The Logic of Love and the First-Person Perspective in Moral Theology. A Response to Livio Melina

Michael Waldstein

Picture: Jesus calling the rich young man

Paper delivered at the 2021 Veritas Amoris Conference “The Truth of Love: A Paradigm Shift for Moral Theology,” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, USA, on June 25, 2021.

The paper by Livio Melina, “The Dynamism of Action and the Truth of Love” strikes me as a masterpiece for setting the overall direction of moral theology. It is the best such overview I have ever read. I find its systematic vision persuasive, not only by the rigor of its argument, but also by its beauty.

My response to the paper touches on four points, one for each of the four parts of Melina’s paper.

1. Why Is the Third Person Perspective So Successful?

Melina contrasts the first-person perspective in moral theology, that is, the perspective of the person who acts in pursuit of happiness, with the third person perspective, the perspective of an outside judge who examines whether particular acts are in conformity with the dictates of the law. This third-person perspective became dominant after William of Ockham’s radically voluntarist turn which sees God’s law as an expression of his will and power rather than of his wisdom and love.

Why is this voluntarist turn so dominant in moral theology, increasingly dominant? Melina does not directly raise this question; it is helpful for focusing on the cultural and political context in which he makes his argument.

The scientific revolution of the sixteenth century was inspired by the ambition of power over nature, stirred by the hope of improving the human condition.

It is possible to reach knowledge that will be powerfully useful to life and instead of the theoretical philosophy, which is now taught in the schools [Aristotelian philosophy], we can find a practical one, by which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us as distinctly as we know the various skills of our artisans, we can employ them in the same way for all the uses for which they are fit, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.[1]

This ambition for power transformed our vision of the natural world. It gave a privileged place to the art or science of power known already in antiquity, namely, mathematical mechanics, which later came to be called physics. It shaped a world-view according to which the only truly objective characteristics of bodily beings are those that can be grasped mathematically. Any increase of scientific-technological power should be embraced as progress.

Many Catholics, especially theologians, resisted Humanae vitae bitterly because they understood aggiornamento as leaving behind medieval obscurantism to embrace the program of scientific-technological progress. In a speech at the Council, Cardinal Suenens said:

Who does not see that in this way [i.e., is, by looking again at the question of contraception after the scientific discovery of the pill] we are perhaps led to further tracking down what is “according to nature or contrary to nature”? Let us follow the progress of science. I adjure you, brothers. Let us avoid a new “Galileo trial.” One is enough for the Church.[2]

Approval of the pill, many were convinced, was necessary for the Catholic Church to earn the Green Card for the land of modernity. The so-called Majority Report of the Papal Commission on birth control highlights this point as the main reason for approving contraception.

In his Regensburg Lecture, Pope Benedict uses the contrast between voluntarism (the primacy of will and power) and intellectualism (the primacy of reason, logos) to outline the geography of cultural debate in our age. His proposal radically reconfigures the conventional geography. The conventional geography distinguishes two continents at odds with each other. One of them is the continent of faith, allied with rightwing repressive politics, which relies on power rather than reason to achieve its ends. Traditional forms of religion, such as Christianity and Islam, inhabit this continent. The other is the continent of scientific rationality and the politics of emancipation from power to achieve equality and maximize free choice. The dominant culture of the West, propagated by the school system, the universities, and mass media, occupies this continent.

The Regensburg Lecture points out a parallel between Islam and Western voluntarism. The primacy of will and thus of power, he points out, stands at the origins of the self-limitation of reason to mechanics in modern natural science. It selects what kind of knowledge is worth pursuing.

The resulting geography differs strikingly from the conventional one. One of the continents is the continent of reason (logos) as understood by Greek philosophy, especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. From the beginning, Christianity has resolutely chosen this continent as its home. It has understood faith as a light that comes from the Logos, from Reason in person. The other is the continent of voluntarism, of the primacy of will and power over reason. Islam, medieval voluntarism (Ockham, Luther, and Calvin), the world-view shaped by modern natural science, and the politics of liberation in defense of individual rights are close neighbors on that continent.

