1.3.10 CST’s vision: neither ‘collectivist’ nor ‘individualist’

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Unit 1 Contents

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CST’s vision of ‘integral human development’ and ‘the common good’ forms one view of human wellbeing.  As such, it has to compete in the public forum against other ways of seeing the human good.  We could come to understand it more clearly by comparing and contrasting it with other views, and we begin to do so on this screen.

CST’s vision of human wellbeing is controversial – especially the common good side of the coin.  It denies certain other views about human wellbeing that many people accept.

‘Integral human development’ assumes, as its starting point, the principle of human dignity – and this makes very clear that that CST rejects collectivist views.  These say that the good of some people can be discounted for the sake of the whole.

A main example of such a collectivist view is ‘utilitarianism’.  This has been a highly influential philosophy in the Western world since it was first propounded in the eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham. (Incidentally, in line with a request by Bentham in his will, his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes and surmounted with a wax head, is on permanent display at University College, London; see Bentham Project: Auto-Icon.)

Utilitarianism holds that society as a whole may use some people, at whatever cost to them, to achieve an overall goal of maximum, aggregate ‘utility’.  Utilitarians believe that human happiness consists simply in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.  Hence ‘utility’ means the sum of pleasure minus pain.  On a utilitarian view, it doesn’t matter how cruelly a few people are tortured if this means society overall has higher utility, for example by being safer from terrorism.

CST rejects utilitarianism because its aim of maximizing utility regardless of the negative effects for some persons fails to recognize human dignity.  CST insists that there are certain ways in which human persons should never be treated, for any reasons at all.  One of them is torture, as we saw in 1.3.1.

In Unit 2 we shall look at ‘socialism’.  The fact that CST is against collectivism helps to explain why it has been critical of socialism. Especially in the Communist form of socialism that actually existed in central and eastern Europe under Soviet Russian control for much of the twentieth century, CST opposed it on the ground that it saw human beings as cogs in a collectivist machine of class conflict, not as persons having a transcendent dignity.  The encyclicals of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, made this critique very powerfully, especially Laborem Exercens (1981) and Centesimus Annus (1991).  (Both these encyclicals can be studied closely in Module A.  See 4.3 and 8.2.)

As well as opposing collectivism, CST is also contrary to individualistic views of human wellbeing.  These are very prominent in Western liberal societies today.  Here ‘individualistic’ means seeing the good life as something each individual, you or I, could enjoy regardless of whether other people also do.  As long as I get what I want, or as long as I can do what I freely choose, I can enjoy life.  Other people don’t come into the equation, except to the extent that I want or decide that they will.

Of course both pleasure and free agency are good things.  But CST is opposed to views that see human wellbeing as given by individual maximization of pleasure (hedonism) or by maximum exercise of individual freedom (libertarianism).  Such versions of individualism reject the claim that human wellbeing is found in an irreducibly common good.

In Unit 2, we shall look at ‘liberalism’ also.  Most versions of liberalism are based on individualistic assumptions.  This is one of the main reasons that the documents of CST are critical of liberalism.

To sum up, CST’s vision of integral human fulfilment and the common good is neither collectivist nor individualistic.

One adjective that can be used for it is ‘communitarian’.  This word labels any view in which human wellbeing is seen as a common good.

Many in our contemporary society who see themselves as liberals are suspicious of any ‘communitarian’ views.  They think that ‘communitarian’ views about human wellbeing mean that, if people who hold them get into government, they will use political power to bring about communitarian goals that many citizens do not endorse, and therefore that threaten individual freedoms.  In short, they see communitarian positions as inevitably collectivist.  Many people assume that any Christian understanding will suppress freedoms in exactly that way.  Maybe you have this fear.

Later in this module, especially in Unit 3, we shall look at this very important issue.  But we already know, from earlier in this part of this module (1.3.4, 1.3.5), that CST’s vision requires full protection of each person’s human rights, and therefore of human freedom.

 

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End of 1.3.10

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Module B outline

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