Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 105, Issue 2, pp 197–219

Personalist Business Ethics and Humanistic Management: Insights from Jacques Maritain


    • Department of Management, School of Business AdministrationUniversity of Puerto Rico

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0959-x

Cite this article as:
Acevedo, A. J Bus Ethics (2012) 105: 197. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-0959-x


The integration of personalism into business ethics has been recently studied. Research has also been conducted on humanistic management approaches. The conceptual relationship between personalism and humanism, however, has not been fully addressed. This article furthers that research by arguing that a true humanistic management is personalistic. Moreover, it claims that personalism is promising as a sound philosophical foundation for business ethics. Insights from Jacques Maritain’s work are discussed in support of these conclusions. Of particular interest is his distinction between human person and individual based on a realistic metaphysics that, in turn, grounds human dignity and the natural law as the philosophical basis for human rights, personal virtues, and a common good defined in terms of properly human ends. Although Maritain is widely regarded as one of the foremost twentieth century personalist philosophers, his contribution has not been sufficiently considered in the business ethics and humanistic management literature. Important implications of Maritainian personalism for business ethics as philosophical study and as practical professional pursuit are discussed.


Business ethicsCommon goodHuman rightsHumanism and humanistic managementMaritain, JacquesMoral and ethical aspectsNatural lawPersonalismPhilosophyVirtue


Personalism has been recognized as a proper philosophical foundation for economics (e.g., Finn 2003; Grabill 2003; O’Boyle 2003; Zúñiga 2001). Research on its integration into business ethics and humanistic management has also been conducted (e.g., Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Melé 2003, 2005, 2009c; Whetstone 2002, 2003). The conceptual relationship between personalism and humanism, however, has not been fully addressed. The result has been two strands of research that, although intricately related, have yet to be integrated.

This article furthers the ongoing research on the integration of personalism into business ethics and humanistic management. It argues that a true humanistic management is inherently personalistic, and that personalism is promising as a sound philosophical foundation for business ethics. Insights from Jacques Maritain’s work are discussed in support of these conclusions. Specially emphasized is his distinction between human person and individual based on a realistic metaphysics that, in turn, grounds human dignity and the natural law as the philosophical basis for human rights, personal virtues, and a common good defined in terms of properly human ends. Although widely regarded as one of the foremost twentieth century personalist philosophers, Maritain’s work has been largely overlooked in the business ethics literature.1 This article also seeks to fill this void.

This essay first reviews major work on the topic of humanism and personalism in the business ethics and humanistic management literature and draws the conceptual relationship between both terms. From the overview and discussion of nonpersonalistic and of Maritainian personalistic approaches to humanism follows the conclusion that a true, integral, humanism is personalistic. Consequently, it is argued, a true humanistic management is personalistic. Implications of Maritainian personalism for business ethics as philosophical study and as practical professional pursuit, suggesting areas for future research, are then discussed. Among its philosophical implications, it is shown to provide a cogent rationale for natural law ethics, virtue ethics, and the concept of the common good. In addition, some of its main practical implications for the managerial profession, business education, and the ethical character and conduct of markets, firms, and businesspersons are briefly explored.

Humanism in Business Ethics and Management

Although a comprehensive review of the research on humanism and its history is beyond the scope of this article,2 this section is an overview of some of the most influential humanistic approaches in business and management in the business ethics literature, with emphasis on its salient features. It contrasts nonpersonalistic and personalistic approaches to humanism, stresses the conceptual relationship between humanism and personalism, and identifies a meaningful definition of humanistic management. It also briefly discusses nonpersonalistic approaches to humanism.

Humanism: An Introduction

Since humanism “is usually conceived as an outlook emphasizing common human needs and is concerned with human characteristics” (Melé 2003, p. 78), a “common concern for humanity” underlies all of its trends (Melé 2009a, p. 127). On its own, however, this understanding of the term is equivocal, and, thus, open to many meanings and interpretations. Consequently, in order to be conceptually meaningful, humanism must be specified (e.g., Melé 2003, pp. 78, 86). Of particular significance is, accordingly, the classification based on different approaches to what a human beingis—a subject, an individual, or a person (Puel 1999). Those thinkers who consider human beings as subjects (e.g., René Descartes, Immanuel Kant), or as individuals (e.g., Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, Abraham Maslow), espouse what may be referred to as a nonpersonalistic humanism3; those who consider them as persons, a personalistic humanism. This three-way classification is helpful for underlining the main distinctions between these approaches. However, nonpersonalistic views, echoing the rationalism–empiricism (and the related idealism–materialism) debates of old, are really two sides of the same human being as individual coin: on one side, the individual as radical subjectivity (i.e., radical autonomy and self-consciousness, sole intellect, pure rationality, a priori knowledge) and, on the other, the individual of experience (i.e., particular interests, needs, and drives; self-interest, utility, a posteriori knowledge). In addition, whereas some trends of nonpersonalistic humanism advocate a concern for an abstract humanity (e.g., Comte’s positivism), personalistic humanism “is not abstract but concrete. Humanism is not humanity in general, but men and women in flesh and blood” (Puel 1999, p. 85). The next section’s discussion of Jacques Maritain’s distinction between the human being as individual and as person will further elucidate these introductory observations.

Approaching human beings as subjects disregards their spiritual and physical dimensions and discounts the realistic and teleological notions of human nature, and the sense of tradition (Puel 1999). In the Kantian radically autonomous subject, for example, a sense of duty lends moral value to the right act, rather than virtuous personal character. “For, as an end in himself, he [man] is destined to be legislative in the realm of ends, free from all laws of nature and obedient only to those which he himself gives” (Kant 1785/1959, p. 54). Kantian deontology will be revisited from a Maritainian personalism standpoint in the Implications section.

On the other hand, if human beings are considered solely or primarily as individuals, the common ground upon which societies and organizations are built and conflicts of interests negotiated, arbitrated, and resolved is undermined (Puel 1999). Moreover, these accounts—whether focusing on the individual or on intraindividual properties (e.g., motivations, needs, drives)—do not address what the human being is or ought to be. Like their idealistic or rationalistic counterparts, these usually empiricist or pragmatic humanistic approaches offer partial accounts of the human condition. Many popular humanistic management techniques have, however, followed this nonpersonalistic path.

Humanistic Management and Nonpersonalism

Humanistic management has been the subject of recent research interest in the business ethics field. The Journal of Business Ethics, for instance, has dedicated some issues (e.g., volumes 78 (March 2008), 88 (September 2009), and 99 (March 2011)) to papers presented in the bi-annual IESE International Symposium on Ethics, Business and Society, whose main topic has been humanistic management. The very theme of its latest (16th) edition, “Facing the crisis: Towards a new humanistic synthesis for business”,4 highlights the fact that humanism and humanistic management are increasingly being studied in the quest for better foundations upon which to build tomorrow’s businesses and for effective ways to deal with an ailing economy (Melé et al. 2011; see also, Pirson and Turnbull 2011; Spitzeck 2011).

Like humanism, humanisticmanagement has also been viewed in various ways (Melé 2003, 2009a). Interpreted broadly, as that management concerned with humanity or its characteristics, humanisticmanagement would include virtually any managerial approach or technique—even scientific management (e.g., Frederick W. Taylor, Henry Ford) and reinforcement theory (e.g., B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism). After all, these were interested in human beings as individuals or their characteristics, if only in terms of their activity and response. Since vague and unspecified, however, this broad sense of humanisticmanagement need not detain us. Understanding the concept as “a management that emphasizes the human condition and is oriented to the development of human virtue, in all its forms, to its fullest extent” (Melé 2003, p. 79) or, in a similar vein, as “fundamentally a concept of management that upholds the unconditional human dignity of every woman and man within an economic context” (Spitzeck 2011, p. 51; see also, Whetstone 2002, pp. 388–389), is specially meaningful. Which approach to the human being—as subject, as individual, or as person—underlies this concept of humanisticmanagement and better grounds it ontologically, anthropologically, and ethically is one of the main questions addressed by this article.

After summarizing the history of the terms humanism and humanitas from Ancient Greece to modern times, Melé (2003) identified three approaches to humanistic management; namely: the human motivation approach of authors such as Mayo, Maslow, McGregor, and Herzberg, the organizational culture approach of Peters and Waterman, and Schein, among others, and the business as a “community of persons embedded with an organizational culture which fosters character” (p. 82, emphasis added; see also, Melé 2009a). Since the human being as individual perspective fundamentally underlies the first two, they are nonpersonalistic approaches to humanism. The third approximates the personalistic humanism to be reviewed in the next subsection.

As Melé (2003) points out, the focus of the humanmotivation approach was to “improve outcomes” rather than “investigating what a human being actually is both as an individual and as a social being” or the “specific contents of these concepts [e.g., individual development]” (p. 80, emphasis added). A recent related model is the “renewed Darwinian theory of human beings”, focused on individual drives (and their balance) and based on “neuroscience, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology” (Pirson and Lawrence 2010, p. 555). Although arguably “richer” because “culture is part of human life and organizational cultures have […] influence on the behavior of its members” (Melé 2003, p. 82), a human being as individual view also underlies most organizationalculture theories. Contractual (e.g., Donaldson 1982) and “network governance structures” (Pirson and Turnbull 2011), among other collaborative and governance techniques, are related approaches. Besides the “limits of the empirical research” supporting it, the organizationalculture approach is also outcomes-oriented and does not properly address normative concerns either, particularly in terms of “the fostering of character” (Melé 2003, p. 82). Efforts to address both humanmotivation and organizationalculture, such as positive organizational scholarship (Lopes et al.2009), also have an outcomes focus and tend to approach human beings as individuals.

Recent humanistic management trends try to address normative concerns by “applying” values (e.g., “values-based management”, Anderson 1997) or “leadership principles” (e.g., Peus and Frey 2009, pp. 267–274) to basically organizational culture approaches. The related “center of excellence cultures” approach (Peus and Frey 2009) integrates, besides Karl Popper’s, the thought of the rationalist philosophers Kant and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and thus also has human being as subject undercurrents. Social capital theories (e.g., Adler and Kwon 2002; Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998), drawing from sociology, economics, and political science, are another integrative attempt. Their particular definition of “social capital” (see, for example, Adler and Kwon’s review) determines each theory’s normative content and whether it approaches the human being either as individual or as subject.


Each of the nonpersonalist humanistic business and management trends mentioned would merit a detailed consideration which is, however, beyond the scope of this article. Moreover, only a selection of the most influential and representative ones have been outlined. At the risk of oversimplifying, though, some further general observations are necessary in order to better understand the conceptual relationship between humanism and personalism. This discussion will be resumed in the Implications section, which reviews some nonpersonalist (from the Maritainian personalism standpoint) humanistic normative approaches that have had major impact on business ethics, such as classic utilitarianism.

Insofar as the human motivation and organizational culture nonpersonalistic approaches share a concern for human beings or their characteristics, they are arguably better as foundations for business ethics and humanistic management than the homo economicus view5 (e.g., Giovanola 2009; Melé 2003, 2009a, b; Melé et al. 2011; O’Boyle 2003; Pirson and Lawrence 2010; Pirson and Turnbull 2011; Spitzeck 2011) and its offshoots, agency theory and shareholder theory (Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Grassl and Habisch 2011; Huehn 2008).6 Their “lack of both face validity and empirical support” (Ghoshal 2005, p. 81; see also, Bowie 1991) notwithstanding, economistic theories are still influential and thought to have contributed to the present financial crisis (e.g., Melé et al.2011; see also, Huehn 2008). Moreover, since the economistic view also shows a concern for the human being, if only as individual and from an economic rationality aspect at that, economism too may be called humanistic albeit nonpersonalistic. This point further underlines the ambiguity of the term humanism if not properly specified.