Many Catholic institutions of higher learning accept the conventional geography and swim with the dominant stream, impressed by the prestige of natural science. It is not surprising, therefore, that the perspective in moral theology criticized by Melina dominates many theology departments, especially in Germany. Needless to say, the desire to swim with the main stream is at work also on the other side of the mountains, in Rome.

2. Moral Goodness and Happiness

The first-person perspective can be grasped in the question, What shall I do now? which is the question of practical reason. Theoretical reason asks, What is this? It even asks, Is this good? Its aim is to grasp what is the case in a manner that corresponds to what is actually the case. The aim of practical reason, by contrast, is the decision, I shall do this.

The Meaning of the Word “Happiness”

The energy that drives the practical question, Melina argues, is the desire for happiness. Melina uses the phrase fullness of life to express the meaning of happiness. Plato and Aristotle point out that Greek speakers agree about the meaning of the word eudaimonia, happiness. It refers to a life about which one can say, It is good. Socrates equates living well εὖ βιοῦν, εὖ ζῆν with “being blessed μακάριος or happy εὐδαίμων.”[3] Aristotle says the same thing. “Living well εὖ ζῆν and doing well εὖ πράττειν mean the same thing as being happy εὐδαιμονεῖν.”[4] What people disagree about, both Plato and Aristotle argue, is what kind of life can be called good.

In the statement, This life is good, the word good is used absolutely, without qualification, without limiting the meaning of good to good in some respects. To say simply, This life is good, is to say more than, This life is good in some respects. It is to say it is fully good, ALL good, completely good, the greatest good, the final end.

Happiness and the Universal Good

Whatever good a human life may reach in this world, it will be a particular good, an instance of good, not the fullness of good. It will not fill out all that the universal notion good expresses. The human heart will not come to rest in mere instances of good. Only God is the universal good, universal in the sense of goodness in all its fullness. On this basis, St. Thomas argues that the desire for happiness is always and necessarily a desire for God. Even when this true object of human desire is not explicitly understood and recognized, it is implicit in the inescapable desire for happiness.

It is impossible for man’s happiness to lie in any created good. Happiness is the complete good, which brings desire wholly to rest. Otherwise it would not be the last end, if anything remained to be desired. The object of the will, which is the human faculty of desire, is the universal good. Hence it is clear that nothing can bring man’s will to rest except the universal good, which is not found in anything created but only in God, because every creature has participated goodness. Only God, therefore, can fill the human will, as the Psalm says, “who fills your desire with good” (Ps 102:13, Vulgate). Therefore, man’s happiness can only lie in God.[5]

I remember a conversation with Robert Spaemann, in which he raised the objection that Thomas commits the fallacy of equivocation on the middle term universal good in this text. In the first case, universal good means the one notion good said about many instances. In the second it refers to a good that is not a mere instance of goodness but the whole fullness of goodness itself.

Spaemann is right to point out the difference, but the argument still stands. The two meanings of universal good are connected by the account of happiness sketched above. To say about a life, It is good, simply speaking, is to say more than, It has reached particular instances of good. Reaching particular instances makes a life good in some respects, not simply speaking. Only the universal good in the order of being can be the object of a desire shaped by the universal good in the order of logic.

Happiness and Moral Goodness

A difficulty needs to be thought through in light of this understanding of happiness. We use the simple or absolute way of speaking not only in the statement, This life is good, but also when we say, This person is good. Melina unfolds the second statement as follows:

Persons are good … because through an act of the will, that is, through their free actions, they are oriented toward goodness (moral goodness). Here “the good of the person” comes into play, which, according to Veritatis Splendor is “the goodness of the will of the person who acts” (n. 52). And in fact, “The ultimate perfection of the person is an act of the person: the act by which the person—and no one else in his or her place—dynamically reaches out toward the good and actualizes him or herself.” … In this way, one … comes to connect it [the idea of the good] with the idea of perfection, based on the good as a free act of self-determination.

Immediately after this text, Melina relates “the good of the person” (which corresponds to, This person is good) to “the good for the person” (which corresponds to This life is good).

