Purpose, Humanity, and the Good Life


How we define humanity and its essential nature has a great deal of influence on how we think about how we ought to act. This month, our question is as follows: How should we understand human nature? Put another way, who are we? 


What is Humanity? What is Human Nature? The Catholic View.


Dr. Luke Murray

Berkel Chair of Theology,

Institute for Faith and Culture

Lawrence, Kansas.


What are we? What is human nature? Are we different from other animals? From trees? How we answer the question of our identity shapes almost every other question we can ask. For example, if we believe that human beings are merely the collection of different chemicals and physical processes put together by random chance, then this influences how we answer other questions such as the purpose of our job, our relationship with our partner or spouse, or even the possibility of our minds to know reality at all. My point is that this question is important; it is fundamental to our very existence. It’s not one that should go unanswered or, more likely, postponed indefinitely with distractions provided by our materialistic and capitalistic society.

Traditional Christian or Catholic teaching answers this question by talking about faith and reason. First, in regards to reason, the Church believes that there is such a thing as a human nature and that it is knowable by reason; that is, we can know it by studying human beings as one would study other animals in the natural sciences, that is by observing them in their “natural habitat” so to speak. The Catholic Church still believes that Aristotle’s common sense approach is the best or most accurate description of human nature since it is grounded in our everyday experience. Therefore, unlike much of contemporary philosophy, the Catholic Church is ‘pre-modern’ in its view that natures do exist and can be known. Since another friend will be discussing Aristotle in more detail, I will only say here that the Church agrees that humanity is a “rational animal”.

What makes the Christian answer to this question unique, is that the Church proclaims that God exists and has revealed himself to human beings. While she acknowledges that God can reveal himself through peoples’ interior conscience or spirit, and also that the different religions throughout history may contain genuine (if not incomplete) truths about God, she believes that God has most perfectly revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ, a man who lived two thousand years ago in Palestine and claimed to be God. According to his followers and their successors,  the core of his message was that human beings are not merely more evolved apes who live only to pass on their genetic material, but are “sons and daughters of God” who are called to share in God’s own divine life, both here on earth, and more fully in heaven after death. The technical phrase that the Church used to describe human nature was that it was made in the “image and likeness” of God, a phrase that primarily refers to our abilities to know and to love; that is, to our intellect and free will. Since traditional Christianity holds that God is a Trinity, (or a communion of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), all people are called to fulfill their human nature by imitating the perfect love of God by loving all people, regardless of their race, religion, socio-economic status, or any other label one might try to apply to others; all are children of God and called to the same family of God. When Christians talk about “sin” they are essentially talking about humanity’s failure to fulfill their nature and vocation as sons and daughters of God.

One point that distinguishes the Catholic view from other religions and even from many other Christian denominations is that Catholicism has great faith in the power of human reason and especially in the law of non-contradiction. In other words, the Church holds that what we can know to be true with our God-given reason, cannot contradict a genuine revelation or message from God since God cannot contradict himself. Truth is truth. If something we know with reason appears to contradict something held to be revealed by God, then there is a problem. Either a mistake was made with our reason, or else a particular revelation or message was not truly from God, or at least it was improperly interpreted. Therefore, the Church holds that while Aristotle was right about humanity being a ‘rational animal’, she holds that there is more to the story - so to speak - about the original calling and destiny of the human person. Faith should not contradict or go against reason, but it provides additional, complementary, and perfecting information about our nature that goes beyond what science or reason can discover.

“One point that distinguishes the Catholic view from other religions and even from many other Christian denominations is that Catholicism has great faith in the power of human reason and especially in the law of non-contradiction.”
— Dr. Luke Murray

To conclude, the foundation of the Catholic or the traditional Christian worldview is that God created human beings with a specific nature, a nature that shares bodily characteristics with other animals, but that also includes a unique ‘spiritual nature’, a nature that allows us to know the truth and to love others. She believes that human nature is knowable with reason and that faith provides us with a higher source of knowledge about our ultimate destiny, a destiny that is not to become a decomposing corpse but is to share in the eternal life of God’s own family.

Kevin Lee

The Oread Center

Director of OC Forum

Lawrence, Kansas


Within the Confessional Reformed tradition of the one Christian faith, there is no single answer to the question of humanity’s nature.  The proposal I offer here is in keeping with developments in Confessional Reformed theological anthropology since the Post-War era and contains a strong emphasis on creatureliness and relatedness.  It is important to note that these developments in theological anthropology are inextricably bound up in the ongoing task of reconfiguring a Reformed doctrine of God in light of Karl Barth’s theological project and his emphasis on God’s Aseity and inner Trinitarian life.  One of the effects of Barth’s impact is the existence of multiple points of resonance between the proposal offered here and Post-Liberal Theology’s developments in theological anthropology as well as in the developments in philosophical anthropology of 20th Century Continental Philosophy, most notably in Phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics, and Post-Structuralism.  Lastly, in something of an ironic twist, these Post-Barthian developments in the doctrine of God and the corresponding anthropology have allowed Reformed thinkers to wade into the waters of ontology, however cautiously, and as a result Reformed thought is more conversant with natural theology and natural philosophy, particularly as they provide anthropological insight and a teleological emphasis in ethics and human formation.

