2.2.9 ‘Integral human development’ and ‘natural law’

Back to 2.2.8

Unit 2 Contents


In this part of Unit 2, we are looking at some of the main ‘principles’ of CST, and we have just paused to learn about Jacques Maritain’s writing on the common good.

One question all this raises is: what exactly is a ‘principle’?  So far I’ve simply assumed that it’s obvious what this word means.



What do you think a ‘principle’ is?

Be aware that this is, of course, a different noun from ‘principal’, the main meaning of which is a leading or head person (such as of a college).


Perhaps the simplest way to grasp what we mean when we talk of a ‘principle’ is to see it as a ‘criterion’, which is a “standard by which something may be judged or decided” (Oxford Dictionary Online).  For example, the principle of ‘the priority of labour over capital’ gives us a criterion or standard by which we can assess the way in which workers are employed and treated by a particular employer.   On the basis of it, we can form a judgment about whether their work really is benefiting them or whether in fact they have, for example, been subjected to the aim of maximizing return to capital.

In this way, the principle of the ‘priority of labour over capital’ can assist all involved in employing people to get things right, to ensure that the necessary standard is maintained.

All the principles of CST can be seen in this way, as articulating criteria or standards that we need to stick to if we are going to live well together.

But there are two ways in which we can develop this understanding of what a ‘principle’ is, and both of them can be very helpful as we think about CST.

First, some principles can be seen as ‘starting points’.  This meaning reflects the roots of the current English word, its etymology.  ‘Principle’ derives from the Latin noun, ‘principium’, which means the beginning or start or commencement of something.1

In this meaning, a principle gives us a starting point.  Such a principle is still a criterion, but it’s one that from the beginning sets a standard for what we think, say and do about something.  Within CST, we can see the principle of ‘human dignity’ in this way.  It sets a standard that should, from the outset, govern all thinking, speaking and acting in relation to human beings.

Second, in contrast, some principles can be seen as ends or goals.  They are still criteria, but, rather than to do with a starting point, they are to do with an end or goal that we are aiming for.  In CST, the common good is best seen in this way, as a quotation I gave earlier stated: “The goal of society is in fact the historically attainable common good” (Compendium, #168).  In explaining this, I said that the common good is “the overarching end, directly or indirectly, of all the activities which human beings properly do in this life” (2.2.7).

In summary, then, ‘principles’ are criteria that set a standard against which we can make a judgment or assessment.  Beyond this, some principles can be helpfully understood as starting points, and others as ends or goals.

These few paragraphs on what ‘principle’ means give very useful background for looking at ‘integral human development’.  This is because this can be seen as an end or goal.  It is, in this respect, like the common good.

Integral human development

In the brief definitions of CST’s main principles that I gave in Unit 1 (1.1.6), I said that Module B gives more attention to ‘integral human development’ than this module does.  This is simply because one of the subjects that module focuses on is international development, i.e. how extensive poverty in the global South can be addressed and overcome, and it is in connection with this issue that CST has had most to say about ‘integral human development’.  This focus is especially clear in the most recent papal encyclical that contributes to CST, Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, issued in 2009.

But we need to have an understanding of this principle for this module also.  It will come up later at several points, especially in units 5 and 6.

In the initial outline of its meaning on screen 1.1.6, I gave an explanation that located it in the context of international development.  I said that this principle,

insists that all efforts to overcome poverty and other forms of deprivation must take into account all aspects of the human person – i.e. the whole truth about the human person – including his/her “openness to transcendence”. [Such development] must be ‘integral’, rather than based only on e.g. material or economic factors.  (1.1.6, quoting Compendium, #130; italics in original)

This will remind you of CST’s critique of reductionist views of humanity which we looked earlier in this unit, in connection with human dignity (2.2.4).  Indeed you were asked to read the part of the Compendium that emphasizes openness to transcendence, as just quoted.

But the principle of integral human development by no means relates only to overcoming poverty.  To suppose that it did would be to read it in a reductionist way!

Rather, it relates to what it is for any of us to be fully human.  This is clear from the fact that in CST the principle was first expressed in the context of general concern with human fulfilment, rather than in relation narrowly to economics.  We find the idea articulated in the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes, in relation to the “proper development of culture”.  Referring to the obligation that all people have to build a “more human world”, the text says that this activity “gives to human culture its eminent place in the integral vocation of man”.  It continues,

When man develops the earth by the work of his hands or with the aid of technology, in order that it might bear fruit and become a dwelling worthy of the whole human family…, he carries out the design of God manifested at the beginning of time, that he should subdue the earth, perfect creation and develop himself. At the same time he obeys the commandment of Christ that he place himself at the service of his brethren. (Gaudium et Spes, #57, italics added)

This reflects a very longstanding affirmation in Catholic thought that if humans are to reach their proper fulfilment, as intended by God, they need to be able to give expression to all the dimensions of their humanness.

Of course, describing what I refer to here as the different ‘dimensions’ of humanness is a challenge, and no doubt it can be done in different ways.  The most influential thinker of the past 1000 years in Catholic Christianity is St Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk who lived in the thirteenth century.  In his vast corpus of work, we find a short passage that basically describes human fulfilment in terms of three dimensions: what we need for mere survival; what we need as animals; and what we need as uniquely rational creatures.2. He left it somewhat unclear whether our openness to transcendence, and ultimately to communion with God, fits within the third of those, or whether we can see it more fruitfully as a fourth, spiritual dimension.