In the light of the “good of the person,” which is the perfection of the acting subject, one can also determine the specific goodness of the particular acts that the agent performs and that aim at realizing or achieving the “goods for the person,” which are the objects of specific desires (life, food, sexuality, sociality, knowledge of the truth, etc.).

A few sentences later he concludes as follows:

The task of practical reason is therefore to order particular goods, which are the objects of our spontaneous tendencies, toward the moral good as such.

Here, then, is the apparent difficulty that needs to be thought through. That to which every good must be ordered seems to be the final end. If all the goods that are the objects of human desire must be ordered to the moral good as such, then being morally good seems to be the final end, identical with happiness. But this is not true. The moral good as such is only a particular instance of created good. It is not the universal good which every human heart desires, universal in the sense of the complete fullness of goodness itself.

To resolve this apparent difficulty, it is helpful to turn to Wojtyła, whom Melina follows in his account. Wojtyła’s personalism took shape in dialogue with two other forms of personalism, namely, Kant’s and Scheler’s. Kant opts for the primacy of moral goodness, the good of the person; Scheler for the primacy of the good for the person.

Kant on the Dignity of the Person

According to Kant, moral goodness is the only true value, the only true end of the person. This value is inseparable from autonomy.

Kant defines autonomy negatively as the complete independence of the will from any motive of good or evil encountered in experience, that is, from any object of inclination. He defines it positively as the absolute self-determination of the will according to the form of universal law. Heteronomy, by contrast, is the condition of a will motivated by good or evil encountered in experience.[6]

The reason for these claims lies in Kant’s view about the very structure of the human person. He posits two opposite spheres within each human person. One of them, in agreement with Hume, is the unintelligible sphere of sensory and emotional experience that confronts us with various goods and evils. The other is the sphere of pure reason before all experience, before all good and evil. I am autonomous when I will what I will without following any inclination toward any experienced good. I fall into heteronomy when I will something because I have an inclination toward it as good. The example of doing good to one’s neighbor illustrates what Kant means.

I must seek to make others happy not because their happiness is of concern to me … but only because the maxim [that is, the imperative that governs an act] which excludes this happiness cannot be understood as a universal law within one and the same willing.[7]

The universal law “the happiness of others should be of no concern” would be inconsistent in the will of any one person, because each person cannot ignore his or her own desire for happiness. The one and only basis of moral goodness for Kant is that the will determines itself consistently as absolute legislator for itself and every human will, before any good and evil encountered in experience.

The First Principle of Practical Reason

The first principle of practical reason, according to Thomas, is “Good is to be done and pursued; evil to be avoided.”[8] One can distinguish two aspects in this precept. The first is expressed by the word good; the second by the imperatives to be done and to be pursued. Kant cuts off the first aspect, good, and the imperative to be pursued. What remains is the imperative, “To be done,” still understood in the tradition of natural law as valid for all human beings. Kant’s first principle of practical reason is thus the following. “Act in such a way that at any time the maxim of your will [that is, the resolution of your will to act in a particular way] can at the same time be valid as a principle of a universal legislation.”[9]

In practice, this first principle works somewhat like the golden rule, because I must impose the same law on myself and on others to satisfy the universality of the law. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). The difference between Kant and Jesus is nevertheless profound, because Kant excludes the good and all inclinations toward it. The moral goodness of the will, he claims, is clearest when one acts against one’s inclinations to do one’s duty.

Scheler criticizes Kant on this point, but he runs too far in the opposite direction.

The one who does not want to do good to his fellowman—in such a way that he becomes concerned to bring about his fellow man’s well-being—but who merely seizes the opportunity “to be good” or “to do good” in this act, neither is good nor does “good”; he is truly an example of a Pharisee, who wishes to appear “good” to himself. The value [moral] “good” . . . can never be the content of an act of willing. It is located, so to speak, on the back of this act and this by way of essential necessity; it can therefore never be intended in this act.[10]

Love for the [moral] good as good is itself bad, because it is necessarily Pharisaism.[11]

Wojtyła responds that Scheler simply denies moral goodness and responsible human agency.

