The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good (Part II)

by Peter Kwasniewski

Today we present the second half of the article posted yesterday, which is forthcoming in the next issue of The Latin Mass,vol. 23, n. 4 (Winter/Spring 2015): 28–35, and appears here at The Josias by permission.

The Human Self is Fulfilled in the Common Good

Up to this point in our reflections we have seen that the way in which “the problem of love” is usually cast—that allegiance must be given to altruism or egoism—involves a false opposition from the start, built upon a superficial metaphysics. Because neither position recognizes ecstatic generosity as the rule of creation, neither position recognizes the fundamental distinction between private goods, which cannot be shared by many, and common goods, which can be shared by many. To this distinction we now turn.

As we saw in the case of Hobbes, the foundation of the modern egoism/altruism antinomy is the view that reality = body. But as it turns out, Hobbes was wrong: he missed the realm of rationality. Because men are rational animals, we are brought together by spiritual goods through their sensible manifestations. We cannot eat the same piece of meat, but we can share the same meal. We cannot use the same spoon, but we can dwell under one roof as brothers. We cannot speak the same word, but we can share a conversation that binds us in pursuit of truth or in its joyful attainment. We cannot see with the same eyes or hear with the same ears, but the intelligible beauty that underlies the visible or audible beauty can penetrate all of our souls in such a way that we are drawn towards it with a shared admiration and delight. We cannot think the very same thought, but our minds can be conformed to the very same object and so be united in the truth.

In all these ways, although we are many, we become one. To be rational means to be able to enter into goods that transcend the material order, the hic et nunc. It means that we can be a “one-many”: not a simple unity, as is God, nor an ever-changing multiplicity, as are materials things, but a plurality unified in and through adherence to a higher good. Friendship is “two-as-one,” “many-as-one.”  The beasts of the field can be together in a place, but they cannot be truly one. Only persons created in the image of the Trinitarian God have the godlike power to form an interpersonal reality, a communio or koinonia, that embraces and gives ultimate meaning to their distinctiveness, their separate selves. Such communio will be inherently spiritual, founded on and ordered to spiritual goods.

This last point deserves careful reflection. Saint Thomas observes that “spiritual goods are more communicable than bodily goods.”[1]  The converse of this position is formulated by Garrigou-Lagrange as “a truth often uttered by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas,” namely: “Contrary to spiritual goods, material goods divide men, because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number.”  Garrigou-Lagrange explains:

A number of persons cannot possess integrally and simultaneously the same house, the same field, the same territory; whence dissensions, quarrels, lawsuits, wars. On the contrary, spiritual goods, like truth, virtue, God Himself, can belong simultaneously and integrally to a number; many may possess simultaneously the same virtue, the same truth, the same God who gives Himself wholly to each of us in [Holy] Communion. Therefore, whereas the unbridled search for material goods profoundly divides men, the quest for spiritual goods unites them. It unites us so much the more closely, the more we seek these superior goods. And we even possess God so much the more, the more we give Him to others. When we give away money, we no longer possess it; when, on the contrary, we give God to souls, we do not lose Him; rather we possess Him more. And should we refuse to give Him to a person who asks for Him, we would lose Him.[2]

 Garrigou-Lagrange’s mention of Saint Augustine brings to mind a famous passage in Book XII of the Confessions where Augustine is contrasting those who interpret Scripture out of pride and those who interpret it out of charity. The proud, he says,

love their own opinion, and this not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they would have as much love for the truth uttered by another: just as I love what they say when they say truth, not because it is theirs but because it is truth. Indeed, from the mere fact that it is true, it ceases to be theirs [alone]. But if they love it because it is true, then it is already both theirs and mine; it is the common property of all lovers of truth. … For Your truth is not mine or this man’s or that man’s; it belongs to all of us because You call us to share it in common, warning us most terribly not to possess it as our private property, lest we be deprived of it. Whoever claims for himself what You have given for the enjoyment of all, and wishes to have as his own what belongs to everyone, is driven from the wealth of all to his own poor wealth, that is, from truth to a lie. For “he who speaks a lie, speaks from his own” (Jn. 8:44).[3]

Truth is the kind of good one can have only if one does not have it as one’s own, as owned by oneself. The moment it is seized as private, it ceases to be true; it becomes a falsified or distorted truth, a half-truth or no truth at all. This is why the truth of the Christian creed, or even the act of heroic sacrifice, amounts to nothing without charity, as Saint Paul teaches (1 Cor. 13). Even if such things are good and true abstractly, they are good and true concretely, for the subject, only when he embraces them with a good will, which is to say, with the right love of self, which necessitates love of God and neighbor.