Yet, whether as autonomous reason (the human being as subject), or as creature of intraindividual needs and drives, or of individual experiences or cultural (organizational) inducements or influences (the human being as individual), neither nonpersonalistic view provides a complete and integrated account of the human being. Based on a separate—whether rationalistic or empiricist—or partial attribute of the human being, these approaches confound the human person with either the human subject, or individual (or intraindividual) properties. That more or higher drives or needs are considered acknowledges the complexity of human beings but neither defines their real nature nor philosophically grounds a cogent ethical system. However valuable their specific findings and positive their practical outcomes, they do not express an integral view of the human person.7 Either disconnected from external reality (the human being as radically autonomous subject), or disjointed internally (e.g., conflicting needs and drives) or socially (e.g., conflicting self-interests), the human being remains either pure intellect, or a bundle of particular interests, needs, and drives; firms and markets, summations of separate individuals and of individual organizational cultures, respectively.

Moreover, the nonpersonalistic approaches reviewed tend to stress human singularities over human commonalities, whether between organizational cultures, individuals or within these. They primarily address, and build upon, what makes human beings different rather than what the human person essentially and existentially is. In a related vein, the nonpersonalistic approaches reviewed fundamentally conceive human beings in terms of their ego or self (e.g., particular interests or desires), their limitations or deficiencies (e.g., needs), and thus their dependence, rather than in terms of their real being and freedom, their potentialities (virtualities), and perfectibility. In addition, the “application” of humanmotivation and organizationalculture techniques contribute to the view of managers “as a technical profession” (Melé 2009a, p. 131). This emphasis may in part explain the not uncommon approach to business ethics as a set of “tools” or “a code or a set of duties” to be ‘applied’ to particular moral ‘problems’ (Melé et al.2011, p. 3; Melé 2010), rather than as, in the business milieu, “a practical science that aims at procuring man’s unqualified good”, i.e., the “perfection of the [human] agent” (Maritain 1931/2005, p. 196) and the common good.

Furthermore, the nonpersonalist humanistic trends outlined, for the most part influenced by, or based upon, the special sciences (i.e., the natural and social sciences, such as biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, experimental and cultural anthropology, economics), have a fundamentally explanatory (and often predictive) aim; their success is determined accordingly (e.g., Alzola 2011; Trevino and Weaver 1994). As previously pointed out, they are primarily focused on (preferably measurable or observable) outcomes. Besides productivity, another outcome often sought is positive individual ‘feelings’ such as “better self-image” and “feelings” of autonomy and of freedom (Hellriegel et al.2008, pp. 403, 412). “Cultures of innovation”, for instance, are thought to “give employees the feeling that they are important and are being treated fairly […] when people feel that they are part of a community, they are more willing to make the extra effort needed to find and fix problems” (p. 412, emphasis added). Viewing justice, human freedom, and the intrinsic worth of human beings in terms of attending “feelings” is inadequate; so conceived, they may become contingent on sheer appearance or, even, manipulation. Absent sound ethical criteria, individual and organizational properties (i.e., needs, drives, organizational cultures, etc.) are outside the purview of moral evaluation and, thus, nonmorally equivalent. It is unclear, for instance, how needs ought to be satisfied or drives balanced, and why. Conversely, ethical criteria may be determined by the findings of the special sciences, and the virtuous life conceived simply in terms of evolutionary biology or psychology, expediency, pleasure, or the social group (e.g., organizational culture).

Although arguably better than the total disregard of normative concerns, the ethical content of “values” (e.g., “values-based management”, Anderson 1997),8 “social capital” and “connections” (e.g., Adler and Kwon 2002), “cultures”, “contracts” (e.g., Donaldson 1982),9 and “network governance structures” (Pirson and Turnbull 2011), among other collaborative and governance approaches, is often tentative or left unspecified. After all, “efficiency, short-term profits, and stockholder returns” are also values (Anderson 1997, p. 27) and “social capital is no guarantee of virtue” (Hartman 2011, p. 15). Deceiving shareholders or defrauding a company may be a common goal ‘uniting’, respectively, a group of managers or employees; yet, lacking the essence of a true association, this bond is illusory and its results short-lived (see also, Melé 2009c, p. 229). Besides, interdependence or “person-organization fit” (Melé 2009a, pp. 130–131) valued only insofar as it satisfies individual interests may be, at best, reciprocal egoism; at worst, it may be socially and self-defeating. The Implications section will further develop these matters.

The special sciences’ proper domain, vis-à-vis philosophy’s, is a question underlying this subsection’s discussion, and thus requires more consideration. The special sciences “have for their object some particular province of being, of which they investigate only the secondary causes or proximate principles”, whereas philosophy is the “science of things in their first causes [i.e., the ‘highest principles of all things’], in so far as these belong to the natural order” (Maritain 1931/2005, pp. 67–69).10 What the human being is is ultimately a philosophical question. However, scientists’ ‘philosophical’ outlook and values influence their research questions and methods (e.g., Alzola 2011; Trevino and Weaver 1994). Materialism and positivism (Maritain 1952b, 1960/1968)—‘philosophical’ positions (simply understood as based on a set of tenets) though questionable at that—have influenced some of the nonpersonalistic approaches outlined. The impact of positivism on Milton Friedman’s economistic liberalism, for instance, has been discussed by Alzola (2011) and Wishloff (2009). In reality, though, philosophy “governs or directs the sciences in view of the common end to which their particular objects are subordinate [i.e., wisdom]” (Maritain 1931/2005, p. 74). The later discussion on Maritainian personalistic humanism will resume this reflection on the relationship between philosophy and the special sciences.

Humanism and Personalism

As is the case with humanism and humanistic management, personalism too has been variously conceived (Maritain 1947/1972). Its broad definition as a position that stresses the value of persons is equivocal and overly inclusive.11 For reasons that will become clear, this article conceives personalism not merely as a “perspective, a method, an exigency” (e.g., Whetstone 2002, p. 385), but as a philosophical school that “emphasizes the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person, as well as the person’s essentially relational or communitarian dimension”; the human person “combines subjectivity and objectivity, causal activity and receptivity, unicity and relation, identity and creativity” (Williams and Bengtsson 2009; see also, Babiuch-Luxmoore 1999; Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Grabill 2003; Melé 2009c; Zúñiga 2001).12 Accordingly, personalism emphasizes “human consciousness, intentionality toward ends, self-identity through time, value retentiveness, openness to community building, and, above all, the dignity of every human being” (Melé 2009c, p. 229). Thus, personalism overlooks neither individuality nor subjectivity but does not reduce human beings to either; it considers human beings as human persons.

Personalism has been recognized as a proper foundation for economics (Bouckaert 1999). The Acton Institute’s Center for Economic Personalism, for example, has published a three-volume work on this topic (O’Boyle 2003; Finn 2003) and its biannual Journal of Markets & Morality, published since 1998 to “develop and promote economic personalism” (Grabill 2003, p. 597), is a forum for related articles. Amitai Etzioni, Mark Lutz, Ernst Schumacher, and Amartya Sen are some well-known thinkers who have made contributions to personalistic economics (Bouckaert 1999). Personalism has also been integrated into sociology (e.g., Smith 2010; Dreher 2011) and psychology (e.g., see the August 2010 issue of New Ideas in Psychology 28(2)).13

In the business ethics field, this paper’s emphasis, Melé’s (2009c) integration of the personalist and the common good principles into virtue-based ethics is of particular interest. Although he acknowledges that his article does not fully develop this integration (p. 228), he discusses some of the implications of these principles for business ethics. He considers personalist principles to be “useful as guidelines for virtuous behavior” (ibid.). His formulation of the “personalist principle” integrates benevolence and care into one version of Kant’s categorical imperative: “No human being should ever be treated as mere means to an end. On the contrary, persons should be treated with respect and also with benevolence and care” (Melé 2009c, p. 232). The common good principle, in turn, “entails cooperation to promote conditions which enhance the opportunity for the human flourishing of all people within a community” (p. 227). Personal virtues make possible the attainment of the properly human goods.

The nature of business and of leadership has also been approached from the personalistic standpoint (e.g., Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Whetstone 2002, 2003). Ronald Coase’s position on the nature of the firm, agency theory, and shareholder theory have been criticized on personalistic grounds which, in turn, have been found to “afford a more compelling understanding of business as a whole” and to “accommodate business ethics better” (Fontrodona and Sison 2006, p. 33). Consistent with personalism is a servant leader “with a transforming vision”, who heeds the spiritual and material dimensions of the human person and is “committed to honoring the dignity of his followers and their freedom to participate in a true community of solidarity” through persuasion and example (Whetstone 2002, pp. 388–389).

Though not explicitly personalistic, work based on notions such as “the business of business is not business, but is instead the humanperson” and a “person-centered ethic” (e.g., Sandelands 2009, p. 93) has personalistic undercurrents. These are also present in notions such as the “purpose of the firm is to contribute to the common good, that is, the material and moral development of members through work” (e.g., Sison 2007, p. 472) and the corporation as, above all, a human institution—composed of, managed and owned by, and answerable to human beings (e.g., Camenisch 1981; Handy 2002; Moore 2002). Since “the origin, subject and ultimate purpose of all institutions is and must be the human person” (p. 1096), personalism also underlies Argandoña’s (1998) discussion of stakeholder theory based on the common good.

The Call for a “Humanistic Synthesis”

To merit its standing as a branch of ethics, business ethics must be anchored on sound philosophical (metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, and moral philosophy) tenets. Besides its systematic development, this philosophical framework advances its case not only as a core discipline of business and managerial studies but their very context and rationale. Without it, business ethics may either stall or grow on shaky grounds, threatened by reductionist approaches such as economism or psychologism, or misconceived as simply image-building or corporate philanthropy. Skepticism or relativism may ensue. Absent that philosophical framework, business ethics may, at best, be construed as a set of norms without clear justification or coherence, only instrumentally relevant and almost mechanically applied. In addition, important questions in business ethics may find no satisfactory answer; for instance, those concerning the integration of the descriptive and the normative domains of business ethics (Alzola 2011; Heugens and Scherer 2010; Trevino and Weaver 1994; Victor and Stephens 1994) and the related “separation thesis” (i.e., conceiving economic and ethical concerns as mutually exclusive or irreconcilable; see Alzola 2011; Dierksmeier and Pirson 2009; Grassl and Habisch 2011; Hartman 2008, 2011; Melé et al.2011; Spitzeck 2011).

Accordingly, several business ethics and management scholars have recently stressed the need “for a more humanistic and holistic vision of business and management”, for a “new” and “solid humanistic synthesis” (Melé et al.2011, pp. 2, 3; see also, Grassl and Habisch 2011). Melé et al. (2011) have recommended that this “different perspective” should provide an integrated whole, taking into account the economic and the human dimensions of business, and an ethics not simply as a consequentialist “tool” or “a code or a set of duties” but “as an inherent dimension of human action and consequently, of economic activity” (p. 3). Since “all areas of enquiry come to rest in metaphysics or ontology, the most universal branch of philosophy investigating the nature of being or the kinds of things that exist” (Wishloff 2009, p. 137; see also, Giovanola 2009; Grassl and Habisch 2011), an adequate answer to that call should be grounded on proper metaphysical and anthropological foundations anchoring the ethical character and obligations of business and management.