Scheler sees Pharisaism in willing one’s own moral goodness, because he has subordinated this willing—or, more exactly, its content—to feeling. He has submerged it in emotional experiences. As a result, in the very center of his personalist system we find his characteristic denial of moral value in its entirety, his denial of the practical fruitfulness of the act of will that is directed toward the realization of the ideal of personal perfection.[12]

Both Kant and Scheler cut off one of the two aspects of the first precept of natural law. Kant cuts off the first aspect, good. Scheler cuts off the second aspect, the imperatives, to be done and to be pursued. Wojtyła defends the organic unity of both.

Wojtyła’s Integration of the First Principle of Practical Reason

In a discussion of the commandment of love, Wojtyła asks, “Does love, which, according to the sources of revelation, is the object of the greatest commandment, rest more on the experience of value or on the experience of duty?”[13] He answers that the two experiences work together.

In the experience of these acts [of love] the experience of value must be connected with the experience of duty. Indeed, only the union of these two elements in experience can constitute the moral experience of the act of love which is the object of the greatest commandment. . . . The thorough experience of value makes duty decisively and effectively active, and on its part such a decisive and effective experience of duty determines the actual power of realizing the value in experience.[14]

Wojtyła turns to the person’s lived experience to show how the two aspects of the first precept of the natural law relate to each other. What is experientially evident to the acting person is that the good is to be done and pursued because it is good. The intelligibility of the imperatives to be done and to be pursued depends on the goodness of the good.

The two imperatives, to be done and to be pursued call the person in two directions at the same time. To be done concerns human acts, including their moral goodness. To be PURSUED concerns ends. Moral goodness is one of these ends, but subordinate to the final end, the universal good as the object of happiness.

Let us return to Melina’s text that gave rise to the apparent difficulty. “The task of practical reason is therefore to order particular goods, which are the objects of our spontaneous tendencies, toward the moral good as such.” It is clear from the context that the phrase “order toward the moral good as such” does not claim that moral goodness is the final end of the human person. It claims that the first-person perspective of moral goodness implied in the imperatives to be done and to be pursued is decisive for understanding the moral life.

3. How Does Love Open the Eyes of the Mind?

That love is needed for moral discernment is a central thesis in section three of Melina’s paper. He begins the section as follows:

The category of “the truth about the good,” so dear to Karol Wojtyła, is illuminated precisely by the interpersonal experience of love and is thus integrated into the broader category of “the truth of love.” … Something appears to us as good in relation to another person whom we love and to whom we want to give it. Love therefore reveals itself as a cognitive factor with its own original logic that prevents the reduction of moral knowledge to any rationalist system.

An old Latin proverb says, Ubi amor, ibi oculus. Prudentius of Troyes († 861) reports that it was widely used and well known, “It is often said and true, ubi amor, ibi oculus” (PL 115:1372B). Richard of St. Victor († 1173) quotes it similarly in Beniamin minor, 13 (PL 196:10A). A particularly illuminating version is found in Baldwin of Canterbury († 1190).

If the man leaves father and mother to cling to his wife, … through what does he cling more than through the eye? For, Ubi amor, ibi oculus. Where love is, there is the eye. Since the eye can see and be seen, it expresses and stirs up love. By its beauty it calls forth love and by its secret inner meaning it announces love (PL 204:481B).

Albert the Great quotes the proverb in his commentary on John 21:7 where John immediately recognizes Jesus standing on the shore of the lake.

It is the Lord, said the disciple whom Jesus loved, since he knew the Lord, because “Ubi amor, ibi oculus. Where there is love, there is an eye” Song of Songs, “You have wounded my heart with one of your eyes,” (Song of Songs 4:9, Vulgate), that is, with one glance of your eyes at me.

Thomas quotes the proverb both in his Scriptum on the Sentences and in his Lectures on John.[15] He explains the fuller meaning of the proverb in a remarkable text. At the very beginning of my work as President of the International Theological Institute, Cardinal Schönborn pointed to this text as the main guide of my work.

