The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

Introduction and Principles of Ethics


The following ten universal principles form the foundation of civility, justice, and objectivity in cultures throughout the world. Their presence assures the possibility of humane civilization and their absence (even their partial absence) opens the path for corruption, deceit, injustice, and cultural decline. Following is the introduction and the first 19 pages from chapter two of Father Spitzer's new book, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues.

Order Ten Universal Principles by Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. here



The evolution of culture and civilization has arisen out of the development of ten fundamental principles. Three of them concern evidence and objective truth, three of them concern ethics, three of them concern the dignity and treatment of human beings within civil society, and one of them concerns personal identity and culture. Failure to teach and practice any one of these principles can lead to an underestimation of human dignity, a decline in culture, the abuse of individuals and even groups of individuals, and an underestimation of ourselves and our potential in life. Failure to teach and practice several of these principles will most certainly lead to widespread abuse and a general decline in culture.

This assertion is not made arbitrarily or out of a so-called slippery slope argument, for history is so replete with examples of these failures and their consequences that it would be wholly unreasonable and irresponsible not to infer its validity. We have all heard the cliché attributed to Einstein, that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Our objective then in presenting this curriculum is first and foremost to prevent great harm to individuals and communities, and thereby to prevent this kind of "insanity" from repeating itself in our national and even international history.

A brief review of these principles will give further credence to our claim that they are an essential safeguard of human dignity, welfare, and community. Some may say that it is the legal system or democracy or the courts that are the real protectors of individuals, culture, and society; but as will become evident, without the ten principles, democracy could vote out the rights of human beings, court systems could legalize every form of indignity and harm, and legal systems would have nothing upon which to base their laws. Again, one does not have to look very far to see these abuses in world history with its kangaroo courts, arbitrary marginalization and persecution of peoples, and justification of slavery, discrimination, and maltreatment. Systems and courts are mere structures. They are designed to operationalize something beyond themselves. That "something", we would maintain, is the fruit – the best fruit of the human spirit that we believe to be enshrined in these ten principles.

Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues

The following ten universal principles form the foundation of civility, justice, and objectivity in cultures throughout the world. Their presence assures the possibility of humane civilization and their absence (even their partial absence) opens the path for corruption, deceit, injustice, and cultural decline. Three principles concern objectively verifiable truth, three concern personal ethics and virtue, three concern political justice and rights, and one concerns the development of great culture.

I. Principles of Reason

Principle 1: The Principle of Complete Explanation (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data.

Principle 2: The Principle of Noncontradiction (Plato and Aristotle)
Valid opinions or theories have no internal contradictions.
Classical formulation: A real being cannot both be and not be the same thing, in the same respect, at the same place and time.

Principle 3: The Principle of Objective Evidence (Plato and Aristotle)
Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence.

II. Principles of Ethics

Principle 4: The Principle of Nonmaleficence (Jesus, Moses, and worldwide religious traditions)
Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it.
Silver Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

Principle 5: The Principle of Consistent Ends and Means (Augustine)
The end does not justify the means.

Principle 6: The Principle of Full Human Potential (Las Casas)
Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not according to the level of development currently achieved.

III. Principles of Justice and Natural Rights

Principle 7: The Principle of Natural Rights (Suarez, Locke, Jefferson, and Paine)
All human beings possess in themselves (by virtue of their existence alone) the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property ownership; no government gives these rights, and no government can take them away.

Principle 8: The Principle of the Fundamentality of Rights (Suarez, Locke, and Jefferson)
The more fundamental right is the one which is necessary for the possibility of the other; where there is a conflict, we should resolve in favor of the more fundamental right

Principle 9: The Principle of Limits to Freedom (Locke and Montesquieu)
One person's (or group's) freedoms cannot impose undue burdens upon other persons (or groups).

