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Thomas Aquinas, Josef Seifert, and the Metaphysics of Respecting Persons
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Thomas Aquinas, Josef Seifert, and the Metaphysics of Respecting Persons

I. Introduction

Jacques Maritain once quipped that “nothing can be more remote from the facts than the belief that ‘personalism’ is one school or doctrine,” as some personalist philosophies “have nothing more in common than the term ‘person.’”1 Nevertheless, there are at least several distinguishing features of any genuinely personalist philosophy: a belief in the unbridgeable divide between persons and non-persons, and in the inalienable dignity of the former; an emphasis on a person’s incommunicability or uniqueness; a defense of the “personalist norm,” which states that persons ought to be affirmed for their own sake (or ought never to be treated merely as means to an end); and, finally, the rejection of any political system that subordinates a person to the social whole or, conversely, that marginalizes a person’s obligations toward the common good.2

If these are accurate standards for identifying a personalist system or thinker, then St. Thomas Aquinas appears to be a paradigmatic personalist, at least at first glance. He certainly thinks that the difference between persons and nonpersons is a difference in kind, not degree.3 He also defends the inherent dignity of persons by arguing [End Page 100] that the term “person” refers to “what is most perfect in all of nature.”4 Further, he thinks that a person is incommunicable or radically unique because she is individuated in part through her freely performed actions.5 With respect to how we ought to treat persons, he says that a person ought to be loved with the love of friendship, which involves willing the good of a person for that person’s own sake.6 And, finally, Aquinas states that a human person, as a member of the species Homo sapiens, must at times subordinate her good for the sake of the common good; however, this does not make her a mere part within a whole, because she is willed by God for her own sake (or as an end in herself).7

True, Aquinas does not give us a systematic or complete personalism, but (according to the above criteria) he certainly seems to be a personalist thinker. Karol Wojtyła goes so far as to argue that a broadly Thomistic anthropology and ethics are necessary for grounding an adequate personalism. And he makes this argument despite criticizing Aquinas for failing to explore personal subjectivity and lived experience. In sum, Wojtyła focuses on what he takes to be missing in Aquinas’s account of the person, but he affirms and defends its underlying metaphysical principles.8

Josef Seifert, however, offers a different kind of critique in his “Personalism and Personalisms,” one that questions the suitability of Aquinas’s principles for grounding an adequate personalism. His central argument is that Aquinas’s account of the good is incompatible with the respect owed to persons—because Aquinas thinks that something is good only in relation to an appetite, a person can be good for another, but not in himself. In what follows, I argue that Seifert’s critique fails because he misreads Aquinas’s metaethical claims. In particular, he fails to appreciate Aquinas’s understanding of the ecstatic (or “other-directed”) nature of being and goodness. If my interpretation of Aquinas is correct, then his metaphysical principles can ground the proper respect owed to persons. They are, in fact, ideal for doing so. I conclude by suggesting that Seifert’s own account of the good needlessly creates a divide between a person and [End Page 101] his desires, and thereby creates problems for his account of moral motivation.

II. Seifert on Aquinas as a Personalist Thinker

Seifert does acknowledge that personalism owes a genuine debt to Aquinas: “St. Thomas is in a great many respects not only a personalist thinker, but even a true model of a personalist metaphysician.”9 As I noted earlier, however, he thinks that Aquinas’s understanding of goodness precludes the possibility of affirming a person for her own sake, which is the only appropriate response to the dignity of personhood. Instead, Aquinas can only account for self-interested love, or loving another insofar...