Persuasive efforts in this regard have mainly followed the Aristotelian philosophical tradition (e.g., Bragues 2006; Dierksmeier and Pirson 2009; Giovanola 2009; Hartman 2006, 2011; Melé 2003, 2009c; Rocha and Miles 2009; Solomon 1993, 2003). In a related vein, Wishloff (2009) has recently made the case for Thomistic realistic metaphysics as a basis for ethics and, in particular, for normative political economics (see also, Melé 2009c). Recent Roman Catholic social teaching has also been studied (e.g., Grassl and Habisch 2011; Melé 2009a; Sandelands 2009). Insights from Jacques Maritain’s personalistic work, rooted in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought, are examined next.

Maritain’s Personalist Humanism: Overview and Discussion14

The French thinker Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) is rightly considered to be one of the foremost personalist philosophers of the twentieth century (Capaldi 2004; DeMarco 1991; McInerny 2003; Novak 2009; Schall 1998; Sweet 2001). Praised for his “insight into truth” (Schall 1998, p. xiii), his widely translated work has been highly influential. He authored more than 50 books in metaphysics, moral and political philosophy, theology, aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy of nature, philosophy of science, philosophy of law, logic, and philosophy of education. Maritain contributed to the drafting of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), taught at the Institut Catholique de Paris and the Institut d’Études Médiévales de Toronto, and served as French Ambassador to the Vatican (1944–1948). In the United States, he taught at Princeton and Columbia, and lectured at Notre Dame and Chicago, among other universities. As true “philosopher in society” (Maritain 1961; see also, Novak 2009; Schall 1998), he was both, a lover of wisdom and truth, and engaged with his society’s aims and problems. During World War II, he actively opposed the Vichy government and supported the Resistance (Marrus 2004). The Jacques Maritain Center, established in 1957 by the University of Notre Dame, and the Cercle d’Études Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, founded by himself in 1962 and publisher of the journal Cahiers Jacques Maritain, are two of the several institutions dedicated to the philosopher’s work. The American Maritain Association recently held its 34th Annual International Meeting. L’Association Canadienne Jacques Maritain’s bilingual Études Maritainiennes-Maritain Studies and the Italian Istituto Internazionale Jacques Maritain’s multilingual Notes et Documents, founded in 1964 and 1975, respectively, are two of the publications that attest to the wide and continued interest in Maritain’s thought. His ideas influenced the French association Économie et Humanisme (Puel 1999), active from 1941 through 2007, and its journal by the same name published regularly (382 issues) during this period. His legacy has also been felt in Latin America (e.g., Centro de Estudios en Economía y Humanismo Louis Joseph Lebret of Bogotá, Colombia’s Universidad Santo Tomás).

This overview first highlights the main features of Maritain’s personalistic thought; namely, the distinction between human person and individual based on a realistic metaphysics that, in turn, grounds human dignity and the natural law as the philosophical basis for human rights, personal virtues, and a common good defined in terms of properly human ends. Then, his definition of humanism is presented and discussed. Although Maritain’s Integral humanism (Humanisme intégral, 1936), The person and the commongood (La personne et le bien commun, 1947), and Man and the state (L’homme et l’état, 1951) are of special relevance to the topic at hand (Puel 1999), the presentation also draws on other works in which his personalism is fundamental (e.g., Maritain 1929/1970, 1936a/1996, 1939, 1943a/1971, 1948/1966, 1950/2001, 1952b, 1966/1968). Though grounded on Thomistic metaphysical realism, Maritainian personalism does not oppose the secular (temporal) and the sacred orders but, instead, advocates the “sanctification of the secular” in order for the human being to become a fully human person (1936b/1996, p. 230).15 Its moral philosophy, of particular significance to business ethics and humanistic management, “appeals to reason and the human sciences” (Puel 1999, p. 90).

Natural Order of Things, Human Dignity, and the Human Person-Individual Distinction

Maritain’s philosophical anthropology roots the human person’s dignity and position in the real order of things (1948/1966). This natural order is neither deterministic, nor contingent on human perception or thought as idealistic thinkers may claim.16 The rational nature of human beings places them on a level of higher perfection than either nonliving or other living things. Moreover, “by its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature” (1947/1972, p. 20); the free act, in itself, transcends the natural order and, accordingly, cannot be accounted for in purely material terms.

Thus, the “reality of the world and of things” (1966/1968, p. 111) is the starting point of philosophical study; the human being is not the measure of all things (1948/1966). Neither a god nor a beast,17 the existing human person may know objective reality by means of the senses and the intellect. Knowing is not simply performed either by sensory perception or a disembodied self or separate mind (empiricist and rationalistic claims, respectively) but by the individual human person who, as such and because of it, interacts with the world. The person’s subjectivity is not an isolated autonomous self but requires “communications of knowledge and love” (1947/1972, p. 41). Relationality is, hence, essential in defining the human person regarding the acts of knowing and loving. “By the very fact that each of us is a person and expresses himself to himself, each of us requires communication with other and the others in the order of knowledge and love. Personality, of its essence, requires a dialog in which souls really communicate” (pp. 41–42).18

Human dignity, freedom, and autonomy are grounded on the human being’s true nature, origin, and calling or end; i.e., they stem from the reality that human beings are creatures contingent on the loving act of God who immediately creates each person’s soul, sustains them, and calls them to love (1947/1972, p. 42; 1952b, Chap. XIV, Sec. 4). Human dignity, though, is an ongoing task. Human dignity, freedom, and autonomy are not complete in themselves; human beings must psychologically and morally accomplish what is metaphysically theirs. “The autonomy of the moral agent is realized through the interiorization of the law. […] through intelligence and through love” (1960/1964, p. 105). Freedom must be cultivated through the “perfection of love” (1952b, p. 101; see also, Chap. XIV, Secs. 6, 7). Engaged in the process of becoming unified, the human person “must become what he is”; “in the moral order, [he] must win his liberty and his personality” (1947/1972, pp. 44–45).

The ontologically based human person-individual distinction, already drawn by Aquinas, is of major importance in Maritain’s work (Capaldi 2004; DeMarco 1991; Evans 1952).19 The human person is not reducible to the material ‘individual’, common to other living things, but “is reserved for substances20 which, choosing their end, are capable of themselves deciding on the means, and of introducing series of new events into their universe by their liberty” (1929/1970, p. 20). In the human being, personality is, therefore, defined in terms of the subsistence and freedom of the human soul (1936b/1996, p. 158). Yet, the human being “is not only a person, i.e., spiritually subsistent”, but “also individual, an individuated fragment of a species. And this is why he is a member of society as a part of it, and has need of the constraints of social life in order to be led to his very life as person and in order to be sustained in this life” (p. 238). Individuality lies in the material component; personality, in the spiritual.21 We are individual persons who share a common human nature (ibid.). Personality “is the subsistence of the spiritual soul communicated to the human composite”; it, “therefore, signifies interiority to self. […] Our whole being is an individual by reason of that in us which derives from matter, and a person by reason of that in us which derives from spirit” (1947/1972, pp. 40–43; 1943a/1971, p. 7). The human person is a substantial unity of matter and soul, physical and spiritual being capable of knowledge and love, of intellectual and moral virtue. “Each of us is in his entirety an individual and in his entirety a person” (1947/1972, p. 56). The human person is not reducible to the rational faculty, and the non-rational must not be confused with the irrational (1939). The rational and the non-rational (e.g., tendencies, creative forces, preconscious knowledge such as the poetic) must be accounted for in the whole human person (ibid., 1952b).

Natural Law, Human Rights, Virtues, and the Common Good

Thus anchored on Thomistic metaphysical realism and philosophical anthropology, Maritain’s moral philosophy stems from the reality of the human being as person with a distinct nature, origin, and end. “Ethical theory presupposes a system of metaphysics and a natural philosophy, […] the universe of freedom (the moral universe) is founded upon the universe of nature. The ethician must know that there are natures or essences, that there is a human nature, that what pertains to spirit and to reason in man is superior to what is irrational in him. He must be aware of the free will” (1960/1964, p. 40). Freedom, and becoming worthy of it, lies on the human person’s conformity with the natural law.

There is a natural law whose common principles—universal, indemonstrable, self-evident, and immutable—command always and without exception (1951a, p. 98, 1950/2001, p. 48).22 It is natural both in an ontological and in an epistemological sense; i.e., because it is “required appropriately by human nature”—by the ends and “normality of functioning” of human beings—and because it is known “through inclination” or “connaturally” (1951a, p. 91, 1950/2001, pp. 25–38, 45–46; see also, Proietti 2009).23 It is the “criterion of moral goodness” or the “ensemble of primary rules known to us without reasoning (though reflexively justifiable in reason) by virtue of the essential inclinations of our nature” (1960/1964, p. 37). Its divine origin (it participates in the eternal law) gives it its rationality and authority (1950/2001, pp. 39–47). That “we must do good and avoid evil” is the “preamble and the principle of natural law” but “not the law itself” which is the “ensemble of things to do and not to do which follow therefrom in a necessary fashion” (1950/2001, p. 32).

The natural law is the philosophical basis for human rights and duties (1951a, pp. 48ff, 1952b, Chap. XIV, Sec. 6). It is, indeed, the only possible foundation for human rights and the reason for their inalienability (1951a). Without a “sense of purpose or finality” the concept of human rights is utterly lacking (1952b, p. 188). A right is “a requirement that emanates from a self with regard to something which is understood as his due, and of which the other moral agents are in conscience not to deprive him” (1950/2001, p. 60).24 “The subject of rights are not abstract entities such as ‘truth’ or ‘error,’ but human persons […]; the equality of rights of all citizens is the basic tenet of modern democratic societies” (1951a, p. 174). The human person—neither states, nor corporations, nor animals—is the primary subject of such rights. “These rights are rooted in the vocation of the person (a spiritual and free agent) to the order of absolute values and to a destiny superior to time” (1943b/2001, p. 78). Thus, the natural law metaphysically anchors both the existence of human rights and the limits to their exercise. The natural law also “enables us to see what the virtues must be” (1960/1964, p. 37). Natural law ethics does not consist of “theorems or idols”, but of moral virtue grounded in right reason and will (1936b/1996, p. 289). Moral virtue, in obedience to the natural law, perfects the dignity of the human person.

Capable of knowledge and love, human beings’ intellectual and moral virtues are perfective of their being. Capable of self-discipline, they can remain steadfast in their commitment to the discovered human goods. Self-discipline is not the denial of what is essential to human nature, but the free and rational ordering of that which is proper to the truly human good, thereby making them more fully human. Morally evil acts break the human being’s personhood since they “give preponderance to the individual aspect of our being” (1947/1972, p. 43). In them, the human being’s individuality prevails over personality. Those ‘free’ choices are contrary to reality and, thus, to truth. Human individuality becomes good only insofar as it is meshed, so to speak, with personality.

The common good, as befits a society of human persons, has primacy over private goods and must necessarily respond to the needs and ends stemming from, and in conformity with, our human nature (1947/1972, pp. 28ff). Insofar as the common good is pursued and attained, the more likely it is that the individual human person’s well being is also achieved. The common good, therefore, does not necessarily preclude or vacate the private good but affirms it. “…although man in his entirety is engaged as a part of political society […] he is not a part of political society by reason of his entire self and all that is in him. On the contrary, by reason of certain things in him, man in his entirety is elevated above political society” (p. 71). Maritainian personalism demands a pluralistic democracy and the principle of subsidiarity that strengthen human will and develop intellectual and moral virtues by requiring the initiative and responsibility that good, autonomous (self-governing), citizens freely undertake (1936b/1996, p. 279, 1951a, p. 67).