Wisdom, as said above, implies a certain rightness of judgment according to divine accounts. Now rightness of judgment can come to be in two ways: 1. in one way, following the complete use of reason, 2. in another way, because of a certain kinship (connaturalitas) with what one must judge at present. Just as, 1. about what belongs to sexual purity one judges rightly by pursuing questions with one’s reason, if one has learned the knowledge of ethics, 2. but by a certain kinship with [these matters of purity] themselves, one judges rightly about them, if one has the virtue of purity. So also 1. to have right judgment about divine things from pursuing questions by reason belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue, 2. but to have right judgment about them according to a certain kinship with them themselves belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Dionysius says in Chapter 2 of On the Divine Names, “The theologian is complete in divine things not only by learning, but also by suffering divine things.” Now this kind of suffering with or kinship with divine things comes to be through love, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “The one who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit [with him].”

It is easy to understand why this profound insight into theological wisdom plays little role where theology patterns itself after the natural sciences, which aim to be value-free and purely factual.

4. Beauty and the Integration of Law and Norms by the Logic of Love

There is a close relation between love and beauty. The integration of law and norms in a first-person perspective needs beauty. Melina’s paper does not explicitly make this point, but it runs as an atmosphere through the whole argument, which is not surprising for the theologian formed by John Paul. At the beginning of section four, he says,

Of course, even in an ethics of the first person, the concept of “law” plays an important and indispensable role. However, situated in the dynamism of action, it is not seen primarily as an obligation flowing from the will of the human or divine legislator. Rather, the law is a wise ordering of wisdom, which arranges things with regard to their end. This is also how it is understood biblically: it is an opus sapientiae and ordo rationis, a work of wisdom and an order of reason, instructing us on the path to go so we may achieve happiness. The law is not the product of an arbitrary and inscrutable will, but the expression of a truth about the good, which does not oppose freedom as an incomprehensible limit but rather assists it in its most intimate aspiration.

In one of his most important autobiographical passages, John Paul writes,

As a young priest I learned to love human love. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood—my ministry in the pulpit, in the confessional and also in my writing. If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of fair love, because love is fair, it is beautiful. After all, young people are always searching for beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful.[16]

John Paul’s text about his formative experience of the beauty of love should be seen together with his attention to lived experience. His pastoral method consists in bringing beauty and experience together. It is difficult to run on one leg alone. Beauty alone would be quite a strong leg to stand on. Yet it is the pairing of beauty with experience that gives to the teaching of John Paul, especially to this theology of the body, its intellectual and pastoral power. A detached beauty seen from afar as an object of admiration and longing, out of reach of experience, can stir nostalgia, but it cannot change lives. Beauty understood as realizable in the body and in daily life with all its complexity, obscurity, and suffering—this has great power to change lives. John Paul invites readers to test this beauty in their own experience.

This pastoral method is a positive way forward beyond the entrenched battle lines about Humanae vitae. It extends an invitation that is difficult to resist. “Your desire for the beauty of love will lead you. Try out this path. Judge for yourself by your own lived experience.”

  1. Descartes, Discourse on Method, 6, Adam and Tannery, 6:61–62.

  2. Intervention of Cardinal Suenens in the Conciliar Aula, October 29, 1964. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, 35 vols., in 6 parts and three appended volumes (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1975), part 3, 6:58.

  3. Plato, Republic, 353e–354a.

  4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.4.1095a19–20.

  5. Thomas, Summa I-II, q. 2, a. 8, corp.

  6. See Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, AK 5:33–34.

  7. Kant, Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals, AK 4:441.

  8. Thomas, Summa, I-IIae, q. 94, a. 2, corp.

  9. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, AK 5:30.

  10. Scheler, Formalism, English 27, German 48.

  11. Scheler, Wesen und Formen der Sympathie, Gesammelte Werke,

  12. Wojtyła, Scheler, German, 118.

  13. Wojtyła, Scheler, German, 156.

  14. Wojtyła, Scheler, 156–57.

  15. Thomas, Super Sent., lib. 3 d. 35 q. 1 a. 2 qc. 1 co. Lectura super Ioannem, on 14:23, Marietti #1941.

  16. John Paul, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 123.

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Michael Waldstein

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The Veritas Amoris Project focuses on the truth of love as a key to understanding the mystery of God, the human person and the world, convinced that this perspective provides an integral and fruitful pastoral approach.

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