Contemporary Ethical Issues: A Personalist Perspective (Third Edition) [NOOK Book]


Now in a newly revised third edition, this insightful exploration of contemporary ethical issues considers a series of compelling moral problems from a personalist perspective influenced by the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976). In many publications spanning fifty years, most notably his Gifford Lectures titled "The Form of the Personal," Macmurray developed a robust personalism that emphasizes the primacy of persons as rational agents. In his view, self-realization is achieved in community ...
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Contemporary Ethical Issues: A Personalist Perspective (Third Edition)

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Now in a newly revised third edition, this insightful exploration of contemporary ethical issues considers a series of compelling moral problems from a personalist perspective influenced by the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976). In many publications spanning fifty years, most notably his Gifford Lectures titled "The Form of the Personal," Macmurray developed a robust personalism that emphasizes the primacy of persons as rational agents. In his view, self-realization is achieved in community where justice and individual rights are respected. From the background of a liberal Roman Catholic, Walter G. Jeffko utilizes key elements of Macmurray's thought in developing his own philosophical viewpoint, and he relates Macmurray's ideas to those of a wide variety of important philosophers, ethicists, and other notable thinkers, including ecologists and war theorists.

New to this third edition is an essay on the moral treatment of civilians in war, including a rigorous critique of Michael Walzer's "supreme emergency" and the communitarianism that grounds it.

Many recent Supreme Court decisions are evaluated, as is the threat to our democracy posed by unlimited sums of money in politics, the growing inequality of wealth and income, and the rise of political extremism on the right and its threat to women's rights.

Jeffko brings logical precision and a lucid style to the study of ethics, blending powerful scholarship with readability.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616147327
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Walter G. Jeffko (Fitchburg, MA) is professor of philosophy at Fitchburg State College, where he has received a Presidential Award and three Distinguished Service Awards for outstanding achievement. He is a recognized authority on the philosophy of John Macmurray.
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A Personalist Perspective


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Walter G. Jeffko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-732-7





That there exists a crisis of values today can hardly be denied. Our society is rife with moral chaos. At one extreme, we have the proliferation of the radio/TV talk show mentality, the growing opinionization of news, and more recently the rise of the Internet blogosphere and social media, where morality and values are basically expressions of unreflective personal opinion. At the other extreme, there are those who dogmatically assert what is right and wrong for everybody with no rational basis for doing so, as exemplified by the radical religious right, whether Christian or non-Christian. Many others flounder along somewhere in the middle, not sure what or who to believe. What is lacking, on both a national and an international level, is a common set of rationally justifiable values, rooted in community, that would bind us together and overcome this crisis. Instead of true community, we have a society that has become increasingly fragmented. Today's emphasis is on diversity without unity; the assertion of individual or group rights without any corresponding vision of, and responsibility to, the larger community. The events of 9/11, the Iraqi War, the emergence of international terrorism, the government's failure to respond adequately to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the growing crisis of global warming, the growing divide between the two major political parties in the United States primarily caused by the increasing extremism and dogmatism of the political right, and our nation's severe maldistribution of wealth and income, are all rooted in a fundamental clash of values and how they are grounded.

In philosophy, too, this crisis of values reigns supreme. There is little agreement among philosophers on what value is or what constitutes an adequate standard of value. On the one hand, there are those who hold that value is simply a matter of what the subjective evaluator believes is right or wrong, good or bad. On the other hand, there are those who say that value is entirely in the object or act evaluated and exists independently of the evaluator. Philosophical theories of value, then, tend to be either subjective or objective, with little attempt to integrate or synthesize them.