Thus, the common good is defined in terms of the true ends of human persons (1947/1972, pp. 30, 48). Human persons fulfill their needs (deficiencies) and perfect themselves in society (pp. 47–48). Because of their deficiencies, stemming from their “material individuality”, human beings need society to complement them (pp. 48, 60ff, emphasis added). Because of the pursuit of perfection, proper of human personality, they seek the “communications of knowledge and love which require relationship with other persons” (p. 47). That personality and the common good imply each other is at the core of Maritain’s social and political philosophy (p. 49; 1951a, p. 65). Whereas “animal groups” are “collective wholes constituted of mere individuals”, human societies are associations of human persons (1947/1972, p. 47). The common good “is the good human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in good living”; it “includes within itself as principal value, the highest access, compatible with the good of the whole, of the persons to their life of person and liberty of expansion, as well as to the communications of generosity consequent upon such expansion” (pp. 50–51). Therefore, besides material goods (e.g., work, property, public security, and historic treasures), the common good also includes moral virtue and intellectual and spiritual wealth (pp. 52ff). “…culture or civilization is the expansion of the properly human life, including not only whatever material development may be necessary and sufficient to enable us to lead an upright life on this earth, but also and above all moral development, that development of speculative activities and of practical (artistic and ethical) activities which is properly worthy of being called a human development” (1936b/1996, p. 212). The end of politics is the lasting common good of a society bound by justice and civic friendship or amity (1947/1972, pp. 75–79, 102; 1952b, Chap. XI; 1951a, pp. 10, 62).

In brief, Maritainian personalism, based on metaphysical realism, grounds a philosophical anthropology and a moral philosophy. Who the human being is and ought to be and live, is neither based on the “primacy of the individual and the private good” (1947/1972, p. 13) nor on pure intellect or subjectivity, but on the intrinsic dignity and proper ends of the human person. Accordingly, personalism grounds Maritain’s “integral” humanism.

Maritain’s Personalist Humanism

Humanism, according to Maritain, “tends essentially to render the human being more truly human, and to manifest his original greatness by having him participate in all that which can enrich him in nature and in history”; it “at once demands that the human being develop the virtualities contained within him, his creative forces and the life of reason, and work to make the forces of the physical world instruments of his freedom” (1936b/1996, p. 153, 1939, p. 1; see also, 1936a/1996). It has four essential attributes (1936a/1996); namely:
  1. 1.

    Respect and affirmation of the human person’s dignity, which grounds the equality of basic human rights and the intrinsic value of the individual human person.

  2. 2.

    Revelation and development of the individual human person, unique in subjectivity (reflectivity, introspection) and self-mastery.

  3. 3.

    The social dimension of the human person, with justice and law as norm and preserver of the human person and human society, in freedom.

  4. 4.

    The spiritual and transcendent dimension of fully human persons, in which these grasp and love those realities that are better than themselves: the sense of internal forces as superior to external ones, of delectation (what is good in itself) as superior to utility, of reason as universal, of truth as sacred and liberating and ought to be loved for itself, of contemplation (knowledge-wise, aesthetic, spiritual) as immanent while action is transient.


Discussion of Maritain’s Personalist Humanism

Maritain calls this personalist humanism “integral” or “true”. It is “integral” because it possesses everything that is essential to render that which is properly human. In this sense it is a “true” humanism; i.e., it is a humanism of the human being viewed as a human person, in the temporal and supratemporal reality and wholeness. Though it also considers individuality and subjectivity, the human person is not reducible to either. This humanism is anchored on a realistic account of essential human nature properly placed in the realm of things and in the “concrete logic of the events of history” (Maritain 1939, p. 1; see also, Bouckaert 1999; Novak 2009; Puel 1999; Schall 1998), what they are and what they should be and become.25 From its realistic metaphysics and philosophical anthropology, it develops a moral philosophy grounded on the dignity of human persons and their flourishing—their good and their happiness as the “perfection of moral and rational human life” (Maritain 1943b/2001, pp. 77–78). Thus, the term true conveys the dimensions of intelligence and of being and becoming (the human person who exists) central to Maritain’s personalistic thought. Interestingly, Maritain’s work Humanisme intégral, published in 1936 and now translated into English as Integral humanism, was first translated in 1938 as True humanism.

Claiming that a ‘true’ humanistic management is personalistic, does not imply that the nonpersonalistic approaches outlined in the previous section are necessarily false.26 Yet, as previously discussed, however valuable their contribution and advantageous their practical outcomes, nonpersonalistic approaches tend to convey partial, fragmented, and incomplete views of the human being (e.g., Buchholz and Rosenthal 2008; Hartman 2011; Huehn 2008; Wishloff 2009). Insofar as reductive and overlooking essential aspects of reality (e.g., metaphysical, ethical, philosophical anthropology), they are not ‘integral’. Working from their particular standpoint, and often influenced by or based upon the special sciences, they cannot reasonably engage in questions that are necessary for a comprehensive and cogent humanistic framework such as those concerning human freedom, human dignity, the human spirit, what human personsare, what (and how) they ought to be and become. In addition, since either the individual or the subject remains the measure and end of all things, these approaches to the human being may lead, in the end, to skepticism or ethical relativism; for instance, in their positivistic manifestations such as economism, psychologism, biologism, or scientism.

An aside on the relationship between philosophy and the special sciences27 is, again, necessary because of its relevance for the claim that Maritainian personalistic humanism is ‘true’. “Since the principles of philosophy (the first philosophy or metaphysics) are the absolutely first principles of all knowledge, the principles or postulates of all human sciences are in a certain sense dependent upon them” (1931/2005, p. 73). That is, these “presuppose in fact the principles of metaphysics and can be resolved into them [and] could not be true, unless the latter were true” (ibid., emphasis added). Philosophy “assigns the distinctive ends of the special sciences in the sense that it determines speculatively the distinctive object of each, and what constitutes their specific unity and differentiation from the rest”; it thus “assigns the order in which they stand one to another. Thus all the sciences are ordered by wisdom” (pp. 73–74). That is, philosophy “governs or directs the sciences (to these distinctive ends), not by positive prescription, but by setting them right, if they transgress their boundaries” (p. 74). Since it “appeals to the facts, the data of experience”, philosophy “uses as instruments the truths provided by the evidence of the senses and the conclusions proved by the sciences” (p. 77). However, it “does not need one particular scientific proposition rather than any other” but “true to its own nature and maintaining the liberty due to a superior science, it draws its proofs from its own principles and from the fundamental truths supplied by the evidence of the senses and not from the conclusions supplied by the sciences” (p. 78).28 That is, it “concerns itself with interpreting by the aid of its own truths the facts or hypotheses which positive science regards as proved” (p. 79, emphasis added). In conclusion, philosophy “is free in relation to the sciences, and only depends on them as the instruments which it employs” (p. 81). Philosophy, then, neither overlooks the data of the special sciences nor concludes that they are necessarily false; yet, “as the science of first causes”, philosophy, “particularly the first philosophy or metaphysics, because it is wisdom and the supreme science, judges, governs, and defends the other sciences” (pp. 74, 77, emphasis added).29

Finally, Maritain’s personalistic humanism integrates elements that in nonpersonalistic approaches tend to be separate, misplaced, or overlooked. Building upon its Aristotelian and Thomistic (Greek and Christian) roots, it accounts for the existential and the metaphysical, the temporal and the supratemporal, the secular and the sacred, the world of nature and the universe of freedom, the practical and the speculative (theoretical), the descriptive and the normative. It understands the human being as substantial unity of matter and spirit; in existence and essence, in history and by nature, the non-rational and the rational, sense experience and rational knowledge, intellectual intuition and reflective reasoning, external and internal forces, differences and commonalities, subjectivity (reflectivity, introspection) and relationality (dialog, communion with other persons), individuality (uniqueness, diversity, deficiencies) and personality (interiority, spirituality, perfectibility). Maritain’s personalistic humanism addresses both what is equal among human beings (human dignity and, hence, basic human rights) and what is unique among them (reflective and self-disciplined individuality). Anchored on a realistic metaphysics, human dignity and the natural law are the philosophical basis for human rights, personal virtue, and a common good defined in terms of properly human ends. Accordingly, this personalistic moral philosophy incorporates ends and means, human freedom (self-mastery through the “perfection of love”) and human autonomy (through the “interiorization of the law”), universality of the natural law and prudence facing concrete situations, right judgment and right will, intellectual and moral virtue, delectation (“interior contentment” or “expansiveness”, 1960/1964, p. 34) and utility, the human and the economic, love and justice, contemplation and action.

In brief, Maritainian personalistic humanism is claimed to be ‘true’ because it is consistent with reality, integral (possesses that which is essential to render what is properly human), and cogently addresses first (fundamental) principles, distinctive human ends, and virtue (intellectual and moral). Maritainian personalism insights are, thus, a significant contribution toward a solid philosophical (ontological, anthropological, and ethical) framework for business ethics and humanistic management, as the discussion of some of its implications will further underscore.

Implications of Personalism for Business Ethics and Humanistic Management

Although Maritainian personalism insights have been found to be compelling, this paper does not claim them to be the final word in the ongoing conversation concerning the “solid humanistic synthesis” in business and management (Melé et al.2011, p. 3). In order to fully answer this call, more research is necessary. This section outlines some implications of Maritainian personalism for business ethics as philosophical study and as practical professional pursuit and, thus, suggestions for future research. In addition, the work of other personalist philosophers30 and scientists, outside the scope of this article, may hold further rewarding insights. It would be contradictory for a truly personalistic humanism to disregard valuable insights about the human condition; though neither defined nor limited by them, it cannot overlook the findings of the special sciences. Neither can it approach them uncritically.31 As previously discussed, philosophy “possesses the duty to exercise its office as scientia rectrix by constantly throwing its light on the discoveries and hypotheses, the unceasing activity and the development of the sciences”; i.e., it “judges” those findings “by its own light” (Maritain 1931/2005, pp. 79, 77).

For the Philosophical Study of Business Ethics

Maritainian personalism provides a cogent rationale for important and recurrent topics discussed in the business ethics literature, such as natural law ethics (e.g., Feser 2010; Velasquez and Brady 1997), virtue ethics, and the concept of the common good. In addition, Aristotelian virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, and classic utilitarianism, influential normative teachings as attested by their discussion in the business ethics literature and textbooks (e.g., Beauchamp et al. 2008; DeGeorge 2009; Donaldson and Werhane 2008; Velasquez 2006; Weiss 2009), will be reviewed from a personalistic standpoint.

Natural Law-Based Virtue Ethics and the Common Good

The importance of virtue ethics to ethical leadership has been widely acknowledged (e.g., Bragues 2006; Hartman 2006, 2011; MacIntyre 1981/2007; Melé 2009c, 2010; Moore 2002, 2005; Solomon 1993, 2003; Whetstone 2001). Recent editions of some widely used business ethics textbooks have included this approach (e.g., Beauchamp et al. 2008; DeGeorge 2009; Donaldson and Werhane 2008; Velasquez 2006).

Absent guiding principles, though, virtue ethics may appear vague (Melé 2009c; Whetstone 2001). Eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing),32 for instance, has been termed a “difficult”, “obscure”, and “culturally relative” concept (Whetstone 2001, p. 105). Maritainian personalism addresses these limitations, particularly by way of its position on the human person, happiness, and the natural law as basis of human rights and guide to personal virtues. The next subsection on Aristotelian virtue ethics revisits this point. As Melé (2009c) suggests, “realistic personalism can be integrated into virtue-based business ethics, giving it a more complete base” (pp. 227, 233).