What is a human?

A human is fundamentally a creature and bears the same determinative marks of creatureliness as shared by all creatures.  Regardless of the manner in which I will discuss the determinative marks of “humanity as humanity” and therefore as a distinct type of creature, a human is at all times and under all situations a creature.  Of particular importance to my proposal is the idea of relatedness itself as the determinative mark of creatureliness.  While I hope to avoid collapsing all marks of creatureliness into relatedness, it is essential to this proposal that all other creaturely aspects be viewed as they relate back to the reality that to be a creature is to necessarily be in a state of relatedness if even only to the Ground of the creature’s existence.  Perhaps less theologically and more philosophically to the point, to be is relatedness.  I intend to develop the connections between God’s self-existence (His Aseity) and anthropological notions of creatureliness with their corresponding stress on finitude and relatedness.

While fundamentally a creature, humans are a particular type of creature and relate to all that is as human creatures.  This proposal commends a view humanity sometimes referred to as creaturely personhood due to the fact that an understanding of creaturehood is not antithetical to accepted understandings of personhood, but in reality, must be held in an unresolved tension in order to grasp a fuller understanding of what humans are.  While it might be tempting to imagine creatureliness and personhood as perfectly analogous to the Mind/Body debates of the Western philosophical tradition, that would be a mistake.  Though embodiment and materiality are important aspects of creaturely existence, we should not reduce our understanding of creatureliness to material alone.  In this proposal, I maintain that personhood designates the particular set of capacities, whether potential or actualized, that belong to human creatures alone (so far as we can tell) and that we typically think of in terms of Mind or Soul.  Current Reformed anthropology resists essentializing one of these capacities and insists on holding them in tension with one another, believing that together these constitute the marks of humanity. 

“While it might be tempting to imagine creatureliness and personhood as perfectly analogous to the Mind/Body debates of the Western philosophical tradition, that would be a mistake.”
— Kevin Lee

Consistent with much Reformed theology today, this proposal maintains that the capacities determinative of human personhood are not synonymous with the image of God and this image should not be understood as an essence or mark that an individual person possesses.  Rather, the image of God is understood as an ethical call, something human persons enact in the quality of their relating to both God and all that is not God, particularly within the order of creation.  Human persons, therefore, image God faithfully when they relate rightly to both God and all that God has created.  Their capacities are seen therefore as the proper means by which they image God in their relating.  In this way Reformed anthropology maintains that the image of God entails the dynamic interplay between relatedness and our distinctly human capacities, refusing to collapse the image into one or the other. 

One of the debates within current Reformed anthropology is whether or not human creatureliness-as-relatedness has its ground in God as the One Who has life within Himself or in God’s inner Trinitarian life.  I maintain that both realities are at play and provide different, but related, insights into how we think about what it means to be human.

Mike Otteson

University of Kansas – PhD Candidate

Co-Founder of Lawrence Talks

Lawrence, Kansas

Aristotle was the one of the great taxonomists in world history.  He had a great deal of confidence in the ability of the human mind to “divide nature at its joints” or to classify and categorizes the various substances in the world according to their natural kinds.  Aristotle’s metaphysics (his theory about what exists in the universe) was based on his notion of causal powers.  That is, he classifies the various entities in the world based on their distinctive capacities to do certain things.  These basic capacities were internal to various substances in the world.  For instance, he defined fire as the kind of physical entity that innately (or naturally) rose in space (as opposed to earth, which went down).  Thus, Aristotle defined something’s “nature” or essence was based on what it did when left to its own devices. 

It is thus unsurprising that Aristotle looks for a causal power when giving his account of human nature.  He looks for a capacity or activity that is unique and essential to human beings.  As such, he gives a basic overview of the kinds of capacities that human beings have.  He considers three (broad) powers: growth, sense perception, and rationality.  He rules out growth because we share that with plants, and sense perception because we share that with animals.  Thus, it is the ability to reason that defines what it means to be human.  Because he defines human beings by what they do (or have the potential to do), he calls rationality our proper function. 

This serves as the basis for his account of ethics and politics.  He argues that insofar as something has an internal or innate function, its good or well-being will be found in the performance of that proper function.  More precisely, its good involves performing its function well.  This then is what it means to be happy.  As such, he believed that human beings needed to acquire qualities or characteristics that enabled them to consistently be rational.  He calls these qualities virtues.  Ethics (and politics), according to Aristotle, is the science or study of how to help people engage in their characteristic activity well (or in other words, to be happy) in accordance with virtues.  His list of virtues includes (but is not limited to) such courage, generosity, moderation, modesty, and justice. 

“It is thus critical that we be able to establish functional communities where it is possible to live a good life.  Qualities that allow us to get along or help other people will thus be central to the formation of good communities.”
— Mike Otteson

It may at first glance be unclear what a quality like courage or moderation has to do with reasoning well.  However, Aristotle believes that we need to be well-regulated individuals in order to be happy or sustain any sort of consistent activity.  It is thus important to moderate our passions and emotions so that they don’t get in the way of our ability to reason.  Furthermore, human beings are social organisms that cannot live without other human beings.  It is thus critical that we be able to establish functional communities where it is possible to live a good life.  Qualities that allow us to get along or help other people will thus be central to the formation of good communities.