IV. Fundamental Principle of Identity and Culture

Principle 10: The Principle of Beneficence (Jesus)
Aim at optimal contribution to others and society.
The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Chapter Two

II. Principles of Ethics

Ethics is concerned with the good life, that is, the pursuit of what is good and the avoidance of what is evil or harmful. It is a much older pursuit than the study of reason and natural rights, because it seems to have been integral to human consciousness at its origin. It also appears to be connected with an equally originative human awareness of the sacred, transcendent, spiritual, and divine. The human awareness of the sacred contains within itself an attraction toward the good and a revulsion for evil. These feelings of attraction and revulsion eventually become articulated into commandments for personal conduct and then become formulated into norms for a society and then codified as laws for a kingdom.

As philosophers, theologians, legal theorists, and political theorists reflected on the ground and legitimacy of law and the legal system, they noticed one particular ethical ground that seems to be universally present in every culture and religion, a ground without which all law and legal systems lose their intelligibility and legitimacy – namely, the principle of nonmaleficence (avoiding unnecessary harm to others, Principle 4). As we shall see, this great principle not only stands at the foundation of ethics and law, but also at the foundation of justice and rights. If this principle falls within a culture, then it is inevitable that the rest of ethics, justice, rights, and law will fall along with it. Therefore, it is deserving of the greatest respect and the greatest protection, for we cannot live long without it.

There are two important corollaries of the principle of nonmaleficence that are also vital to the intelligibility and grounding of law and rights: the principle of consistency of ends and means (Principle 5) and the principle of full human potential (Principle 6). This correlation will become evident in the explication below. For the moment, suffice it to say that without these three ethical principles, we may as well not proceed to the principles of justice and natural rights, for they would be unintelligible and without foundation.

Principle 4: The Principle of Nonmaleficence

Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it.

Silver Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

The principle of nonmaleficence dates back over three thousand years. It can be found in virtually every nation and in all the world's major religions. It is considered to be the most fundamental of all ethical principles, because if it falls, then all other ethical principles fall as well. Thus, it is the foundation for all ethics (and is sometimes called "ethical minimalism"). The principle may be stated as follows: "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." This might be translated as: "Do no unnecessary harm to another, but if a harm is unavoidable, do everything possible to minimize it."

Notice that this is like the Golden Rule (the principle of beneficence), with one important exception: the Silver Rule is focused on avoiding harm while the Golden Rule is focused on doing good ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). This is why the Silver Rule is considered to be ethical minimalism while the Golden Rule (altruism, doing optimal good for others) is considered to be ethical maximalism.

Ten Universal Principles
by Father Robert Spitzer, S.J.

Many thinkers consider the principle of nonmaleficence to be as fundamental to ethics as the principle of noncontradiction is to the rules of evidence. Why? Because its denial (1) entails the most fundamental form of injustice and (2) leads to an untenable social condition.

Let us examine the first rationale. It can be fairly said that no normal person (that is, someone who is not psychopathically masochistic) would like unnecessary harm done to himself. However, if one is not willing to fulfill this obligation toward others, one will commit the most fundamental form of injustice, namely, asking for something which one is not willing to extend to another. Justice, which is the condition necessary for a humane community and society, is, according to Plato, grounded in giving each person what he is owed. Now, if others are obliged not to harm us unnecessarily, then we are obliged not to harm them unnecessarily. We cannot demand for ourselves what we are not willing to extend to others.

Secondly, failure to observe the principle of nonmaleficence is untenable. The moment we condone harming others unnecessarily, the fabric of community and society would unravel in theft, injury, violence, and even murder. Furthermore, interpersonal relationships would be impossible if we did not owe this duty to one another. Normally, we avoid people who say, "I really need to cause unnecessary harm to others in order to be fulfilled in my life", because we are likely to be the victims of that harm. Now if everyone is avoiding everybody else, there would be no relationship, community, or society.

The principle of nonmaleficence comes up very frequently in the life issues. For example, the Roe v. Wade decision violates the principle of nonmaleficence, because it justifies doing harm to a human being. As was established in Principle 3, a single-celled human zygote has a full human genome, and a developing human embryo has a highly actualized full human genome. Therefore, prima facie, the being in question is a human being, and allowing this human being to be killed under the law (whether in the first, second, or third trimester of pregnancy) is a particularly serious violation of the principle of nonmaleficence.