At the basis of this split between subjectivism and objectivism is the controversy concerning the relation of reason to value. Although there is a long tradition in Western philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle that holds that reason is the specific or essential difference between humans and animals, it is often held that this power or capacity does not apply to values. Subjective theories in particular deny that value is the product of reason. Emotivism holds that value is merely the expression of an individual's feelings of approval or disapproval. What emerges is a dualism between subjective feelings and objective reason. According to this view, reason knows and determines facts, as in science, but reason cannot determine what is valuable or disvaluable. Again, in some versions of existentialism, value is totally a matter of what one freely chooses. On this view, free choice has no rational basis and is purely arbitrary and subjective. Finally, in cultural (or ethical) relativism, the subjective beliefs of the majority or those in power determine what is right and wrong for all members of a society, through a pattern of mores and folkways that is supposed to preserve the existing social order but is seen as having little or nothing to do with rationality.

In objective theories, reason has an ambivalent status. In the intuitionism of G. E. Moore, the goodness or value inherent in objects and acts is a single and indefinable quality that is intuited but not rationally analyzable. In fideism, the laws of God, which are the standard of value, are based on faith, not reason. By contrast, reason is the standard of value in both natural law ethics and Immanuel Kant's deontological ethics. Each, however, has a serious flaw. Natural law ethics' objectivism does not take subjectivity seriously. It exalts nature at the expense of human reason and personhood. It too easily infers or derives the good from the natural, a procedure critics call the naturalistic fallacy. The role of reason is largely passive: to observe and conform itself to an order of goods and precepts that are fully constituted in nature independently of the subjectivity of human personhood. Kant's objectivism, however, does seem to take subjectivity seriously. His three formulations of the categorical imperative are really three objective moral principles produced by the a priori structure of reason: the principle of universalizability, the principle of respect for persons, and the principle of autonomy of the will. The problem, however, is that Kant's subjectivity is legalistic. Reason's categorical imperative formulates these principles as absolute and exceptionless moral laws. Kant does not make a distinction between laws (or rules) and principles, where the former is subordinated to the latter. Had he done so, and had he interpreted his three formulations of the categorical imperative as principles rather than as laws, his concept of subjectivity would have been more adequate.

Finally, we are left with utilitarianism, which is probably the most prevalent philosophical theory of ethics and value, at least in Anglo-American philosophy. And interestingly, utilitarianism (in some versions, anyway) seems to weave a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity in which reason plays an important role. The principle of utility—the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people—has both a subjective and an objective dimension. Subjectively, happiness excludes pain and includes the feelings of pleasure and well-being; objectively, it involves the satisfaction of human needs. Moreover, each individual must rationally calculate, in a given situation, what constitutes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The major difficulty with utilitarianism, however, is that the principle of utility is grounded in an inadequate theory of human nature and personhood. Jeremy Bentham, for example, has a one-dimensional view of human nature: humans by nature are fundamentally pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding beings. "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. ... The principle of utility recognizes this subjection." Although John Stuart Mill's theory of human nature is more subtle and complex than Bentham's, it is still too closely associated with pleasure.

In this opening chapter, I develop a value and ethical theory that is different, in one way or another, from all the above theories—one that synthesizes objectivity with subjectivity within the context of reason as the standard of value and that grounds reason in the nature of human personhood. I call my theory transobjectivism to distinguish it from other types of objectivism and from relativism and subjectivism. To proceed in an orderly fashion, I first sketch a theory of personhood. Then I briefly develop a concept of reason as the standard of value and apply it to instrumental and aesthetic values. In chapter 2, I apply reason to moral value.


The fundamental proposition of a personalist anthropology is contained in John Macmurray's stark statement: "We are not organisms, but persons." What he means is that the wholeness of human personhood cannot be reduced to the category of organism—or any other category of reality, for that matter—and that organicity is a subordinate but essential dimension of personhood. In short, as (human) persons we are more than rather than other than organisms. As persons, we are only partially organisms. But what, then, is a person, if not an organism as such? To answer this question, three interrelated dimensions of personhood must be briefly developed: mutuality, agency, and reason. The first two are considered in this section. The combination or synthesis of mutuality and agency yields the idea of person as communicative agent. Reason is taken up in the next section, when I connect it with value. The full form (or definition) of personhood that emerges is: a person is a communicative and rational agent whose self-realization or fulfillment is achieved in community.