Following the natural law requires justice and courage, while respecting human dignity and attending basic rights (e.g., right to life, personal freedom, private property, pursuit of happiness, association, and free speech) consistent with the common good is required for the virtuous life (Maritain 1943b/2001, 1951a; see also, Argandoña 1998; Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Melé 2009c, 2010; Sison 2007). The virtuous life is not merely an aggregate of acts with good intentions or positive consequences, nor reducible to respecting human rights; ordered emotions, attitudes, thoughts, dispositions, values, reflection, and life purposes are also necessary. For instance, an ethical system understood solely in terms of respecting human rights may well become impersonal, a never ending discussion about conflicting rights or their hierarchy, or even confounded with subjective preferences. Maritainian personalism stresses that practical wisdom or prudence is necessary to balance natural human rights and the common good, and to reach the best judgments when facing concrete situations (Maritain 1931/2005; see also, Melé 2009c, 2010; Wishloff 2009). “If man is to do the right thing in the order of action, moral science must be supplemented by the virtue of prudence, which, if we make use of it, makes us always judge correctly of the act we should perform, and will always that which we have thus judged to be right” (Maritain 1931/2005, p. 202; 1960/1964).

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, Kantian Deontology, and Classic Utilitarianism33

Maritain’s personalistic thought brings into focus the limitations of these humanistic ethical teachings. Although their thorough evaluation would be a digression from this article’s objectives, important differences between these teachings and Maritain’s are underscored. This outline is not meant to imply that Aristotelian and Kantian ethics and the consideration of consequences have no place whatsoever in normative ethics. However, this overview, based on Maritain’s main observations about them in his Moral philosophy (1960/1964), suggests ways in which Maritainian personalism provides a cogent rationale for those teachings. In addition, it further elucidates the conceptual relationship between personalism and humanism. Aristotelian (because of its affinities with Maritain’s thought) and Kantian (because sometimes called “personalist”34) ethics will be more closely considered.

There have been several proposals to integrate Aristotelian thought into management (e.g., Bragues 2006; Dierksmeier and Pirson 2009; Giovanola 2009; Hartman 2006, 2011; Melé 2009c, 2010; Rocha and Miles 2009; Solomon 1993). Yet, according to Maritain, “there is no moral system more thoroughly and authentically humanistic. And there is no moral system more disappointing for man [than the Aristotelian]” (1960/1964, p. 47). Happiness, in Aristotelian terms, is “hardly attainable” given the many conditions that must be met. Moreover, since “the Good and Happiness” are not clearly distinguished, “Aristotle leaves us in a state of ambiguity” (p. 49). As implicitly the “subjective side of the Good” (p. 48), that happiness ends in egoism. That is, the contemplation of truth and virtue, though intrinsically good, are “included in the overall idea of Happiness, subordinated to that idea, and desired as ingredients of Happiness”; happiness “desired and loved as such can only be desired and loved for the sake of the subject whom it perfects” (p. 49). Thus, Maritain concludes, Aristotle’s moral system “leaves us enclosed in love of ourselves” for in it happiness is the “supreme Good supremely loved” (ibid.). Although its ethical principles are “true” for they address the human, they are “incomplete” and “ineffective” because, ignoring what is “infinite in man”, they “do not penetrate the concrete existential reality of the human being” and “do not succeed in taking hold of the internal dynamism of the human will” (p. 50). Though “the most honest of purely philosophical ethical theories”, Aristotelian ethics “lacks effectiveness and existential bearing because it is a system of means suspended from an End which does not possess the value of an End practically absolute, nor the value of an End practically accessible, nor the value of an End practically constraining” (ibid.).35 As pointed out previously, Maritainian personalism provides a cogent rationale for virtue ethics. Among its important insights in this regard are its approach to the human person,36happiness,37 the morally virtuous act as perfective of the dignity of the human person (and, conversely, the morally evil act as favoring individuality over personality), and the natural law as basis of human rights and guide to personal virtues.

“There is a moral obligation to choose the true happiness—it is at this point that the universe of freedom inserts itself into the universe of nature” (Maritain 1960/1964, p. 100). In Kant’s thought, however, there is a split between the intelligible world where the human person as intellect (beyond nature) belongs, and the natural world; the reality of the external world, of the human person’s proper place in the realm of things, of human nature, and of human freedom is unintelligible.38 In it, there is no “ontological notion of happiness” (p. 99). Kantian formalism, whose moral categorical imperative stems from absolute autonomy, leaves out the “whole process of interiorization of the law, in virtue of which the law is recognized as just and good by the reason, and finally adapted by prudence to particular circumstances […]. The purely logical universality of the Kantian law, without any roots in nature, keeps it eternally separate from the individual subjectivity and external to it” (p. 112). Moreover, the “philosophy of rights ended up, after Rousseau and Kant, by treating the individual as a god and making all the rights ascribed to him the absolute and unlimited rights of a god” (1951a, p. 83). According to Maritain, human ends or goods stem from, and are in conformity with, human nature, and not set independently and autonomously by each person. From this standpoint, the categorical imperative39 must be based on the natural law; it must be consistent with a realistic account of human nature and existence, and with properly personal concepts of human dignity, human freedom, common good, and happiness. “Personalist principles” that integrate virtue ethics into the categorical imperative are worthy developments in this regard; for instance, the integration of benevolence and care (Melé 2009c, p. 232, quoted previously), and of love40 (Wojtyla 1960/1993, p. 41).

Finally, Maritain describes Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism as a “social-minded and upright hedonism, which conceived of the end of human life in statistical terms” (1960/1964, p. 94). He charges Bentham’s greatest happiness of the greatest number principle of “extreme naïveté”. In particular, Maritain criticizes utilitarianism for “the complete destruction” of the “idea of moral good properly so called, of the bonum honestum (good as right), which they [Bentham and Mill] replaced with the idea of the moral good as equivalent to the advantageous” (pp. 94–95).41

For Markets and Firms, the Management Profession, and Business Education

Some of the main practical implications of Maritainian personalism for business ethics are briefly explored next; namely, for the purpose and character of markets and firms, humanistic management, organizational processes and language, stakeholder theory, spirituality in the workplace, globalization and corporate aid, environmental concerns, and, finally, for business and management education.

Markets and Firms

From a personalistic framework, the market is neither the “meeting point of an anonymous group of consumers and providers” nor the “collection of individual pursuers of utility” (Bouckaert 1999, p. 27). “Competitors are not prey to overwhelm by market power or predatory pricing, but are loyal adversaries to welcome as a test of one’s mettle in the marketplace” (Sandelands 2009, p. 98). Markets and firms exist for the sustenance and flourishing of the human person, and not conversely. Consequently, their purposes and means should be so ordained. Advertising, public relations, and other interactions with external stakeholders should not be based on a humanism of individuals as pleasure-seeking or need-satisfying selves but on one in keeping with their human dignity. In these interactions, as well as in research and development, product design, products or services offered, etc., Maritain’s words about the primacy of wisdom over science, and knowledge over power should be heeded. Science and technology are at the service of human ends, and not the reverse. Although an economically imperiled company could hardly honor those human commitments that require monetary expenditure, economic goals are a means rather than the firm’s end (Camenisch 1981; Handy 2002). Personalism does not overlook management’s fiduciary obligations, but places these in their proper human context. “This is the sole and ultimate justification of a firm: its ability to promote integral human flourishing through organized work, not only in terms of the goods and services produced but also of the excellences of mind and character or virtues acquired by its participants” (Sison 2007, p. 478). Reasonable authority, instead of power, and justice and friendship, instead of self-interest, should characterize the management of business relationships (Maritain 1943b/2001, 1951a).

Companies have been frequently regarded as democratic communities of human persons (e.g., Bouckaert 1999; Camenisch 1981; Fontrodona and Sison 2006; Gagliardi 2006; Handy 2002; Melé 2003, 2005; Sison 2007; Solomon 1993). Maritain, though, distinguishes between communities, which are rooted in “fact” (i.e., “a product of instinct and heredity in given circumstances and historical frameworks”; e.g., “regional, ethnic, linguistic groups”), and societies which, like the “body politic”, are “a product of reason and moral strength” to achieve some purpose(s) (e.g., “a business firm, a labor union, a scientific association”) (1951a, pp. 2–4; 1943b/2001, 1958, p. 168; see also, Capaldi 2004, p. 411; Schall 1998, pp. 64–66). In particular, he speaks of “industrial ownership” in terms of an “association of persons (management-technicians, workers, investors)” instead of an association of capital (1943b/2001, pp. 90–91). Accordingly, corporations are voluntary humansocieties or associations of persons in which the common good should be sought in accordance with natural law-based personal virtues and human rights. “In order simply to exist, and to keep producing, [corporations] must become more and more socially minded and concerned with the general welfare” (Maritain 1958, p. 107). This common good is not simply constructed out of organizational rewards, ‘shared’ goals, or a ‘feeling’ of involvement and satisfaction, for instance. What makes the common good so is neither merely that the goods are ‘reinforced’ by the organization, nor that they are ‘shared’ or ‘felt’ by its members, but the reality of the human person. Rather than on ‘motivators’ that appeal mainly to individual (and intraindividual) differences and deficiencies, more emphasis on truly human goods linked to human personality and relationality (in “knowledge and love”) is likely to establish firmer, stabler, and fertile bonding grounds for this association of persons.

Organizational success may well prove to be contingent on good managerial decision making within a personalistic framework, however stringent its demands. Like all human societies, business exists for the human person and not vice versa. Continental Airlines’ success during CEO Gordon Bethune’s tenure has been discussed as a case study not merely of smart managerial decisions but, particularly, of “person mindedness” and economic personalism (Zúñiga 2001, pp. 168–169). Following a similar route, the Spanish insurance company Fremap showed substantial growth in market share income, and customer and employee satisfaction, among other criteria (Melé 2005). The success of the Norwegian clothing company Stormberg Ltd.’s democratic organizational policies and solidarity activities (Hoivik and Melé 2009) is another example. Although additional factors may have also contributed to these successes, they have been largely attributed to changes consistent with personalism (Poole 2009; see also, Spitzeck 2011; von Kimakowitz et al.2010).

Humanistic Management

Managers should not be seen solely in terms of functions, behaviors, and roles but primarily as persons “with moral sensitivity” (Whetstone 2003, p. 344). Accordingly, management texts should emphasize “managerial excellence” instead of mainly stressing traditional managerial functions.

Paraphrasing Maritain’s concept of humanism (1936b/1996, p. 153), humanistic management is, then, a concept of management that tends essentially to render human beings more truly human, and to manifest their original greatness by having them participate in all that which can enrich them in nature and in history; it demands that human beings develop their virtualities. Briefly stated, consequently, humanistic management is a concept of management that affirms human beings as human persons. More specifically, within this humanistic management framework, the necessary resources (technological, informational, material, and financial, including profits) are administered, and organizational activities led and coordinated, in ways affirmative of human dignity and favorable for the expression and furtherance of natural law-based personal virtues and the common good. This formulation of humanistic management is consistent with that previously quoted (Melé 2003, p. 79; Spitzeck 2011, p. 51), thereby underscoring the conclusion that a properly conceived humanistic management is inherently personalistic. It holds important implications for organizational and managerial processes.

Organizational Processes

Organizational processes such as organizational change, personnel policies and procedures (e.g., working conditions, performance selection, recruitment, evaluation, and discipline), leadership and organizational politics, communication, and motivation, among other processes, should be informed by personalism.