In recent decades, moral philosophers and people working in international development have put a lot of effort into working out descriptions of human wellbeing in terms of several more dimensions than suggested by Aquinas.  You have the opportunity to consider some of these in Module B.

But the main point to appreciate here is that the principle of ‘integral human development’ refers to the end or goal of people becoming as fully human as possible, in all the dimensions of their God-given humanness, however these should exactly be distinguished.



If you had to try to list distinct ‘dimensions’ of integral human development, what would you include?


Before we move on from this outline of what integral human development means, there is one more extremely important point to recognize.

On this screen I have said that both ‘the common good’ and ‘integral human development’ can be seen as specifying an end or goal of human living.  What is the relationship between these two ends?  Are they in tension with one another, or even contradictory?  Or are they consistent?

In fact, in the context of the vision of the world that CST gives overall, they are two different ways of referring to the same thing.  A person’s integral human development is found in participation in the common good.  And vice versa: the common good is nothing other than the true and integral good of persons.

This may seem odd, or over-simple, or mere words, or just baffling!  But it does withstand careful reflection.  The point here is really the same one I made in describing the common good earlier:

The common good is not contradictory to your good or my good.  Rather, the good of each of us is found in our exercising our own particular abilities and gifts in ways that help to generate the common good, and simultaneously enable us to benefit from it. (2.2.6)

I used some analogies to explain this, such as an orchestra and a football match.  These can assist again.  It is as the violinist and the trumpeter, or the centre half and the striker, fulfil these roles as well as they possibly can, that both of two things happen.  They each reach their own fulfilment as players and the common good of the music or the game comes to exist for all involved.

In the New Testament, St Paul made the same point by using the metaphor of the human body.  When each part of the body is healthy and does what it is supposed to do, the whole body flourishes.  This is in a passage you read for Unit 1, 1 Cor. 12 (see 1.3.4).

While ‘integral human development’ focuses on the good of each particular person, and ‘the common good’ refers to the wider picture of people together, these two terms are different ways of speaking about the same thing.

But immediately we must enter a huge caveat: this is CST’s vision, but no-one is foolish enough not to recognize that it will never be able to be fully achieved in the real world.  We can work towards it and make progress – CST certainly affirms this – and if we don’t things will just get worse.  But human limitations, imperfections and sin mean that this will always be hard, with steps backwards as well as forward.  In this respect, CST is much more realistic than some of the main forms of both liberalism and socialism, which have been ‘utopian’.  They have been characterized, in other words, by an over-optimistic belief that their vision of the ideal society could fairly easily be made real.



Can you see how, on this understanding, ‘integral human development’ fits together with ‘the common good’?

Would you agree that this vision is not widely grasped in contemporary Western cultures, because in all sorts of ways these celebrate individuals without an understanding of how each person’s good is truly found in common with others?   Many observers of modern Western societies would agree with this.  But maybe this is over-simple: after all, it is obvious that many people greatly value ‘irreducibly common goods’ in these cultures, such as live sports and live musical performances.


CST’s vision of ‘integral human development’ is one view of human wellbeing and, as such, it has to compete in the public forum against other ways of seeing human wellbeing.  We could come to understand it more clearly by comparing and contrasting it with other views, and you can do this to some extent later in the module, especially in Unit 6.  But this unit is only giving an introduction to the main principles of CST, so we can’t give much attention to other views at this point.

However, it is worth noting that the historical outline at the start of this unit has already introduced one main competing view, namely the vision of human beings as essentially pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding mechanisms – that is, as ‘utility maximizers’.  This view of human wellbeing is called ‘hedonism’, after the Greek word for pleasure.  It is one version of individualism and is certainly a view of humanness that CST regards as reductionist.

Unit 6 will give more attention to the comparison of the vision of ‘integral human fulfilment’ with hedonism.  There we shall look also at another individualistic view.  This sees human wellbeing in terms, not of maximum utility, but of each individual having maximum possibility of exercising free will.  This is known as ‘voluntarism’ (from the Latin word for ‘will’, voluntas).  CST sees this view also as reductionist.  While both pleasure and exercising freedom are certainly good things, CST integrates these into its more complex vision of human wellbeing, rather than isolating one or other of them as the only thing that really matters.

Natural law

The heading of this screen promised that it would introduce ‘natural law’ also.  In fact it should be enough to do so only very briefly here.  While this has been a hugely controversial element in Catholic thought, it can be enormously helpful to see what this term means against the background of what we’ve just looked at.

‘Integral human development’ is human – that is, it accords with our God-given human nature.  It is the development of our created humanity, rather than requiring a repudiation or suppression of this.  But how can we articulate how we should live in order actually to develop as human persons?  This is what talk of the ‘natural law’ is about.  It is the ‘law’ given, in effect, in the way we have been created to be.  We need to live by it to be properly and fully human.  It directs us to human wellbeing.

Clearly, more needs to be said than that to explain ‘natural law’ fully.  But that will do for now.  You can study this further in Unit 6.


End of 2.2.9

Go to 2.2.10 Four other principles of CST

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  1. ‘Principle’ is the standard translation of the ancient Greek, archē, which has this same connotation of ‘beginning’ or ‘starting point’. For example, En archē ēn ho Lógos, In the beginning was the Word (John 1.1). 

  2. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II Q. 94, Art. 2