The mutuality of the personal, to borrow a term from Macmurray, is the concrete context for agency and reason. It denotes a relational theory of personhood that differs sharply from individualism and from an organic interpretation of the person. The latter view I call organicism.

For mutuality, the relations among persons are constitutive of personhood. The unit of personal existence is not I in isolation, but You and I as inherently related to each other. The primary human reality is the field of persons-in-relation. This field by definition includes all persons and is the inclusive context for all aspects of individuality, experience, and culture.

As all-inclusive, the mutuality of the personal includes both direct and indirect relations. In direct relations, persons are acquainted to one degree or another; they know one another. Indirect relations lack this element of knowledge or acquaintance, yet the persons involved are still related to one another. Three types of indirect relations may be distinguished: economic, political, and ontological. I am economically related to the Japanese who built and exported my automobile. I am politically related to all Americans whom I do not know personally. And I am ontologically related to all other humans, since we share the same common human nature.

In contrast to the mutuality of the personal, individualism holds that a human being is fully constituted as a person in himself or herself, independent of relations with other persons. The solitary I is the unit of personal existence. Sociality, culture, and community are external to personhood rather than constitutive of it. René Descartes' cogito and the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke are major examples of individualism. So also is Henry David Thoreau's naturalism.

Unlike individualism, organicism holds that humans are inherently related to one another and to the rest of nature. However, it reduces these relations to a biological level. By organicism, I mean any philosophy that holds that the concept of organism, or any related concept such as animal, is adequate to represent and understand human nature. Consequently, it holds that the concept of person is a legal, moral, religious, or poetic concept, but not one that has any rational or ontological (being-constituted) meaning. Correspondingly, organicism maintains that all of reality is nature. It thus includes all those forms of naturalism that are not connected with individualism. Since organicism reduces human nature to a biological level, human personhood and individuality are submerged in a web or network of organic relations. Whereas individualism exalts individuality at the expense of relationality, organicism exalts relationality at the expense of individuality. Marxism, behaviorism, ethology, sociobiology, psychobiology, and some environmentalist philosophies such as deep ecology are all important examples of organicism. So also are theories that hold that genes and DNA are the sole determinants of human nature.

Unlike individualism and organicism, mutuality does full justice to both relationality and individuality. The mutuality of the personal is the essential context for individuality; it is only in and through the interpersonal context that individual persons can exist in the first place and subsequently grow. Both relationality and individuality are essential dimensions or "poles" of personhood; neither by itself constitutes a person's total reality. A person cannot be reduced to a web of relations; mutuality does not imply a fusion of selves. Each self or person has its own identity and individuality. Still, relationality is primary and individuality is secondary, in the sense that persons are constituted as individual persons within the inclusive field of persons-in-relation. The mutuality of the personal is similar to Martin Buber's concept of I-Thou and to the theory of intersubjectivity developed by Gabriel Marcel and existential phenomenology.

However, this view raises a serious objection: personal individuality cannot be fully constituted, or brought into existence, by relationality alone; relationality cannot be a sufficient condition of individuality. As Norris Clarke, the well-known contemporary Thomist, writes: "metaphysically this [view] will not work. We cannot literally bring into being another person that was not there before simply by relating to the thing that is there with attentive love. ... The being to which we relate must already be of the type that can respond to such an invitation by intrinsic powers already within it."

Clarke's objection is valid, but it does not apply to my position. For the mutuality of the personal, relationality is a necessary condition for individuality, but not a sufficient condition for it. Besides relationality, what is needed to constitute personhood is God's creative activity: God creates a field of persons-in-relation within which are constituted individual persons who then grow and develop in both their individuality and their relationality.