The "reasoning" of the majority of the Court in Roe v. Wade was grounded in a gratuitous and destructive assumption: when in doubt, assume that human life does not exist, and assume, as a consequence, that the killing of such life can be sanctioned. Attend to the majority's reasoning here:

Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

The obvious problem here is the majority's willingness to sanction killing through abortion when it was (by its own admission) uncertain about the presence of human life. If the judiciary did not believe that it was in a position to determine when human life begins, it should never have touched a case (let alone issued a decision) in which it might claim (let alone would claim) that human life was not present, which, if this claim is mistaken, would therefore sanction that life being killed. The principle of nonmaleficence requires that if one is not certain about the presence of human life, one must refrain from actions that could end a human life in the event that one is present. If one is uncertain about whether a being of human origin is really human, then one should presume that it is human because it came from human beings. To do otherwise is not only irresponsible (because one could illegitimately sanction killing out of uncertainty), but also unreasonable (because one should not expect anything other than human life to come from the reproduction of human beings).

The majority claimed that it consulted with many scientific, philosophical, and theological authorities, yet concluded in the absence of a consensus that the killing of human life is legally permissible. It never left open the possibility that new future technologies would be able more precisely to determine whether human life was present. Instead of deferring a decision about the case until such new technologies could resolve the question more clearly, it rushed toward a decision that amounts to a violation of the principle of nonmaleficence.

As mentioned above, a DNA sequencer was constructed in the late 1980s, which enabled Dr. Jerome Lejeune and others to be certain of the presence of a unique full human genome in a single-celled human zygote. As also noted above, a full human genome in a zygote (the initial cell formed when a new organism is produced by sexual reproduction) constitutes a distinct and unique human being whose identity and DNA is not reducible to the mother's. Dr. Lejeune later testified to this fact in 1991 in New Jersey v. Alexander Loce and in 1992 in Davis v. Davis (see note 10 on p. 19). This showed that the Supreme Court was unjustified in rushing toward its decision, which resulted in a violation of the principle of nonmaleficence, and that, if it were truly uncertain about whether a human being was present in the womb, it should have deferred any decision about abortion until new technologies could make a clear scientific determination about the presence of human life. The Court did not revisit the criteria used in the Roe v. Wade decision, which makes it at least as unjust as the Dred Scott decision. Recall that a majority's justification by uncertainty has a fundamental flaw, because uncertainty proves nothing objectively. It only manifests subjective ignorance. It is not the presence of evidence; it is the absence of the knowledge of evidence.

The majority enshrined this "irrational rationale" in a Supreme Court precedent. The highest court in the land declared that in the case of pregnancy when there is doubt about the presence of human life, it is justifiable to abort the fetus even though one may be killing a human being. One can see how this could be utilized very neatly to marginalize or harm, on the basis of uncertainty about personhood, people with physical defects, people who are becoming dependent on others (not completely autonomous), people who are less educated, and people from countries with an overall lesser degree of education. This absence of certainty has been used throughout history to attempt to justify bias, marginalization, segregation, oppression, and even genocide. Even the greatest skeptic about "slippery slope" arguments should feel some trepidation about doing this.

Persons In Reality, Ethics, and the Law

As can be seen from the above, the majority's attempted justification of its actions turns on its definition of "person". Let us examine its "reasoning" here:

If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. The appellant conceded as much on reargument. On the other hand, the appellee conceded on reargument that no case could be cited that holds that a fetus is a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Section IX.A)

The majority (and even the appellant seeking legal abortion), by their own admission, realized that if personhood could be established, then the appellant's case in favor of abortion would collapse. As will be shown below (Principle 7), this reasoning is backward. The Court did not have to establish the existence of personhood in a being of human origin with a full human genome. It should have presumed personhood in order to prevent a gross violation of the principle of nonmaleficence. This principle requires that the Court establish that personhood does not exist if it wants to sanction the killing of beings of human origin with a full human genome.

