and this determines how we must treat people.
When we root ethics in value-response, a hierarchy emerges. It seems that the more valuable something is, the greater the response should be. In his article, Merlo brings up Plato’s Euthyphro. 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?” Plato posited this question in order to distinguish the standard from what is measured by the standard.
If the gods were subject to a standard, it would seem that they were not very powerful. If the gods determined the standard, it would seem that the standard was fairly flimsy. When applying this question to God, the seems to be no way out. Merlo claims that the solution to this dilemma must be that God determines that standard, and therefore, “the worth of persons is based entirely in the will of God. If He had felt differently about persons, they would not be worthwhile.” However, as stated, Plato separated the standard from the being, yet with God, there is no such separation. God is Goodness itself, and in this way, He is the standard by which all is measured. This could not be said of the Greek gods as they were fickle and changing, but God is eternal and unchanging, thus allowing for such a standard. Because of this, it would seem that God elicits the highest value-response, as He is Good. Humans, being God’s creation, would fall under that standard, yet, being made as rational animals, would still deserve a high value-response. Animals, as living creatures, are also valuable and thus require certain respect as determined by value-response, as does the rest of creation. In this way, it is clear that there would be different obligations toward each level of being. This is not to say that animals or plants have moral obligations, only persons are held to ethical imperatives. It merely means that the way man treats animals is different than the way that God treats man, and the way that animals treat man is different from the way that man treats God. It is unreasonable to assume that the same rules would apply between such different beings. This hierarchy of being rooted in value-response illustrates that God is deserving of the greatest value-response, thus refuting Merlo’s claim that there cannot be moral obligations towards God.
In conclusion, personalist ethics are rooted in value-response, and as such are not determined by man himself, but that which gives value to everything, namely God. As God created everything and is Goodness, He bestows goodness upon all of creation, thus giving creation value, which is deserving of a value-response.
- Brent Dean Robbins, PhD, The New Existentialists, Saybrook University
- Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics, p. 490.