Organizational change, for instance, is often discussed in the business world and college texts without sufficient attention to the study of whether it is ethically right (e.g., Hellriegel et al.2008, pp. 394–408). Coercion is still considered among the array of techniques that managers may use to overcome resistance to change (e.g., Schermerhorn 2009, pp. 198–199); if questioned, it is mainly out of concern for inciting even more resistance (Hellriegel et al.2008, p. 497). Within a personalistic framework, change initiatives should be examined in view of properly human ends and means; persuasion and example, rather than coercion and manipulation, are the tools to bring them about (Maritain 1961, p. 20; 1943b/2001, p. 85; Whetstone 2002). Within it, outcomes such as employee satisfaction, increased earnings, or productivity are neither the primary nor the sole justifications for measures such as job enrichment or cultures of innovation, but the affirmation of the employee as human person. The same could be said of profit sharing and employee ownership schemes, participative management, health and safety measures, fair wages, among other practices.

Reductionist thinking suggestive of mechanistic or partial approaches to the human beings, such as behavior modification or needs hierarchy theory as motivation tools, should be replaced by those that affirm employees as human persons. Employees should neither be merely viewed as sums of needs and drives (see also, Bouckaert 1999), nor their personal development as reducible to balancing these, individual satisfaction, or other positive ‘feelings’. Instead of Skinnerian positive reinforcement or Maslowian self-actualization, Maritainian personalism calls for the “conquest of freedom and to a self-achievement consisting of love and charity” (1952b, p. 192). Abandoning exploitative or sweatshop conditions is necessary, but far from enough. The worker “stands before his employer in a relationship of justice and as an adult person, not as a child or as a servant” (Maritain 1943b/2001, p. 89). Although necessary for human existence, work is not an end in itself but a means. “A certain boredom is caused by the absolute primacy of work and the disregard for the human value of leisure” (Maritain 1958, p. 29). Just as the human being is not part of society “by reason of his entire self and all that is in him” (Maritain 1947/1971, p. 71), workers are not part of the organization in the entirety of their being. Technologies that facilitate work should not “grow at the expense of the natural energies and resourcefulness of individuals” (Maritain, 1958, p. 159).

Maritainian personalism has additional implications for leadership and organizational politics. In his essay “The end of Machiavellianism” (1942, 1952b, Chap. XI), Maritain argued that Machiavellian politics involves the “artistic use of evil” to achieve and maintain power; consequently, this power is illusory and can last neither from a metaphysical nor from a practical point of view (1942, 1952b, Chap. XI; 1951a, pp. 56–64). “Machiavelli constantly slips from the idea of well-doing to the idea of what men admire as well-doing, from moral virtue to appearing and apparent moral virtue; his virtue is a virtue of opinion, self-satisfaction and glory” (1952b, p. 138). In Machiavellian humanism, moral virtue is seen as a sign of weakness, rather than as the strength it really entails. The recent collapse of companies and businesspeople engaged in ethical wrongdoing exemplifies the self-defeating nature of Machiavellian power tactics. Some of them, such as Enron, used to ‘look’ socially responsible and to be favored by public opinion (Vogel 2005, pp. 38–39).42 Simply a “virtue of opinion, self-satisfaction and glory”, but sorely lacking in reality, it was rich in appearance but ultimately self-defeating and socially devastating.

Personalism requires servant leaders “with a transforming vision” (Whetstone 2002) who affirm their followers’ human dignity. Intellectual and moral virtue, instead of pretense or appearance, is called for from organizational leaders. Maritainian personalism prescribes friendship rather than power plays, justice rather than exploitation, manipulation, undue advantage, breaking promises, bluffing, or deceit. “Civic love or friendship is the very soul or animating form of every political society” (Maritain 1951a, p. 209). The right to personal liberty is “opposed to servitude” or “that form of authority of one man over another in which the one who is directed is not directed toward the common good by the official charged with this duty, but is at the service of the particular good of the one who is doing the directing” (Maritain 1943b/2001, pp. 93–94). Human person to human person dialog or conversation should be nurtured. The principle of subsidiarity, derived from personalism, contributes to a freer flow of information throughout the organization and reduces the likelihood of abuse; it also encourages creativity, participation, and responsibility thereby strengthening the democratic features of that human society (Maritain 1936b/1996, 1951a; see also, Melé 2005; O’Boyle 2003; Sandelands 2009).

Elements of corporate culture—“specific corporate philosophy, communal symbols, moral leadership, forms of informal communication, organizational transparency, decentralization of decision making, social (not just financial) recognition of achievements and initiative” (Bouckaert 1999, p. 29)—should be informed by personalism. Unlike the suggestion of some organizational culture theorists, leaders cannot, strictly speaking, “create”, “manage”, or “destruct” organization culture (e.g., Schein, quoted by Melé 2003, p. 81), which evolves from the very human persons who bring the organization to life. That is, leaders may influence culture (Melé 2003, p. 81), but so do other organizational participants as well. Although they do not substitute right conscience and prudence, corporate policies, rules, and regulations should be consistent with the respect of basic human rights and with conditions favorable for the thriving of human persons. On the other hand, employees are not bound to obey unjust rules since, by virtue of the natural law, “an unjust law is not a law” and, hence, is not mandatory (Maritain 1950/2001, p. 53).

Organizational Language

Organizational language should be aligned to personalism, not in a superficially acquiescent politically correct way, but in language genuinely conveying the affirmation of human beings as human persons. An example of transgression is the pervasive ‘employees as assets’ or ‘human resources’ metaphor. “It is not language that makes concepts, but concepts that make language” (Maritain 1966/1968, p. 14). Since “names do acquire a meaning that is carried by the essential nature of the named persons and things” (Zúñiga 2001, p. 153), employees should not be named ‘human resources’ or ‘assets’ (Sandelands 2009; see also, Melé 2009c; Melé et al.2011). Although arguably better than the clearly questionable ‘employee as cost’ or ‘expense’ language still favored by many top managers (Cascio 2003), from a personalistic standpoint the ‘employees as assets’ or ‘human resources’ metaphor overlooks the intrinsic worth and dignity of employees as human persons. That their work is valuable does not imply that employees are assets. Assets are purchased, used, loaned, sold, recycled, exchanged, or depreciated, written down, or written off to signify their changing instrumental value. Were ‘employees’ to substitute ‘assets’ in that sentence, the result would spell slavery. Employees seen as ‘assets’ are actually conceived as mere means toward an end. An employee is a human person; an asset has, at most, instrumental value.

Stakeholder Theory

Stakeholder theory, a “mainstay in business ethics and management theory in the last several decades” (Orts and Strudler 2002, p. 215; see also, Gibson 2000; Goodpaster 1991), has been characterized as an important “general and comprehensive” framework (Donaldson and Preston 1995, p. 70). Simply stated, it espouses that the interests of all the groups and individuals with whom the firm interacts (and affect or are affected by) are and should be considered (Gibson 2000). In his well known 1991 paper on the topic, Goodpaster already acknowledged that the “strategic stakeholder approach fails not because it is immoral; but because it is nonmoral” (p. 60) and that stakeholder analysis, on its own, does not signify ethical decision making (p. 55). Stakeholder theory by itself can neither successfully answer why their interests should be taken into consideration at all, nor how (e.g., Argandoña 1998; Goodpaster 1991). Research addressing such normative issues has been conducted (e.g., Alzola 2011; Argandoña 1998; Donaldson and Preston 1995; Gibson 2000; Jones and Wicks 1999; Orts and Strudler 2002; Phillips et al.2003). Controversies about which stakeholder(s) deserve more attention given their potential impact on the company’s objectives highlight the fundamentally utilitarian or even self-interested connotations of this approach, which some authors have tried to address by integrating into it deontological thought (e.g., Gibson 2000).

Personalism contributes to the normative philosophical foundations for stakeholder theory. Within this framework, all human stakeholders should be acknowledged and treated as fully human persons (or groups thereof) and holders of natural law-based rights, not as potential benefits or threats, nor solely as bundles of contractual rights and duties. Nonhuman ‘stakeholders,’ such as the natural environment (Orts and Strudler 2002), are not to be neglected or abused, but treated according to their right place and meaning in the realm of things. Balancing stakeholders’ conflicting interests requires prudence and justice, and the pursuit of a properly human common good. This may well prove to be the only possible answer to that difficult question in stakeholder theory research.

Spirituality in the Workplace

Spirituality has been described as “an openness to what transcends rational discourse and connects people with the Divine or ultimate reality” (Bouckaert and Ghesquiere 2004, p. 34; see also, Gotsis and Kortezi 2008; Karakas 2010; Poole 2009). In particular, it “is linked with practices such as silence, frugality, meditation, reflection and reading, sharing and loving nature etc. which enable people to listen to their deeper roots and to reconnect themselves with the inner dynamics of life and history” (Bouckaert and Ghesquiere 2004, p. 35).

“Vagueness”, “obscurity”, and “imprecision”, however, have been found to characterize the workplace spirituality field, which needs an “inclusive and philosophically affluent framework” (Gotsis and Kortezi 2008, p. 575). Maritainian personalism lends philosophical grounding, coherence, and depth to that concept. In particular, spirituality is at the core of human personality. In addition, spirituality is oftentimes linked with religious beliefs. A business setting that snubs or belittles those beliefs hurts human dignity, violates some basic human rights, and disowns employees as human persons.

Globalization and Corporate Aid

As with other business efforts, globalization and corporate aid based on a personalistic foundation must be designed and implemented following properly human ends and means. Maritain’s warning that material gain, absent the spiritual, is not conducive to the common good but to anarchy is still relevant (1951a; see also, Capaldi 2004, p. 415). His admonition concerning the “danger that charity itself will become industrialized, or overorganized” (1958, p. 36) should also be heeded. Disregarding these caveats may explain in part why some globalization and corporate aid efforts have not been altogether successful and, instead, have been harshly criticized.

Environmental Concerns

In Maritainian personalism, the human being is the center of the realm of natural living things. Although the human person intrinsically has a higher value than other beings, this does not justify their abuse but demands their judicious treatment. The human person is not a despotic master but a prudent steward of what temporally exists. As part of the common good, an environment with the resources cherished and needed for human thriving should be sustained (Melé 2009c, p. 239).

Business and Management Education

The philosophical and practical implications discussed also have significance for business and management education. They suggest the need to review business school curricula and course content accordingly. For instance, the inclusion of the humanities as part of the business school curriculum has been advocated (e.g., Arenas 2006; Hendry 2006; Small 2006; Starkey and Tempest 2006) to help students “evaluate events and persons with greater humility, to view phenomena from a broader perspective, to courageously confront the moral risks and responsibilities involved in doing their job, to rely constantly on a set of values rather than apply algorithms, and to give just as much importance to passion as to reason, to wisdom as to competence” (Gagliardi 2006, p. 8). Although such knowledge is important, and does not necessarily contradict personalistic ideals, it does not suffice. Without personalistic foundations, humanistic learning and humanistic management may lack an integrated concept of the human person and human dignity. If lacking proper ethical grounds, business students may learn that expediency and self-interest are as morally legitimate human ends as the common good and human dignity, feelings or emotions as normative as the natural law, frankness as valuable as truth, sheer opinion as reliable as reasonable judgment, flattery or fear as morally right means as justice and love. Machiavellian thought is, after all, humanistic, albeit clearly not personalistic.

Business schools have been admonished for “propagating ideologically inspired amoral theories” that have “freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility” (Ghoshal 2005, p. 76). Management, business, and economics should not be considered primarily as sciences, underestimating questions of meaning and moral value, but fundamentally as human enterprises at the service of the personal and the common good (e.g., Bouckaert 1999). Moreover, business ethics is not simply a set of rules construed as tools to apply to concrete moral problems and reach a solution (Melé et al.2011, p. 3; Melé 2010); humanisticmanagement is not simply an array of techniques based on the human being as individual or as subject, from which to choose according to preferences or desired outcomes (e.g., individual satisfaction, organizational productivity). Reconsidering along personalistic lines these popular approaches to presenting business ethics and humanistic management, as well as the related courses and textbooks in business and management (e.g., business ethics, introductory and strategic management, organizational behavior, etc.) would be a step in the right direction.