So what criterion did the majority use to try to establish the presence of personhood, when it did not use the criterion of "a being of human origin with a full human genome"? Remarkably, it searched for a previous case that acknowledged that a fetus was a person, and when it could not find one, it assumed that fetuses were not persons. This criterion is not sufficient to sanction a violation of the principle of nonmaleficence, because "personhood" is not merely a legal concept; it is essentially an ontological concept (i.e., it defines what a being is, namely, human) and an ethical concept (i.e., it defines the kind of being that we are obligated not to kill, abuse, or harm unnecessarily because of its intrinsic worth as human). The majority's claim that the absence of a case is sufficient to establish the nonpresence of personhood in a fetus, therefore, is a gigantic error of omission (Principle 1). It hasn't even begun to establish the nonpresence of personhood on either an ontological or an ethical level.

Let us now take a closer look at the notion of personhood, in order to address the error of the contention that the absence of a case precedent defining a human fetus to be a person is sufficient to establish the nonpresence of personhood in human fetuses. The term "person" was introduced into the English language prior to 1200 and was probably derived from the old French persone/persoune, which meant "human being". Persone, in turn, was probably derived from the Latin persona, which meant "human being, individual". 4 It is interesting to note that virtually every English dictionary today retains "human being" as the primary definition of "person". There is no linguistic evidence for contending that any being of human origin should not be considered to be a person; so the majority's decision to separate "human being" from "person" is highly unusual, if not unique. Such breaks from clear linguistic precedent frequently indicate spurious distinctions to justify problematic assertions. The majority's reasoning is a clear example of this problem.

The linguistic evidence shows that throughout its history, the word "person" has had a primarily ontological meaning, which defines words according to the nature of things, that is, what a thing is. Thus, "person" was inseparable from "a living individual human being". If the majority had made recourse to the linguistic history of "person" (and had, thereby, become acquainted with the ontological meaning of "person", a human being) before seeking a legal definition of it from case precedents, it would not have separated "person" from "human being" and would have presumed that the human fetus is a person because human fetuses are genetically distinct human organisms, rather than parts of human organisms. If the Court had waited for ten years, it would have found sufficient technological verification of this presumption through the DNA sequencer. Therefore, the majority would have had to have concluded on the basis of (1) linguistic usage and history, (2) common sense (human fetuses come from human beings), and (3) scientific evidence (the presence of a full human genome in a zygote; see above), that the human fetus is indisputably a person.

Instead of making recourse to the ontological definition of "person", the majority decided to restrict itself to a legal definition. It then found itself (conveniently) in need of a case precedent to determine whether a human fetus was a person. When (not surprisingly) it could not find such a case precedent (because the personhood of human fetuses had not previously been taken up by the United States Supreme Court), they concluded that human fetuses were not persons!

It is noteworthy that the well-known Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England and several state supreme courts did acknowledge the personhood of human fetuses and presumed that the killing of fetuses (as in abortion) was illegal, that allowing a fetus to die by neglecting medical treatment was actionable, and that negligence that caused harm to a fetus was also actionable.

In Roe v.Wade, the majority ignored these precedents and chose, rather, to argue a logical fallacy. This fallacy can be easily seen when one considers that every new definition of a term will never be found in a case precedent (old definitions) precisely because it is new. Trying to determine whether a human fetus is a person by means of U.S. Supreme Court case precedents when such cases had not previously arisen is like trying to establish the nonexistence of the North American continent prior to the time of Christopher Columbus by looking at maps made prior to his voyage, noticing the absence of any such continent, and concluding from its absence on these maps that it did not exist at that time. It is also like Einstein trying to validate his new theory of relativity based on the previous era's Newtonian assumptions. Einstein would have had to conclude that his theory was wrong because it is not to be found anywhere in Newtonian mechanics. Thankfully, the scientific world did not have to suffer from this self-contradictory methodology.