It is in this context that the fundamental relationship of bonum privatum and bonum commune becomes evident: the common good, properly understood, is not something over and above what is “good for me” personally; it is precisely what is best for me and most perfective of me, simply speaking. That which is most commonly sharable is, in being shared, the most beneficial to all who partake of it.[4]

“One’s own good” not only permits but necessitates that one’s self be enlarged by loving others for their own sake, which involves loving goods truly common to many. There is more to my good as a person than the private goods or the perfections I possess. My identity grows, my goodness is amplified, when I unite myself affectively to another person or community in a love which seeks the good of this other for its own sake.

It sounds paradoxical, as do so many basic truths. My good is not simply my good, but includes your good; indeed, our good is more truly what is good for me than any good that is mine alone. The basis of a truly human friendship is the union of minds or spirits through goods that are common, communicable, and inexhaustible; such a relationship has the potential for continual growth and fruition. Material goods, which are inherently private (i.e., sharable only by predication), divisible, exhaustible, and potentially divisive, cannot be a stable basis for friendship.[5]

Genuine love not only builds up personal union, it destroys whatever is incompatible with it. Love not only sees to it that friends are rooted in the common good, it uproots them from whatever private goods may stand in the way of communion. In order to unite, love also divides; it compels a man to cease clinging to himself, so that he may cling to another—so that he may pour out his time, his energy, his actions, his possessions, on behalf of others. Although friends are never merged into numerical identity, they enter into genuine communion with one another through the unifying, transformative power of love. When a person loves another as he loves himself, he comes to be outside himself by loving and promoting the other’s good as he does his own. His identity is colored and eventually transfigured through ecstatic operation.

Good and Bad Self-Love: The Truth Behind the Modern Antinomy

In outline, we have exposed and refuted the supposed antinomy of egoism and altruism, but now we must admit that its persuasiveness to modern man is rooted at least in part in its resemblance to the truth about our fallen condition. In our experience, there is—or can often be—a real conflict between self-love and love of the other. A full response to the opposition of egoism and altruism must explain our experience. So, what real opposition is there between self-love and love of the other?

We begin by recalling something we have already said: the good that is most my good—the divine good, which is per se infinitely common—is ontologically other than me and can benefit me only when loved for its own sake and as sharable by all. That which is deepest in the causing of perfection, intimately present to all things by communicating being and goodness to them, is that which most transcends the self and most demands the homage of self-transcendence. The “self” of which Thomas speaks is always and more fundamentally ordered to God in whom its own good more perfectly exists. By nature and by grace, I am ecstatically ordered to God. Self-love is therefore understood to be good or well-ordered when (and only when) it actually orders a man to God, his true and final good outside of himself.

Herein lies the essential difference between how the good man loves himself and how the bad man loves himself. According to Saint Thomas, the good man loves what is most truly himself—his mind, in which is inscribed the imago Dei[6]—by ordering the lower powers to the higher and, if need be, sacrificing something of the lower for the sake of the fuller perfection of the higher.[7]  In contrast, by ordering everything to his lower powers, the bad man makes a self-contradictory sacrifice of what is most truly himself to things which are less truly himself. As Saint Thomas remarks:

The love of God is unitive (congregativus), inasmuch as it draws man’s affections from the many to the one; and so the virtues that are caused by the love of God are connected together. But self-love disunites (amor sui disgregat) man’s affections among different things, so far as man loves himself by desiring for himself temporal goods, which are various and of many kinds.[8]

At their extremes, the two types of self-love exhaust the total possibilities of human nature. The saint rises above himself into greater, more common, more permanent goods that his mind embraces by spiritual love; the sinner falls beneath himself into narrower, private, passing goods upon which he dissipates himself. He who lost what was least himself finds what is most himself, namely, the image of God, and through it union with God; he who found what is least himself loses his soul, and through this loss, loses God.[9]