Concluding Remarks

“Philosophy, taken in itself, is above utility. And for this very reason philosophy is of the utmost necessity for men” (Maritain 1961, p. 6). What a human being is and why, along with the ethics springing from that ontology and anthropology, are crucial questions that a proper philosophical framework for business ethics and humanistic management must adequately address. This article has advanced the case for personalism as a reasonable answer and charted areas for future study. In particular, it has argued that a true (i.e., integral, consistent with reality, and cogently addressing first principles, distinctive human ends, and virtue) humanistic management is personalistic, and that personalism is promising as a sound foundation for business ethics qua philosophical study and professional practice. Insights from Jacques Maritain’s work have been discussed in support of these conclusions. Specially emphasized was Maritain’s distinction between human person and individual based on a realistic metaphysics that, in turn, grounds human dignity and the natural law as the philosophical basis for human rights, personal virtues, and a common good defined in terms of properly human ends.

The following are some of the most significant Maritainian insights in terms of their contribution to the ongoing conversations concerning both, a sound philosophical framework (“humanistic synthesis”) for business and management and the integration of personalism into these areas: ethics and anthropology suppose a metaphysical system and a natural philosophy; human dignity and the natural law have a realistic metaphysical basis; human nature and the human person must be understood in existential and essential reality (becoming and being); personality essentially requires relationality or communications “of knowledge and love” with others (Maritain 1947/1972, p. 41); human societies (e.g., business organizations), products of reason and virtue, exist for the human being who joins them out of human dignity and perfectibility (as human persons) and out of needs and deficiencies (as individuals); personal virtues and human rights are based on human dignity and the connaturally-known natural law; the human person is perfectible by intellectual and moral virtue and, thus, human dignity as intrinsic worth and as ongoing task; human freedom and human autonomy as the human person’s interiorization of and conformity with the natural law, through intelligence and love; the common good defined in terms of the true ends of the human person; and the morally evil act as giving “preponderance” to individuality over personality and, hence, is contrary to reality (p. 43), whereas the morally virtuous act, in obedience to the natural law, perfects the dignity of the human person. In addition, Maritainian personalism provides a cogent rationale for important matters in business ethics such as virtue ethics and the concept of the common good.

Furthermore, “our practical decisions depend on the stand we take on the ultimate questions that human thought is able to ask” (Maritain 1961, p. 7). A business ethics developed upon personalistic foundations is ordered to human nature and properly human ends, thus bridging its descriptive and normative domains. Maritainian personalism has wide-ranging practical implications for the managerial profession, business education, and the ethical character and conduct of markets, firms, and businesspersons. It provides a persuasive philosophical rationale for the legitimacy (existence and worth) of the business system and management.

Personalism poses major challenges for everyone who participates in the business society (businesspersons, managers, educators, etc.). Although Maritain’s talk “The apostolate of the pen” (1952a) addressed writers, in an important sense all professions have an ‘apostolate’. The term company (and university or business school) ‘mission’, with its undercurrents of ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’, is consistent with this notion. The businessperson has, so to speak, an apostolate of transforming resources in ways affirmative of human dignity and conducive to the properly human common good; these ways are too the educator’s through teaching, research, and community service. Maritain warned writers of two dangers: “yielding to the spell of art or human knowledge so as to fail in the requirements of the supreme truth” and, conversely, “using divine truth to which we and our fellow believers adhere in common to compensate for possible failures in our fidelity to the requirements of art or human knowledge” (p. 19). In order to confront these dangers, Maritain advised them “a good deal of humility and some kind of appreciation of, or yearning for, the ways of the spiritual life” (ibid.). Similarly, business participants should neither “yield to the spell” of the accoutrements of the job—power, fame, status, recognition, fashion, private gain at the expense of the common good—nor attribute all failings to external, unforeseeable, or uncontrollable forces. Prudence, justice, and humility are called for, both when facing success and when facing failure. Finally, Maritain reminded writers:

the keys provided by a sound philosophy and theology are intended to open doors, not to close them. We must realize, too, that spiritual experience born in charity is the most profound and fecund inspiration to creative work. Each one works in his own special field and according to the requirements of this field, but his work should be animated from within by a motion that comes from a higher source, which is able to reach the souls of men as no human dexterity can do. (ibid.)

An edifying reminder for everyone who holds the apostolate of the business society.


Of the business ethics literature consulted for this article, only Melé (2009a, c) and Argandoña (1998) refer to Maritain’s work. Melé (2009c) observes that Maritain’s Theperson and the common good (1947/1972) “suggested that there is a ‘Thomistic Personalism’ mainly on account of Aquinas’s notion and meaning of person, which is expressive of dignity (S Th II–II, 32, 5). He understood ‘person’ as ‘an individual substance [subject] of rational nature’ (S Th I, 29, 4)” (p. 229) (“persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia”, originally Boethius’), and Maritain as a recent author who “especially stressed” the “concept of the common good” (p. 241). Argandoña (1998, p. 1100) acknowledges Maritain’s Humanismo integral (Integral humanism) and Theperson and the common good among Christian writers’ work with “interesting ideas” about the theory of the common good. In Spitzeck et al. (eds.)’s Humanism in business, Maritain’s work is only noticed by Melé (2009a) who quotes Maritain’s definition of humanism (p. 123), and lists him (p. 127) among authors who have developed a Judeo-Christian or “transcendent humanism” (along with Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber). Zúñiga (2001) only mentions Maritain as one of the “realist personalists in the Christian anthropological tradition” (p. 163), along with Étienne Gilson and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). Even those authors explicitly writing within a Catholic tradition framework (e.g., Grassl and Habisch 2011; Sandelands 2009; Wishloff 2009) have not discussed Maritain’s contribution even though his influence on Second Vatican, particularly regarding the apostolate of laypeople and the role of human rights, and on Karol Wojtyla’s personalist work (e.g., Acevedo 2009) is well known. His friend Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI), who admired him and even referred to him as his teacher, recognized his influence on his encyclical on economic justice (DeMarco 1991; Marrus 2004).


For more on humanism and its history, see Melé (2003, 2009a), Cherry (2009, from a secular standpoint), and de Lubac (1963/1995, from a Christian standpoint). Melé (2009a) also discusses recent anti-humanistic and post-humanistic trends such as structuralism and some ecologist positions such as “deep ecology” (pp. 124–126).


Radical idealistic, rationalistic, empiricist, and materialistic expressions of nonpersonalism, such as Hegel’s, Comte’s, Marx’s, and Nietzsche’s, have also been termed impersonalistic (Williams and Bengtsson 2009). Given this article’s scope, and for the sake of clarity, only the terms personalism and nonpersonalism are used throughout.


As pointed out by Melé et al. (2011, p. 2), the phrase “new humanistic synthesis” is used by Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009, n. 21), recently discussed by Grassl and Habisch (2011). Insofar as “the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms”, “based on man’s creation ‘in the image of God’” (Gen 1:27) underlies it, this document (though also influenced by Augustinian theology, ibid.) has affinities with Maritainian personalism.


The following describes the economic view of the human being: “as a rational being, with self-interest in maximizing his or her utilities, generally led by desires for wealth, personal satisfaction, and to avoid unnecessary labor. Rational is understood as capacity for instrumental rationality, that is, for judging the comparative efficacy of a means to obtain an end” (Melé 2009b, p. 413).


In addition to the work of the influential social theorist Max Weber, also blamed for the value neutrality concerning ends with which business administration has tended to be approached (see, for example, Grassl and Habisch 2011, p. 37), University of Chicago theories in the tradition of Milton Friedman’s liberalism, such as “transaction cost economics, game theory, social network analysis, theories of social dilemmas” (Ghoshal 2005, p. 84), are also related to this brand of individualism.


In a recent interview, University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has said: “Many, if not most, sociological theories operate with an emaciated view of the person running in the background, models that are grossly oversimplified. Persons are conceptualized as rational reward-maximizers or compliant norm-followers or essentially meaning-seekers or genetic-reproduction machines or whatever else. Often such views are one-dimensional and simplistic. They fail to even begin to portray the complexity and richness of human personal life” (Dreher 2011).


Even in those values-based management positions that claim to “apply ethical” values or principles, the ‘ethical’ basis is often ambiguous at best; relativistic at worst. The following quote illustrates this point: “Value choices always present dilemmas. A decision to downsize, which undermines the dignity of the workforce and the organization’s culture but increases efficiency, short-term profits, and stockholder returns, is grounded in a conflict between moral and economic choices. There are no readily accepted guidelines for resolving value dilemmas, which vary widely from organization to organization with the goals, priorities, and relative decision freedom of senior managers. How managers resolve these dilemmas defines the values and performance of the organization and many of society’s values as well” (Anderson 1997, p. 27).


Donaldson, whose Corporations and morality (1982) develops the notion of business-society contract, pointedly remarks that the “social contract justifies corporations as productive organizations, not as corporations”; i.e., the social contract “has fallen short of a full moral comprehension of corporations” (p. 54, emphasis added).


For more on the relationship between philosophy and the special sciences, see Alzola (2011), Buchholz and Rosenthal (2008), Hartman (2011), Karakas (2010), Smith (2010), Victor and Stephens (1994), Wishloff (2009), and Zúñiga (2001).


This explains why some thinkers have been called “personalists” but, clearly, are not (particularly from a Maritainian personalism standpoint); for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Maritain 1947/1972, p. 13).


Rather than as “one school”, Maritain refers to personalism as primarily a “current”, a “concept”, “an aspiration”, or “a reaction against both totalitarian and individualistic errors” (1947/1972, p. 12). With many voices that have enriched it and kept it vibrant, though, personalism has sound philosophical foundations as will be outlined shortly. Some distinguished personalist (though not necessarily in the Maritainian sense) philosophers from recent centuries are: Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Martin Buber, Maurice Blondel, Étienne Gilson, Yves Simon, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Robert Spaemann, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Karol Wojtyła. Although some of this work has been addressed in the fields of economics and business ethics (e.g., Babiuch-Luxmoore 1999; Bouckaert 1999; Finn 2003; Melé 2003, 2009a, c; O’Boyle 2003; Puel 1999; Sandelands 2009; Whetstone 2002; Wishloff 2009; Zúñiga 2001), more research is necessary as presently argued. According to Williams and Bengtsson (2009), the term personalism originated “in Germany, where ‘der Personalismus’ was first used by F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768–1834) in his book Über die Religion in 1799”. For an overview of personalism and personalist philosophers, see Melé (2009c); for more detail, including historical and linguistic aspects, see Williams and Bengtsson (2009) and Zúñiga (2001).


There have also been a few attempts to approach the natural sciences from a personalistic standpoint (e.g., the physical chemist and philosopher of science Polanyi 1958).


Unless otherwise noted, the quotes in this section are from Maritain’s works (see References).


“[The doctrine of the purification of the means] insists first and foremost on the positive will to raise up means not only good in general, but truly proportionate to their end, truly bearing on them the stamp and imprint of their end: means in which that very justice which pertains to the essence of the common good and that very sanctification of secular life which pertains to its perfection shall be embodied” (1951a, p. 63; see also 1947/1972, pp. 62ff). Besides, “the premises of philosophy are independent of theology, being those primary truths which are self-evident to the understanding, whereas the premises of theology are the truths revealed by God” (1931/2005, p. 84).