Inasmuch as the majority failed to look at the linguistic history of "person", failed to see the primary meaning of personhood as ontological (as a human being), failed to assume that human parents would conceive human beings, failed to await potential scientific confirmation of the humanity of the fetus, and failed to correct itself when indisputable scientific confirmation of a full human genome in a single-celled human zygote became known, could it have done anything on the legal front to avert its highly problematic declaration on personhood? They could have done as the court of Georgia did in Tucker v. Howard Carmichael & Sons, when it cited the Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England. Note that the Blackstone Commentaries makes recourse precisely to a common usage and ontological definition:

An infant in ventre sa mere, or in the mother's womb, is supposed in law to be born for many purposes. It is capable of having a legacy, or a surrender of a copyhold estate, made to it. It may have a guardian assigned to it; and it is enabled to have an estate limited to its use, and to take afterwards by such limitation, as if it were then actually born.

If the majority had followed the example of the Blackstone Commentaries, the Georgia court in Tucker v. Howard Carmichael & Sons, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Raleigh Fitkin-Paul Morgan Memorial Hospital v. Anderson, the District of Columbia district court in Simmons v. Howard University, and the Nevada Supreme Court in Weaks v. Mounter in turning to a common and ontological definition of personhood (instead of irrationally trying to find a legal definition from case precedents that had not yet considered the question), it would have come up with a very different definition of personhood – one that did not break with either the common law or state supreme court precedent; one which did not introduce a spurious distinction between ontological personhood and legal personhood (based on a spurious distinction between "person" and "human being"); one that did not rush into an egregious violation of the principle of nonmaleficence through the arbitrary use of that spurious distinction; one that was legally and ethically responsible. The majority would have decided that "persons" are human beings, and that human fetuses are persons because they are human beings, which can be known by the fact that they are beings of human origin and can now be seen to have a full human genome irreducible to either one of his parents. It would have concluded in Roe v. Wade that the appellant's case collapsed, using its own reasoning that "if this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment."

Can "person" be defined objectively? Recall from Principle 3 that adding criteria beyond the one objective criterion of "a being of human origin with a full human genome" is arbitrary. Thus, for example, we should not add "fully actualized" to the one objective criterion "being of human origin with a full human genome", because that addition is quite arbitrary (subjective). Does "fully actualized" mean a third-trimester fetus? A one-year-old infant? A ten-year-old child? An accomplished adult? As the age of "fully actualized" increases, do all of the less-actualized human beings suddenly cease to be "persons"?

We see not only problems with these additional criteria in the area of objectivity, but we also see it with respect to the principle of nonmaleficence. For example, if one tries to add a criterion such as "fully actualized" to the criterion of "a being of human origin with a full human genome", one would not only leave open the door for infanticide, but also the possibility of killing adolescents and even young adults (who may not have achieved full actualization). Inasmuch as one opens the door to additional harm by adding an arbitrary (subjective) criterion to the one objective criterion, then the addition of this arbitrary criterion violates the principle of nonmaleficence.

From the above, it can be seen that any proper consideration of personhood must begin with an objective criterion for a human being (namely, "a being of human origin with a full human genome"). This objective criterion for a human being is precisely what is meant by "ontological personhood", which must be the starting point for any proper consideration of ethical and legal personhood. Once it is established that a particular being is a human being, then it is established that the being has ontological personhood. Once ontological personhood is established, then ethical personhood follows. Ethical personhood simply means applying the principle of nonmaleficence (the most fundamental standard of ethics) to an ontological person (that is, to a human being). When we recognize the ethical personhood of a human being, we must recognize its legal personhood, because the law cannot undermine its most fundamental ethical standard (the principle of nonmaleficence) without undermining itself.

The immensely troubling dimension of the majority's rationale in Roe v.Wade is that it has now set within U.S. Supreme Court precedent its spurious distinction between ontological and legal personhood and sanctioned its irrational attempt to justify the nonpresence of personhood on the basis of case precedents that had not considered the question.

