6.2.1 Human wellbeing – what natural law leads us towards

Back to 6.1.3

Unit 6 Contents


Why entitle the first screen in this section ‘human wellbeing’?  Why am I bringing in this term here, as well as ‘natural law’?

The answer to that question is simple and important.  It so happens that ‘natural law’ has been a highly controversial idea and it is still at the centre of much debate in moral theology, especially as this relates to some particular issues on which there is disagreement.  But, regardless of all such controversy, it is of overriding importance to keep in mind when studying ‘natural law’ that it is about ‘human wellbeing’.  More specifically, natural law leads to human wellbeing.  Whatever natural law exactly is, to the extent that we live in accordance with it, we shall enjoy human wellbeing.  This is the whole point of trying to say anything at all about natural law.

In other words, the principle that we should live in line with natural law is, above all, a highly positive one.  It’s about what can enable us to live in a way that’s actually beneficial for us – to live life to the full.

Keep this in mind throughout.

But… what is ‘human wellbeing’?  I have deliberately used this term in beginning this discussion, in preference to certain other possibilities.  I have used it rather than ‘human flourishing’, and I’ll explain later why I am not using this.

We all have a common-sense understanding of some of the things that make for human wellbeing – such as good health, good relationships, and enough money to live off with some left over for a few luxuries.  But ‘human wellbeing’ is a very general term and there are in fact several views that are quite different from one another about what human wellbeing really is in practice.



How would you describe human wellbeing?


In responding to that reflection, another term you’ve encountered in this module might just have come to mind, namely ‘integral human development’.  You might have thought along these lines: “What about what CST calls ‘integral human development’?   Doesn’t this mean ‘human wellbeing’?  Why introduce another expression for the same thing?”

This would be a perfectly fair reaction.

However there is significant difference between the ways these two expressions are used.  To explain what this is, here is an analogy, to do with eating and the specific diets we eat.  Eating is the generic activity and, obviously, eating is a necessary and beneficial thing.  But not all diets are equally good for us.  We might be poor and eat too little.  Or we might over-eat.   Even if we eat the right amount, we might eat a healthy or an unhealthy diet.

In a similar way, ‘human wellbeing’ is the generic term, and there are several different views about what it actually means in practice, different ‘conceptions of the good life’, as some people put it.  One such view is that we find in Catholic Social Teaching.  This specific understanding of human wellbeing is summed up in the phrase ‘integral human development’.  You read an outline of the meaning of this phrase in Unit 2 (see 2.2.9).

In affirming that human wellbeing is ‘integral human development’, then, CST is in competition with other views of human wellbeing.  Let us look at a couple of these.  We have come across one other main one earlier in this module.



Which other main view of human wellbeing have we given most attention to in earlier units?


In fact, a number of different views have been referred to earlier in this module.  So in responding to that reflection you might have been able to identify more than one.  However we have given most attention to the view that emerged in the eighteenth century in the context of the then new mechanistic worldview, and, in particular, from the attempt to see human beings as simply part of the mechanism.  As you will recall from Unit 2 (2.1.3), humans came to be seen as not more than pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding mechanisms, and the word ‘utility’ was used to refer to the balance of pleasures minus pains that we experience.  According to this view, therefore, humans are ‘utility maximizers’.  As you know this way of seeing humans became part and parcel of the theory of economic liberalism and was believed to justify capitalism.

This is a particular view of human wellbeing.  Philosophically it is called ‘hedonism’ (after the ancient Greek word for pleasure), because it says that living well is a matter of experiencing pleasure.

Some people are completely convinced by this hedonist way of seeing human beings and it is certainly of huge influence in modern Western culture.  But, before we return to CST, we can learn something important by considering one line of argument against it.  Supposing there were an ‘experience machine’ that people could plug themselves into and that guaranteed the most pleasurable experiences possible for the rest of their lives, and no pain.  They could even indicate in advance what experiences they wanted to have and not have.  It sounds good.  Or does it?  If you plug in, that’s it – there’s no reason to unplug, because you’ll be experiencing the things that give you the most pleasure for your whole life.  So the question is, would you take the plunge into permanent pleasure and spend the rest of your life plugged in?



Would you plug into the permanent pleasure machine?  If so, why?  If not, why not?


Most people say they would not.  Why?  The short answer is that there is more to life than pleasure.  Among the main things that contribute to human wellbeing apart from pleasure are freedom to decide what to do, and then actually taking action to do it, even if some of what you do is not pleasurable.  In other words, taking action, exercising your freedom to act, is part of human wellbeing, and this is not wholly translatable into pleasure.  What makes some things good for us is that we are doing them, not the pleasure they give us.1

This leads to another view of human wellbeing that is, in one way, very different from hedonism.  It is the view that says that what defines human wellbeing is free agency.  To live well is to be the agent of what one does – and thereby to spend life doing the things one has freely determined to do, exercising one’s free will, pursuing one’s own projects.   Philosophers call this view ‘voluntarism’ (among other labels), from the Latin word for ‘will’ (voluntas), which is the root of the word ‘voluntary’.  On this view, human wellbeing is found in a life spent doing things voluntarily, without being made to do them.  Hence, whether we act voluntarily or freely is more important than whether what we do gives pleasure, although of course pleasure is also a good that sometimes we shall act to get.

So I’ve outlined above two distinct and competing views about human wellbeing.  On the analogy of eating, they are like two quite different diets.  Perhaps pressing the analogy too far, on the hedonist view what matters is that every day we find on the table the most delicious dishes we could imagine.  On the voluntarist view, what matters is that you and I each decide for ourselves what we will eat and probably cook ourselves it too.

Here are, then, three competing views:

  • Human wellbeing is maximum pleasure (hedonism)
  • Human wellbeing is free agency (voluntarism)
  • Human wellbeing is ‘integral human development’ (CST)

These are by no means the only views of human wellbeing that we encounter in the contemporary world.  While we can’t look at more of them within the scope of this unit, we do need to ask: what does CST mean by ‘integral human development’?  This position is less simple than hedonism or voluntarism, both of which pick out and privilege one aspect of human living – pleasure and free agency respectively.  In the perspective of CST, both of them appear over-simple, or, to use a word introduced in Unit 2, they are reductionist.  Hedonism and voluntarism reduce human wellbeing to just one axis, but in fact there is much more to it than that – human wellbeing is multi-dimensional.

The main point CST makes by using the word ‘integral’ is an anti-reductionist one.  This is that humans are not just material beings but have inherently a spiritual dimension, an openness to the transcendent, i.e. to what goes beyond nature, which means to God.  In other words, one necessary aspect of human wellbeing is to be in relationship with what is transcendent.  Failure to recognize this would be bound to mean that one had a reductionist understanding of what humans are.

That is why CST uses the word ‘integral’.  But what does it mean by ‘human development’?   To answer this question, we have to get fully into the discussion about what ‘natural law’ means, and we shall come to this on the next screen.  But here is a very brief answer.  As the word ‘development’ implies, humans have potential to be more, or less, fully human and to do things that are, and aren’t, conducive to this.  Basically, human development is about humans living to their full potential.

The point of this short discussion of human wellbeing is that thinking about this is a good background for our study of ‘natural law’.  As I emphasised at the start, whatever natural law is, it leads people towards human wellbeing.  It leads people, we can now say, towards development of their potential as persons in all the dimensions of life.


End of 6.2.1

Go to 6.2.2 Natural law


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  1. The philosopher, Robert Nozick, argued against hedonism by imagining such as ‘experience machine’ in Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974).