We live in a culture marred by the use of human beings as a means to an end. This type of use finds its foundation in the philosophy of utilitarianism. As Catholics, we do battle with this philosophy on a daily basis. It is important that we understand why human beings can never be an object of use and to examine our own consciences daily to make sure we are not using other people. This topic is one that Karol Wojtyla, Saint John Paul II, stressed throughout his pontificate. He saw a Western culture that was beginning to devolve into philosophies such as utilitarianism, nihilism, materialism, consumerism, and Communism. All of these philosophies turn people into objects to be used by other people in the pursuit of a disordered understanding of happiness. I have written about both nihilism and utilitarianism in the past because they are such dangerous philosophies that have infiltrated very deeply into the culture. In fact, I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to these philosophies and the Catholic need to respond.
In his book, Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla discusses the inherent flaws and dangers of viewing persons as an object of use. To clarify his position, he begins by explaining that persons are both subjects and objects. This understanding is important in beginning to discuss the errors of utilitarianism in relation to the uniqueness of each human being. Keep in mind that Saint John Paul II was greatly influenced by the philosophical school referred to as phenomenology. He states:
We must, then, be clear right from the start that every subject also exists as an object, an objective ‘something’ or ‘somebody’.” While man is both subject and object, he is never a thing, he is always a somebody. That means when he is an object he retains his own unique quality, or personhood.
Wojtyla explains further, “As an object, a man is ‘somebody’—and this sets him apart from every other entity in the visible world, which as an object is always only ‘something’. Implicit in this simple, elementary distinction is the great gulf which separates the world of persons from the world of things.”
Love and Responsibility, 21
While this may seem like a simple and logical enough distinction, it is here that our culture misunderstands the nature of things versus that of persons. The idea of using persons to achieve goals or ends is fully on display in our culture. It can be seen through the hook-up culture, rampant birth control, sweat shops, politics, designer children, and the list goes on. Things can be used to achieve good ends, people cannot.
The world of things, even of animals, and that of man is separated by reason. Things do not have the ability to reason, to know, to possess their own existence, and to have a spiritual life. There is an interior life that is unique to man that cannot be found in other material objects. Again Wojtyla explains:
A person differs from a thing in structure and in the degree of perfection. To the structure of the person belongs an “inner” in which we find the elements of spiritual life and it is this that compels us to acknowledge the spiritual nature of the human soul and the peculiar perfectibility of the human person.
So man not only possesses a rational character, but this rationality is tied to his spiritual reality and his desire to do what is good and perfective. Peter Colosi, who writes about Saint John Paul II’s theology and philosophy, expounds further:
Because the person is spiritual, like God, he is spontaneous, creative, and above all free so that each of his acts is something new and distinct in the world.
Perfection and ordering to the good require a will and intellect, which does not exist in things. We are called to order our very being to God so that goodness can flow through us. We cannot order ourselves to God if we are using people to achieve our goals.
It is the interior life of man that leads to his interaction with the world of objects. There is a great multitude of objects at the disposal of man for use in his pursuit of goodness and truth. A human being possesses a free will and makes his or her own choices. Man is sui juris, his own master. This means no one can want or choose for another person. It is also how man is both subject and object in an action. The interior life of the person, the subjective, is united to the objective external. In many of these instances the objective is another human being. It is in those instances that utilitarianism confuses things and persons. For the utilitarian, a person is another means to achieving the end of pleasure. The person is reduced to a tool of utility, rather than as a rational creature possessing a free will. Once this pleasure has been achieved then the individual can cast the other person aside in pursuit of new pleasure or perceived happiness.
The verb ‘to use’ must be defined and analyzed as it relates to the utilitarian principles in order to see how it violates the dignity of the human person. Karol Wojtyla’s definition is, “To use means to employ some object of action as a means to an end—the specific end which the subject has in view…at the same time subordinated to some extent to the agent.” The subject is attempting to attain an end through certain means. These means serve the intended end, as well as the subject. There are many actions that must be taken for man to live in the universe. Use within itself is not disordered, rather it is a good. The danger arises when this principle of means and ends is applied to human persons. Each human person is unique within themselves and does not belong to another person this is precisely why they should never be used by another person. They are a unique individual created in the ‘image and likeness of God’.
Human persons are meant to live lives ordered to goodness which comes from God and this ordering is made possible through the will. Each person has the ability to make choices that will result in good. This is a part of being a rational creature. Karol Wojtyla argues that treating a person as a means to an end violates this nature.
Anyone who treats a person as a means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other, to what constitutes its natural right. Obviously, we must demand from a person, as a thinking individual, that his or her ends should be genuinely good, since the pursuit of evil ends is contrary to the rational nature of the person.
Love and Responsibility
Human beings have an obligation to demand good in others and a right to not be used by others. They also must be given the freedom to have their own ends rather than being subjected to the ends of other persons.
Utilitarianism and its sister philosophies of relativism, nihilism, consumerism, Communism, materialism, and the list goes on, are precisely what we as Catholics in the West are doing battle with each day. Other countries are beginning to fight them as we export these toxic ideas to their shores. We fight these philosophies within ourselves, because whether we like it or not, we are influenced by them by virtue of living in cultures influenced by these ideologies. We fight these philosophies in abortion, the redefinition of marriage, rampant divorce, euthanasia, ethics, the culture, hyper-sexuality, destructive violence, terrorism, and in the media we bring into our homes. It is important that we examine how the idea of use has shaped us and to figure out the best ways to change how we approach other human beings. Each human being is made for goodness and for God. It is time for Catholics to show the world the truth by abandoning these ideologies in our own lives, no matter how unconscious, and by sharing the beautiful truth that each one of us is a unique creation of God who is made for charity and goodness. Sin leads us to use others. It is an area we all have to work on. This is crucial as we look at all of the violence, strife, and abuse of other human beings going on throughout the world.
St. John Paul II, ora pro nobis.