Legal personhood is not defined into existence by lawyers; it exists in the intrinsic worth of existing human beings. When one separates legal personhood from ontological personhood, abuses always follow because one has to be a certain kind of human life in order to qualify for protection under the law. But every qualification is a form of exclusion and marginalization of some minority, which is an unnecessary harm. History is replete with examples of how this was done to Indians, black people, Jews, Gypsies, and all the victims of euthanasia (based on diminished capacity). It has now been done again using the same logic in the Roe v. Wade decision.

The above long string of logical errors leading to the sanctioning of a gross violation of the principle of nonmaleficence must give us pause. Could intelligent people really have done this without some degree of awareness of (and culpability for) its problematic character? Didn't they even have a hunch that something might be seriously wrong? The only way of redressing this wrong is to overturn the decision upon which it is based. This alone will restore the principle of nonmaleficence in our culture.

The Intrinsic Value of Persons

At this point, you may have surmised that the uncompromisable nature of the principle of nonmaleficence is grounded in the presumption that human beings have very special inherent or intrinsic value – and in the minds of many philosophers, transcendent value. Thus, human beings cannot be treated like mere inanimate objects or even like nonhuman animals. There is something about human beings that merits uncompromisable special protection, which does not allow for exceptions.

Some materialists might suggest that this specialness is completely unwarranted because, in their opinion,' human beings are nothing more than a collection of material parts, and those material parts, in turn, are composed of other atomic and subatomic material parts. So why treat humans any better than any other material entity? Why can't we treat human beings like rocks, plants, or bugs? As will be explained below, most of us (from the most to the least technically trained) have had an awareness of being more than the sum of our material parts. This awareness is not restricted to religiously or spiritually inclined people, nor to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle; it pervades the common sense of virtually every human being.

Before delving into a more technical explanation of the above, we should remember that it is no different to say that "persons have intrinsic value" as to say that "human beings have intrinsic value". It is necessary to do so in order to (1) ground the definition of personhood in objective evidence (Principle 3) and (2) prevent serious violations of the principle of nonmaleficence (Principle 4). Thus, if human beings have intrinsic (and even transcendent) value, so also do persons.

So why do philosophers, scientists, and people of common sense assert that human beings have such a special value? The answer lies in several interrelated observations, which will be discussed below. These observations are present in the works of many philosophers and scientists, beginning with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, moving through Saint Augustine, Maimonides, Averroes, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suarez, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, John Henry Newman, and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (e.g., Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Jacques Maritain, Henri Bergson, Emerich Coreth, Bernard Lonergan, and many others). This idea is also central to the works of many prominent physicists and biologists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Two examples of this will suffice to make our point. The first comes from the great physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, who observed, after detailing the equations of quantum physics and relativity physics:

We all know that there are regions of the human Spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfillment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born within our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed. Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead and the purpose surging in our nature responds.

The eminent geneticist Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, expresses a similar insight:

As the director of the Human Genome Project, I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God's language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God's plan. . . . Can you both pursue an understanding of how life works using the tools of genetics and molecular biology, and worship a creator God? Aren't evolution and faith in God incompatible? Can a scientist believe in miracles like the resurrection? Actually, I find no conflict here, and neither apparently do the 40 percent of working scientists who claim to be believers. . . . I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.

If the human genome can be viewed as the language of God, then human beings can be viewed as the consummate expression of that language, and it is not unwarranted to say, from a scientific and faith perspective, that human beings are made in the image of God. As expressed in the Book of Genesis, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (1:27; RSV, 2nd ed.).