Part of the difficulty in this discussion is the elusive and ambiguous notion of “self.”  Who or what is the “self”?  If we take it to mean instantiated personhood, my human identity as distinctively mine, my unique interiority as expressed in and through my body, then it is obvious that the self is not prior, absolutely speaking, to everything else, especially other selves. There is, first, the mystery of my origin: I do not come into being “by myself” but from others, into a world that surrounds me, and with a nature given to me. Then there is the mystery of my sociality. From the beginning and throughout the whole of life, one’s self is enmeshed in and shaped by relationships with other persons, relationships through which the self attains (or fails to attain) its maturity and most excellent condition. The virtuous agent submits himself to, and is prepared to sacrifice his life on behalf of, the common good, in which he superlatively finds his own good, his own identity. Perfection involves a dedication or consecration to what is good absolutely speaking; hence it makes absolute demands, and the good man is precisely the one who heeds these demands on account of goodness itself, not on account of private benefits. By so living he “assigns to himself the noblest and best goods” (as Aristotle says),[10] for one partakes of a common good by subordinating oneself to it. As we saw in the text from Saint Augustine, a common good can be possessed only as common, not “as mine” to another’s exclusion. If the good man is to assign the noblest good to himself, then he must be referring and subordinating himself to that noblest good, which places him in the relationship of part to whole.

Existential distinction among rational creatures was willed by God with a view towards their association, formation of society, friendship, and mutual indwelling (mutua inhaesio).[11]  The best thing about being an individual of a rational nature is that one can enter into communion—with God, first and foremost; with other rational creatures secondarily and in order more fully to adhere to and delight in God. The other becomes “another self”; put differently, my “self” is expanded or enlarged to include other selves. I take the friend as a part of who I am, so that his good becomes my good, and thus when I work for his good, I am not doing something unrelated to my good. The persons remain ontologically distinct, but as they participate more and more in what is truly common to rational beings, they develop a spiritual unity or communio that transcends their individual limitations, even as it draws out the image of God in their souls. For creatures, to be a part is the only way to become whole.

A Society of Charity

Saint Thomas’s doctrine of love honors at every point the paradoxicality of love itself: the lover is made perfect only when and to the extent that he loves God more than himself—i.e., orders himself and all that is his to God because He is God—and seeks the good of other persons without subordinating their good to his own. Virtue is bound up with seeing the human good as primarily spiritual and common to many: the virtuous man sees himself as a “one-many,” a part with roles to play, duties and rights to live out. Vice is bound up with reducing the good to material or bodily goods that cannot be shared: the vicious man behaves like a moral cyclops, a self-sufficient island with no needs or responsibilities towards others. If a man is virtuous, it is because he is capable of acting for the good as such, which can and should belong to many; if he is vicious, it is because he consistently chooses to act for goods that can be his either only or frequently at the expense of others. (One need only think of the abortion mentality of the culture of death.)  As Catholic Social Teaching has always maintained, the only way to overcome the false opposition between “mine” and “thine” is to acquire those virtues that see the best goods as “ours.”

The mutually exclusive alternatives of egoism and altruism, like their counterparts eros and agape in Anders Nygren’s fantasy, are from the start hopelessly inadequate to the task of explanation, forcing one into conclusions that run against both reasonable reflection on experience and the revealed word of God.

In a magnificent text, Jacques Maritain identifies three theoretical possibilities for man, which might be paraphrased as (1) self-absorption, death by contraction, pure subjectivity—in a word, egoism; (2) self-dissolution, death by expansion, pure objectivity—in a word, altruism; (3) self-surrender, greater life by dying to the extremes, the enfolding of subjectivity within the divine Subject—in a word, charity.