“The [intellectual] intuition of being is not only, like the reality of the world and of things, the absolutely primary foundation of philosophy. It is the absolutely primary principle of philosophy (when the latter is able to be totally faithful to itself and achieve all of its dimensions)” (1966/1968, p. 111; see also 1948/1966, pp. 19ff, 1952b, Chap. III). Metaphysics “proceeds purely by way of conceptual and rational knowledge. Like all rational knowledge it presupposes sense experience; and insofar as it is metaphysics, it implies the intellectual intuition of being qua being” (1952b, p. 29). According to Maritain, “the concept of existence cannot be detached from the concept of essence” (1948/1966, p. 25). These quotes already highlight some important differences between Maritainian personalism and, on the other hand, materialism, empiricism, idealism, rationalism, and (non-Thomistic) existentialism.


“When Aristotle writes that he who escapes social life is either a beast or a god (Politics, 1, 2, 1253 a 29), he certainly intends to reject any kind of solitary life […]” (1960/1964, p. 42).


The term personality (as well as personhood, person, and personal) is used throughout this article in the Maritainian personalism sense explained in this section, and not as distinctive individual mental and behavioral traits as commonly now understood in the field of (scientific) psychology. Conversely, the term psychology is used as commonly understood nowadays; the only exception, in the Thomistic sense as the study of the soul and its properties, occurs in the next paragraph.


Melé’s (2009c) explanation of this distinction, consistent with but different from Maritain’s, is as follows: “Personalism differs from Individualism. The person is not seen as having an isolated existence, united to others only by social contracts. On the contrary, the person is seen as a social being with intrinsic relationships with others and an interdependent existence” (p. 229).


Substance is a “thing or nature whose property is to exist by itself, or in virtue of itself (per se) and not in another thing” (1931/2005, p. 163).


The “persona” is a “whole which subsists and exists in virtue of the very subsistence and existence of its spiritual soul, and acts by setting itself its own ends […]. Only the person is free; only the person possesses, in the full sense of these words, inwardness and subjectivity […]” (1948/1966, p. 68).


As Maritain acknowledges, the notion of “natural law” is inherited from Greek, Roman, and medieval Christian thought (1950/2001). “By the very virtue of human nature” the natural law is, ontologically, “an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the essential and necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or natural law, is nothing more than that” (1951a, p. 86).


Maritain’s distinction between the way the moral law is known and moral philosophy merits further explanation. Knowledge through connaturality is “a kind of knowledge which is produced in the intellect but not by virtue of conceptual connections and by way of demonstration” (1951b/2001, p. 13, see also, 1952b, Chap. III; Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2a2ae, 45, 2). “In this knowledge through union or inclination, connaturality or congeniality, the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will and is guided and directed by them” (1951b/2001, p. 15). Moreover, this knowledge “plays an immense part in human existence, especially in that knowing of the singular which comes about in everyday life and in our relationship of person to person” (pp. 15–16). Accordingly, in a free decision, “[the human being] takes into account, not only all that he possesses of moral science and factual information, and which is manifested to him in concepts and notions, but also all the secret elements of evaluation which depend on what he is, and which are known to him through inclination, through his own actual propensities and his own virtues” (pp. 19–20). Moral philosophy, on the other hand, is “reflective knowledge […]. The moral law was discovered by men before the existence of any moral philosophy. Moral philosophy has critically to analyze and rationally to elucidate moral standards and rules of conduct whose validity was previously discovered in an undemonstrable manner, and in a non-conceptual manner, non-rational way; it has also to clear them, as far as possible, from the adventitious outgrowths or deviations which may have developed by reason of the coarseness of our nature and the accidents of social evolution” (p. 22)


For more on natural rights, classified as rights of the human person, rights of the civic person, and rights of the working person, see Maritain (1943b/2001, pp. 75–98, see also, 1951a). Of particular interest to business ethics, the latter category includes the following: “The right freely to choose his work; the right freely to form vocational groups or trade-unions, the right of the worker to be considered socially as an adult; the right of economic groups (trade-unions and working communities) and other social groups to freedom and autonomy; the right to a just wage, the right to work, and wherever and associative system can be substituted for the wage system, the right to joint ownership and joint management of the enterprise and to the ‘worker’s title’; the right to relief, unemployment insurance, sick benefits, and social security; the right to have a part, free of charge, depending on the possibilities of the community, in the elementary goods, both material and spiritual, of civilization” (1943b/2001, p. 98).


Maritain’s “more phenomenological and historical understanding of natural moral law” is his main contribution to Thomistic natural law thought (Proietti 2009, pp. 115–116; see also, Puel 1999).


Although in some cases they may be false or, at least, questionable. Attempts to explain and justify altruistic behavior (e.g., risking one’s life to help a stranger) on purely egoistic grounds, for example, have been questioned (Bowie 1991).


Maritain’s discussion on this fundamental matter evidences the Thomistic (and Aristotelian) roots of his thought. In contrast with positivism on the one hand (e.g., Comte), and pure intellectualism or idealism (e.g., Hegel) on the other, Maritain states that philosophy’s “formal principles are the first principles apprehended in the concept of being, whose cogency consists wholly in their evidence for the intellect, and […] its [philosophy’s] matter is experience, and its facts the simplest and most obvious facts—the starting-point from which it rises to the causes and grounds which constitute the ultimate explanation” (1931/2005, p. 96).


“A sound philosophy can therefore dispense with the particular system of scientific explanations of which it makes use in accordance with the state of science at a particular epoch, and if that system were one day proved to be false the truth of that philosophy would not be affected. Only its language and its illustrations with which it clothed its truths would require modification” (1931/2005, p. 78).


“[…] a period in the history of human culture in which philosophy is not allowed her rightful suzerainty over the sciences as scientia rectrix (St. Thomas, Metaphysics, Introduction) inevitably ends in a condition of intellectual chaos and a general weakening of the reasoning faculty” (1931/2005, p. 75).


See Footnote 12.


Actually, Maritain’s very intellectual life (see McInerny 2003; Schall 1998), in humble but unflinching commitment to the truth, is in itself inspiring to academics and researchers of all fields. In the Preface to one of his final books (he was 84 at the time), The Peasant of the Garonne: An old layman questions himself about the present time (1966/1968), Maritain states: “I will merely say that in the expression ‘an old layman’ the word ‘old’ has a twofold meaning: it says that the author is an octogenarian, and that he is an inveterate layman. […] A peasant of the Danube—or of the Garonne—is, as anyone who has read La Fontaine knows, a man who puts his foot in his mouth, or who calls a spade a spade. This is what, in all modesty, and not without fearing to be unequal to the task (less easy, to be sure, than one might believe), I would like to attempt.” In an earlier work, he says “the philosopher, just because the object of his studies is the most sublime, should personally be the humblest of students, a humility, however, which should not prevent his defending, as it is his duty to do, the sovereign dignity of wisdom as the queen of sciences” (1931/2005, p. 69).


For more on this distinction, see Hartman (2011, p. 7) and Giovanola (2009). See, also, footnotes 35 and 37 for Maritain’s observations on happiness.


In his Moral philosophy (1960/1964), Maritain also criticizes the following humanistic but nonpersonalistic teachings that have left their mark on the history of ethics: Hegelian idealism, Marxist dialectical materialism, and Comte’s positivism (three “anthropocentric” philosophers “whose work has seriously disorganized moral knowledge, not only among philosophers but also in broad sectors of the common conscience”, p. 353), Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, and Dewey’s “absolute” naturalism (pp. 396ff), among others (see also, his Three reformers (1929/1970) for critiques of Descartes’ and Rousseau’s thought, and The range of reason (1952b) for critiques of positivism, materialism, determinism, atheistic existentialism, and other nonpersonalistic trends). Not to be confused with other “varieties of existentialisms”, Maritain’s theistic existentialism is based on Thomas Aquinas’, the “only” “authentic existentialism” because it “affirm[s] the primacy of existence, but as implying and preserving essences or natures and as manifesting the supreme victory of the intellect and intelligibility” (1948/1966, pp. 1, 3).


For example, Melé (2009c); Williams and Bengtsson (2009). In many ways this is accurate, particularly given its categorical imperative’s recognition of the intrinsic worth of human beings. Strictly following Maritain’s personalism, however, there are some differences, as will be seen shortly.


“It is impossible for Aristotelian ethics to escape from the embrace of the Self, from a kind of transcendental egoism. Within the moral perspective of Happiness as the supreme Good, I cannot deliver myself, I can never be delivered of myself, I can never be freed from my egoistical love of myself. And yet in the end it is just such a deliverance that we long for.[…] By a curious paradox, it happens that all its principles are true (in particular, the very principle of eudemonism is true, in the sense that Happiness is the last subjective End of human life, or the last end relative to the human subject; Aristotle’s error was in not going further—and could he, with only the weapons of philosophical reason?).[…] True as they are (but incomplete), […] they are incapable of stirring his [man’s] aspirations and his profoundest hopes, which go beyond rational and reasonable happiness, incapable of probing the recesses of his ego and the world of the irrational with its impulses toward death and the void. In a word, what is infinite in man has been forgotten. The vanitas vanitatum of the Preacher is the reverse side of Aristotelian eudemonism” (Maritain 1960/1964, pp. 49–50). Maritain’s concerns were not unwarranted. The ‘objectivist’ Ayn Rand, claiming Aristotelian influence, developed a ‘rational egoism’ whose philosophical flaws and disturbing practical implications have been much discussed (e.g., DeMarco 2004a; Jacobs 2009). This fact, however, has not kept her novels praising extreme individualism, The fountainhead (1943) and Atlas shrugged (1957), from being best-sellers.


As evident from the section on Maritainian personalism, Aristotle’s notion of man is not equivalent to Maritain’s notion of human person. This difference may help to explain why viewing some human beings as inferior (e.g., slaves and women) is allowed by the Aristotelian framework, but clearly incompatible with Maritain’s personalism.


“[…] the pursuit of happiness here on earth is the pursuit, not of material advantages, but of moral righteousness, of the strength and perfection of the soul, with the material and social conditions thereby implied” (Maritain 1943b/2001, p. 78). Elsewhere, Maritain observes that happiness consists of “the full achievement or perfect fulfillment of the being and powers of the subject and of the desires rooted in his nature” (1960/1964, p. 99).


Kant “regarded the thing-in-itself as wholly unknowable” (Maritain 1931/2005, p. 169ff). “…since it is only as intelligence that he is his proper self (being as man only appearance of himself), he knows that those laws apply to him directly and categorically, so that that to which inclinations and impulses and hence the entire nature of the world of sense incite him cannot in the least impair the laws of his volition as an intelligence. He does not even hold himself responsible for these inclinations and impulses or attribute them to his proper self, i.e., his will, […]” (Kant 1785/1959, p. 77).


Perhaps its best known formulation is: “For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but in every case also as an end in himself” (Kant 1785/1959, p. 52).


According to Wojtyla (1960/1993, p. 41), “in its negative aspect, [the personalistic norm] states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love”.


Although perhaps somewhat extreme (after all, consequential questions, though neither the sole nor determining dimension in ethics, are not overlooked by prudence; see Melé 2010), Maritain’s conclusion that “moral philosophy has [no] important lesson to learn from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill” (1960/1964, p. 94) is not altogether unwarranted. A modern expression of utilitarianism, Peter Singer’s with its emphasis on “quality of life” (DeMarco 2004b; Melé 2009a, p. 125), underlines the shortcomings identified by Maritain.


Enron, for instance, was well known for its ‘socially responsible’ practices such as corporate philanthropy, environmental leadership, code of ethics, and publication of a triple bottom line report (Vogel 2005, pp. 38–39).



Part of the literature review of Maritain’s personalism is based on a thesis (Acevedo 2009) submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary under the direction of Dr. Donald DeMarco. I also gratefully acknowledge two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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