So what is the philosophical and scientific origin of this belief in the specialness (and transcendence) of human beings? It is predominantly grounded in a longstanding observation about nonhuman animals, which continues to be verified in recent empirical investigations. Bernard Lonergan expresses it as follows:

[I]t is only when [animals'] functioning is disturbed that they enter into consciousness. Indeed, not only is a large part of animal living nonconscious, but the conscious part itself is intermittent. Animals sleep. It is as though the full-time business of living called forth consciousness as a part-time employee, occasionally to meet problems of malfunctioning, but regularly to deal rapidly, effectively, and economically with the external situations in which sustenance is to be won and into which offspring are to be born .... When the object fails to stimulate, the subject is indifferent; and when nonconscious vital process has no need of outer objects, the subject dozes and falls asleep.

This might be summarized quite simply as follows. When animals run out of biological opportunities and dangers, they fall asleep. When you stop feeding your dog, or giving it affection and attention (biological opportunities), and introduce no biological dangers (such as a predator) into its sensorial purview, it will invariably and inevitably fall asleep.

In stark contrast to this, when human beings run out of biological opportunities and dangers, they frequently ask questions, seek purpose or meaning in life, contemplate beauty, think about the goodness (or imperfections) of their beloveds, think about unfairness or injustice and how to make their situation or the world better, and even think about mathematics, physics, philosophy, and theology – for their own sake. When human beings run out of biological opportunities and dangers, they generally do not fall asleep; they engage in what Plato and his followers (the Neoplatonists) called "transcendental activities". These activities reveal the specialness of human beings, which makes them deserving of special consideration.

The Neoplatonists identified five areas of transcendental activity (termed "the five transcendentals"): the awareness of and desire for Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being. They are called "transcendental" because they all seem to have a limitless horizon, and human beings seem to be aware of their limitless possibilities and seem to desire their perfect (limitless) fulfillment. Thus, in the view of many philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, human beings seem to have an awareness of and desire for perfect and unconditional Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being. (A more detailed explanation of these five transcendental desires is given in the appendix of this book.)

Since these five transcendentals are necessarily beyond all algorithmically finite structures (which determine all physical realities and laws constituting subatomic particles, molecules, cells, and complex organic structures such as a brain), many philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists have held that human beings are more than mere matter. Human beings seem to have a transmaterial or spiritual power or dimension that enables them to move beyond every algorithmically finite structure (physical structure) and to be creative in ways that defy the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

Interestingly, this claim is corroborated in the domain of mathematics by Kurt Gödel (in the famous theorem named after him). He anticipated the limits of artificial intelligence that are defied by human intelligence on a regular basis. Essentially, Gödel showed that there will always be unprovable propositions within any set of axiomatic statements in mathematics. Human beings are able not only to show that consistent, unprovable statements exist, but also to prove that they are consistent by making recourse to axioms beyond those used to generate these statements. Artificial intelligence is incapable of doing this. This reveals that human thinking is not based on a set of prescribed axioms, rules, or programs, and is, by nature, beyond such prescribed rules and programs.

As noted in the appendix of this book, the evidence of the transmaterial (spiritual) dimension of human beings is quite significant. If one is to deny this transmaterial dimension, one will simply have to ignore the stark differences between animal and human consciousness; to ignore human awareness of the limitless horizons of Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being; to ignore the remarkable properties of human creativity explicated by Gödel; and to ignore the natural human capacity to seek a transcendent God. If one feels uncertain about writing off this body of evidence, then it is unjustifiable to rush into materialistic reductionism, naive identifications of animal and human intelligence, and a denial of the human capacity for self-transcendence. But if one stops short of these simplistic positions, one remains open to the specialness of human beings, and therefore open to their special value. The principle of nonmaleficence requires that if we are uncertain about whether transmaterial and self-transcendent qualities exist in human beings, we must presume that these qualities are present, for failure to do so will entail a serious violation of the foundation of all ethics and law.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. "Introduction & Pinciples of Ethics." an excerpt from Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011): xi-xii, 1-3, 20-39.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press.

The Author

Spitzer73spitzer7Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. is President of the Magis Center of Faith and Reason and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. He is the author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, as well as videos such as Suffering and the God of Love, and Healing the Culture.

Copyright © 2011 Ignatius Press

Subscribe to our Weekly Update

* indicates required