If I abandon myself to the perspective of subjectivity, I absorb everything into myself, and, sacrificing everything to my uniqueness, I am riveted to the absolute of selfishness and pride [think: ossified egoism]. If I abandon myself to the perspective of objectivity, I am absorbed into everything, and, dissolving into the world, I am false to my uniqueness and resign my destiny [think: drunken altruism]. It is only from above [think: infusion of divine charity] that the antinomy can be resolved. If God exists, then not I, but He is the centre; and this time not in relation to a certain particular perspective, like that in which each created subjectivity is the centre of the universe it knows, but speaking absolutely, and as transcendent subjectivity to which all subjectivities are referred. At such time I can know both that I am without importance and that my destiny is of the highest importance. I can know this without falling into pride, know it without being false to my uniqueness. Because, loving the divine Subject more than myself, it is for Him that I love myself, it is to do as He wishes that I wish above all else to accomplish my destiny; and because, unimportant as I am in the world, I am important to Him; not only I, but all the other subjectivities whose lovableness is revealed in Him and for Him and which are henceforward, together with me, a we, called to rejoice in His life.[12]

Ultimately, our perfection consists in being ordered to something, or rather Someone, who is interior intimo meo et superior summo meo,[13] more interior than what is innermost in me, and higher than what is highest in me—the source of my being, my goodness, my personhood, my destiny. What perfects me lies ever beyond me and yet is made mine by charity. This Good is not taken into me and assimilated like food, but I am taken by it and assimilated to it, along with all others who allow themselves to be drawn into its embrace. This is the basis for a society of charity—a society in which the members actualize their dignity as children of God through divine worship, contemplative leisure, friendship, and active service to the lowly; a society that pursues and rejoices in goods truly common: natural and supernatural truth, moral and intellectual virtues, the intelligible beauty of the fine arts, the joy of communities at peace; a society that even begins to conform, from afar, to the luminous exemplar of the Blessed Trinity, leading us ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, from shadows and images into the Truth.


[1] Aquinas, ST Suppl., 56.4, corp; cf. III.23.1 ad 3; I-II.28.4 ad 2. For an extended application of this principle, see Peter Kwasniewski, “On the Ideal Basis and Fruition of Marriage,” Second Spring 12 (2010): 43–53.

[2] Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life: Prelude of Eternal Life, trans. M. Timothea Doyle (Rockford: TAN, 1989), 2:141; see also idem, “The Fecundity of Goodness,” The Thomist 2 (1940): 226–36.

[3] Augustine, Confessions 12.25, trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1993), 251, slightly modified.

[4] Any creature, insofar as it is a part of a larger whole, is naturally inclined (and should it be a free agent, morally obliged) to love the good of the whole—both the intrinsic common good which is the order of the universe, and the extrinsic common good which is God—more than its good as a part. Being by its very nature part of a whole, or more precisely, part of many concentric wholes, the creature is ordered to the whole not merely as to something superior to and constitutive of it, but as to that which, in its very universality, is most causative of and integral to its own proper perfection. The definitive treatment of this subject is that of Charles De Koninck, The Primacy of the Common Good, which, together with related works, may be found in The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume 2, ed. Ralph McInerny (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). See also Michael Waldstein, “The Common Good in St. Thomas and John Paul II,” Nova et Vetera [English ed.] 3.3 (2005): 569–78; Oliva Blanchette, The Perfection of the Universe According to Aquinas (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).

[5] True, material goods may and must be used virtuously as the basis of expressing the friendship of charity, and in this way they can become instruments even of loving God in loving one’s neighbor for His sake. One might refer to the “sacramental principle” underlying the orders of creation and redemption: spiritual realities are communicated to us through material things that serve as instruments and symbols of those realities. In the absence of genuine virtues, however, material goods become a stumbling block for man in his progress towards happiness, a powerful incentive and mechanism for oppression either by their abuse or by their plotted absence. As Garrigou-Lagrange rightly maintains, in and of themselves, material goods serve rather to divide men than to unite them; indeed, because of fallen man’s disordered concupiscence, they divide a man against himself, his lower passions and appetites against his rational good and intellectual destiny, and as we know, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

[6] See Aquinas, ST I.93; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 356–368.

[7] According to Aquinas, ST II-II.25.7, good men take to be primary in themselves the mens rationalis, the rationalem naturam, whereas the bad judge primary the naturam sensitivam et corporalem.

[8] Aquinas, ST I-II.73.1 ad 3; see Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Ages, 2:399.

[9] See Lk 9:24–25; Jn 12:25 and parallels; Mt. 13:12, 25:29, and parallels; and the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11–32), who “wasted his substance with riotous living,” dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose (15:13).

[10] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX.9.

[11] See Aquinas, ST I-II.28.2.

[12] Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent, trans. Lewis Galantiere and Gerald B. Phelan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 82–83.

[13] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11.

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