In its full implications, then, the mutuality of the personal is theistic and metaphysical. In this regard, Macmurray's distinction between self and other is helpful. Self denotes any human person considered as I. Other, which is correlative to the self, denotes any and all reality excluding the self, to which the self is related. The other includes three realms: persons, biological reality, and material reality, in descending order of inclusiveness. In turn, persons include not only finite, human persons but also God, the infinite, universal person. Just as an individual person is necessarily related to a personal other, the whole field of persons-in-relation is necessarily related to a universal personal other who creates the world or universe. God, as personal, both transcends and is immanent in the world. Thus, an authentic personalism implies theism, although the axiology (theory of value) and ethics to be developed in this chapter and the next can be viewed as either standing on its own, independent of God, or open to the existence of a theistic god.


The relations among persons consist of action rather than pure thought, that is, thought in Descartes' sense of the term. Action by its nature is interaction. Action cannot occur in a vacuum; the self needs an other with which to interact. Action, therefore, is in herently relational. Thought, in contrast, is a private and inward activity. In reflection, the self withdraws from active relations with others into itself and its world of ideas. In this sense, thought is individualistic. Action expresses the relational aspect of mutuality; thought expresses its individual aspect. This does not mean, of course, that thought has no relation to the other. Such a statement would be absurd. It does mean, however, that in action the other is given immediately and directly, whereas in thought the other is given derivatively and indirectly. Moreover, in view of the relational character of action, it has a collective dimension. It involves not only a singular agent interacting with a singular other—whether personal or nonpersonal—but more significantly a plurality of agents in concert.

From this analysis we may conclude that the self (or person) is primarily agent and secondarily thinker; action is primary and thought is secondary. This is what I mean by the phrase the agency of the personal. To develop it further, we must explain three specific meanings of primary and secondary in this context. First, the self exists as agent rather than as pure (Cartesian) thinker; the self's being lies fundamentally in its agency and only partially and derivatively in its thinking capacity.

Second, action in comparison with thought is a much more inclusive activity of the self. In thought, the mind alone is active; in action, both mind and body are active. Action is not blind. It contains a cognitive element that is essential to its constitution. In action, not only are we aware that we are acting, but also, to some extent at least, we know what we are doing. This knowledge or cognition in action is thought (or thinking) at its original and basic level. I call it prereflective or primary thought, to distinguish it from thought that is withdrawn from action and thus constitutes an activity distinct from action. This latter thought I call reflective or secondary thought. Prereflective thought involves intention, which may be defined as what the agent knowingly and self-consciously aims at in action. In addition, action includes sense perception and free choice. To act is to choose between alternative courses of action: to voluntarily do this and not that. Without free choice, action would become (animal) behavior, as it does in behaviorist psychology. This power or capacity of free choice in action Macmurray calls absolute freedom. It is absolute in that it constitutes an essential difference between action and behavior. Again, to perform an action requires a motive. By motive, I mean a disposition of the agent to act in a certain manner or direction that is rooted in feeling and originates and sustains the intention. Intention is closely connected with the knowledge element of action, and motive is connected with its emotion or feeling element. Motive and intention are quite different elements of action, and this distinction has considerable moral significance.

Excerpted from Contemporary ETHICAL ISSUES by WALTER G. JEFFKO. Copyright © 2013 by Walter G. Jeffko. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface to the Third Edition....................     9     

Preface to the Second Edition....................     13     

Preface to the First Edition....................     17     

1. PERSON, REASON, AND VALUE....................     21     

2. MORAL VALUE, INTENTIONALITY, AND COMMUNITY....................     43     

3. SUICIDE AND THE RIGHT TO DIE....................     71     

4. ABORTION, PERSONHOOD, AND COMMUNITY....................     101     

5. EUTHANASIA: A REINTERPRETATION....................     145     

6. THE DEATH PENALTY AND PURPOSES OF PUNISHMENT....................     173     

7. PRIVACY, PRIVATE PROPERTY, AND JUSTICE....................     215     

8. THE PERSONALIST SOCIETY, COMMUNITY, AND JUSTICE....................     245     

9. THE MORAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS....................     281     

10. AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND JUSTICE....................     303     

11. COMMUNITY AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS....................     341     


Notes....................     415     

Select Bibliography....................     463     

Index....................     483     

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