Of course, we will need a more precise definition of what rationality is.  Aristotle believes that human beings reason in two ways.  One starts with a basic apprehension of first principles and uses the rules of logic and inference to come to true beliefs about the world.    For instance, if you start with a good deal of sense perception and empirical observation (the first principles of scientific observation), you might discover that protons have a positive charge (a truth about the world).  He called this kind of reason theoretical rationality or contemplation (theoreia).  There are of course many instances of contemplation, but the ones that discover the most foundational of truths will be the most important.  The second kind of rationality starts with certain practical first principles via the laws of inference causes us to act in a certain way.  For instance, if we know that it is good to be generous (a first principle from the perspective of ethics) and we see someone who needs money for a train ticket, we might give this person some of our change.  He called this kind of rationality practical rationality because it had to do with making decisions that make a good life possible.  It is responsive to particular circumstances and renders judgments about what the right thing to do in a particular situation is.

As we can see, Aristotle’s account of human nature informs his entire ethical framework. It establishes what human beings are, what kinds of activities they should engage in, and explains what steps we must take to engage in these activities.

David Tamez

University of Kansas - Graduate Student in Philosophy

Editor-in-Chief of Lawrence Talks

Lawrence, Kansas

For the sake of argument and discussion, I will outline a view that is considered to be antithetical to the views outlined by my colleagues. All in all, my own views are not all that different from what I outline here. The view I am about to discuss can be best understood as a consolidation of views emblematic of modern and post-modern philosophies. In terms of defining humanity, these philosophies rely on evolutionary theory as giving us a picture of human nature. As such, humanity is considered one of the many participants and products of evolutionary processes. The role of God is either denied or simply suspended. Many have chosen to claim that evolution and science in general demonstrates that God does not exist or is not needed to tell the story of human existence. How, it may be asked, do we get freedom and autonomy from this picture? The worry, in short, appears to be that God endowed humanity with freedom and autonomy to either be virtuous or vicious  - to be pious observers of God’s laws or sinners. Two routes can be taken. In the first, philosophers have subscribed to a sort of materialism. Materialism denies that we have the sort of freedom we often speak  of - namely that we could have done or chosen otherwise. Further, our actions come at the end of material, and not purely mental (or spiritual), mechanisms. Then, there are compatibalist accounts of human agency and freedom. In short, compatibilists hold that we rarely ever have libertarian like freedom, but nor are completely limited or are actions products of material mechanisms. This might make sense of the intuition that the amount of blame or responsibility an agent deserves depends on the factors that compelled her to act the way she did. 

“The person, according to many post-modern ideologies, is a mere construct and a useful gestalt for living our lives. In reality, however, there is no soul or unified self that we can be said to have diverted from or remained consistent with over time or from moment to moment.”
— David Tamez

The person, according to many post-modern ideologies, is a mere construct and a useful gestalt for living our lives. In reality, however, there is no soul or unified self that we can be said to have diverted from or remained consistent with over time or from moment to moment. This is to say, the self is a useful construct that we apply to the world for merely instrumental reasons. It certainly helps, when having a conversation, directing one’s life, making choices, to perceive the myriad of our preferences of beliefs as coming from a singular person. As Hume notes, however, all that we can say exists is a bundle of ideas or impressions. Further, we can determine whether someone is the same person by keeping track of a sort of psychological continuity - memory. 

Truth, in this light, is limited to matters of fact discovered by scientific methodology. Concerns for ethics, justice, and politics are reduced to instrumentalist and relativistic interpretations. All we can really know about these words is that societies and cultures tend to differ. And the right sort of interpretation of ethics, justice, and politics is one that proves most instrumental for that group or culture. Happiness, according to this picture, can be achieved via consequentialist rationalization. This might involve taking stock of our preferences and beliefs and then determining which of the options available to us in given contexts would maximize our utility. Notice, however, this does not necessarily preclude perfectionist (virtue ethics) positions espoused by Aristotelians or the religiously inclined. On this picture, is best understood as a process involving preferences and beliefs as inputs and utility (however defined) as an output. The greater utility we accrue over time, the happier we (conceivably) should be. We are limited to this sort of means and ends approach to ethics, justice, and politics, because we lack a definitive matter of fact discovery of their absolute truth.

Under this general, oppositional account, less faith is had in the powers of reason. Sure, it may our be our distinguishing feature separating us from non-human animals. But, it has often failed to get us truth beyond mathematics and causation, nor has it really contributed to our happiness beyond being an instrument of matching beliefs and preferences to the right ends.   

We encourage readers, especially those in the Lawrence community, to respond the accounts given here. You can either ask questions of the panel, provide a response to the accounts, or offer your own account (or all three). Your comments will serve as launch points for our March 27th discussion at the Lawrence Public Library. We hope many of you can make it.