Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
How Personalism Can Help in Answering Our Vital Questions
Jonas Norgaard Mortensen’s book is very welcome and, in a sense, constitutes a sign of our troubled times. The world of conspicuous consumption and individualistically-oriented societies seems to exhaust its last resources and puts civilisation on the verge of a crisis. We need to undergo a change of perception of ourselves as individuals and as societies in order to breathe into our lives the fresh air of optimism and hope. We do already have the necessary premises to do that in our European culture, but the question is how to use them for that noble end. Or, more generally, how should we renew our commitment to the European heritage. There may be many ways to achieve this breakthrough and one of them is presented in Mortensen’s book. His ideas concern what constitutes the human person and personalism, and these ideas are clearly proposals for a new approach to understanding our European societies and ourselves. The title of the book The Common Good is intriguing and implies a number of corollaries. The person in his or her nature is a kind of common good and the society of persons amounts to a good, as well. At any rate, we have an obligation to care about and promote this multifaceted common good that is the person him or herself.
Mortensen encourages us to return to an understanding of ourselves as unique individuals, that is, persons who are endowed with a bodily dimension, as well as a rich spiritual or mental life, and who are connected to each other in very fundamental ways in a community of persons. When we study this proposal in-depth, we realize that it is attractive, but at the same time difficult. What is going on in Europe, and in the Western World right now, proves that such a personalistic turn is not going to happen by itself, but requires mutual cooperation.
Mortensen presents personalism as a social movement rather than a version of philosophy. Presumably, this is why he points to such various figures as Martin Buber, Karol Wojtyla, Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King in his examples. In a sense, this is a prudent move, especially for readers coming from various walks of life. Presenting personalism as a social movement suggests that personalism is not only a subject for scholars and philosophers, but can be of interest to a wider audience.
Strictly speaking, there are many versions of personalism and it would be good to disentangle them. Such a strategy would be enriching; it can demonstrate that although the phenomenon of the person is commonly acknowledged as the starting point by many thinkers (personalists), it has various developments and interpretations. For instance, James Beauregard points to such personalisms as communitarian, dialogical, American, Hindu, British, Islamic, classical and neo-personalism.1 Although they differ between each other in many respects, they also contribute something new to personalism as such. They shed unique light on the complexity of ideas associated with the reality of the person. Mortensen has a gift for putting his ideas in a clear and straightforward way. I believe that he will be able to present these versions of personalism in an attractive way, maybe writing a separate chapter in a new edition of The Common Good.
Moreover, it would be interesting to rearrange the structure of the book so as to distinguish personalists who have worked out the theory of personhood from those who have enacted personalistic ideas into their social, religious and political activities. This kind of modification would make evident some natural divisions and mutual relationships among personalists. It would show, on the one hand, that there is a group of personalists who act on the intuition of what it means to be a person, and there is another group who claim to know how to describe the reality of the person. In many situations, one of these groups can bring inspiration to the other. If the author is unwilling to introduce such a modification, it would be welcome, at least, to provide the book with clarifying notices of this kind.
In a short passage, Mortensen undertakes an analysis of the relevance of personal dignity in healthcare. He rightly observes that abortion and selection of children goes against a special standing of the person. But there is much more to discuss in this respect. Many bioethical topics are worthy of being undertaken here – for instance, cloning, experiments on embryos, so-called human enhancement, or euthanasia. Each of these presents challenges to human dignity and it would be enriching to flesh out this section or even create a separate chapter dedicated to personalist bioethics. In this way, the book would bridge general personalist ideas and its practical applications to our everyday life.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that such attempts will be difficult. The more we want to apply the concept of the person to specific ethical issues, the more controversial personalism becomes. On the general level, many people agree with and stress the importance of personal dignity and its relevance for the community as such. But such unanimity is usually lost when we attempt to draw practical conclusions from these more abstract theses. However, the ability to translate general personalist beliefs into practice is vital, and when considering practical issues, personalism indeed reveals its newness and uniqueness when compared to existentialism and collectivism.
Similar practical applications should be made with respect to environmental issues. For instance, the relationship between the human person and apes should perhaps be attended to. Many environmental philosophers claim that some of primates should be considered as ‘border persons’ or ‘mammal persons'. If such claims are credible, then Mortensen should consider how to apply the notion of dignity to human persons and, at the same time, not to downgrade the value of these animals. Or, maybe he might attempt to answer the question: are non-human animals persons indeed endowed with dignity as well, or should they be? Additionally, if a strong relationship between personhood and rights is sustained, then border persons possess some rights too. Hence, the relationship between the human person’s rights and the rights of higher non-human animals must be explained, or, at least, it must be shown that these rights are not in collision. I think that it is quite essential to demonstrate that personalism does not separate us from the rest of the natural world and it does not amount to so-called ‘speciesism.’2
The Common Good is a valuable work that helps us to realize that within European cultures, we have enough resources to develop our European and Christian identity. Instead of denying our heritage, we should get to know it better and make it a new starting point for our future advances. Personalism is not a vicious ideology restricting or weakening our vital energies. Rather, it is a worldview possessing many faces, and hence, creating a good place for human development. The person is a cornerstone of personalism. Acknowledging his or her complexity, uniqueness, and value is important, but at the same time, it is demanding. In the first place, we must teach ourselves to see the person in every human being and treat him or her accordingly.
The critical remarks about the book are not meant to play down its content or role. Rather, they are to show that the topic is very inspiring and that readers can broaden their perspectives on the human being by considering personalistic ideas. These remarks serve as an invitation to improve the book because it can serve as an important popular manual for university students and its educational role in in society can become even more powerful. The book has many positive aspects. It is written in clear English, which is easily accessible to readers for whom English is not a mother tongue. What is also very helpful are short autobiographies of personalists: these elucidate how personalism can be enacted in lives of real, flesh and blood people. Also, Mortensen’s short summaries of essential personalistic topics make The Common Good into a very good reference book. I would not hesitate to recommend this work as a manual for undergraduate students, as well as an excellent resource of ideas for various discussion groups. Also, journalists, social activists and politicians should welcome the book and would find use in reflecting on its content.