Becca / Reflections

Dating & the Personalistic Norm

Hello peanut butter lovers,

With Valentine’s Day upon us, it is quite understandable if we all have romance on the brain. This past summer I read Karol Wojtyla’s Love & Responsibility and ever since then I’ve been looking at relationships in a whole new light. We’ve been talking a lot about dating at  Avila House of late and some ideas have really seemed to stick.

What is Utilitarianism?

In Love & Responsibility, Wojtyla writes about utilitarianism, a theory in normative ethics with very practical applications and implications for interpersonal relationships. The word utilitarianism comes from the Latin verb uti (‘to use’ or ‘to take advantage of’) and the adjective utilis (‘useful’) and it posits that the right course of action in one that maximizes utility or, put more simply, brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism puts the emphasis on pleasure and rejects that which is not pleasurable. Does this not seem so prevalent in dating relationships today? If it’s easy and it makes me feel good, count me in, right?

But radical, authentic human love needs to be free of the utilitarian impulse. Happiness is important but it’s such a transient thing and, as Karol Wojtyla argues in Love & Responsibility, can lead to egoism. And while two mutually satisfying egoisms  can appear to an outside observer to be a pretty strong love : “It makes me happy to make her happy”, this affection has an expiration date because when loving and caring for the other no longer brings the lover in question joy and pleasure, he or she checks out in pursuit of something more fulfilling. Thus, utilitarianism in incompatible with true love.

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

– C.S. Lewis

No, we are not called to mutually satisfying egoisms! We are called to something far greater: radical, sacrificial human love. But how the heck do we do this?? Fortunately there’s an alternative norm that I think everyone should have in the back of their minds when dating or discerning new relationships.

Introducing…the Personalistic Norm

Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century philosopher, described a moral imperative later termed the ‘personalistic norm’. The idea here is that a person should never be treated as a mean to an end, but rather as an end in itself. In fact, the ONLY right response in the face of another human being is love and people must be treated in all things as an object of love, rather than an object of use.

The personalistic norm helps reveal the weakness of utilitarianism: if pleasure is our aim and motivation, everything we do to get there—and everyone involved in that pursuit of pleasure—becomes a means to an end. Myself and everyone else in my life become tools for obtaining maximum pleasure.


This has particularly weighty implications when it comes to intimate relationships, dating, and sex. So often we may be using people as a means to an end without ever realizing it. So here’s a quick list of faux-pas and some practical tips for abiding by the personalistic norm:

1. Perhaps the most obvious: dating for the sake of being in a relationship

This is clearly using your partner as a means to an end and it’s an affront to their inherent and inalienable human dignity. Don’t do it! Instead, use your time as a single person to develop strong friendships and discover who you really are so that when you meet someone who makes you feel alive, you’re the kind of person they’ll want to fall in love with.

2. Open relationships 

It’s understandable to want to keep a prospective relationship on your radar even if you don’t know exactly where it is heading but it’s extremely easy for someone to get hurt in this scenario. Don’t use someone as your human security blanket. Discern it, be intentional, and if it doesn’t work then move forward.  

3. Never talking to your ex again

Admittedly, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I know so many young Christians who are so fixated on meeting ‘the one’ that they become serial daters, or at least wonder if every new person they meet is their potential spouse. And then, when it doesn’t work out, they never talk to their exes again, saying, “Well, what’s the point?”

If you care about someone enough to date them, you need to care about them forever. This means not dropping them like a hot potato as soon as you know a relationship is not heading towards marriage. Otherwise you’re using your partner as a means to an end (marriage) and this contradicts the personalistic norm.

We are called to love radically and unconditionally, even after breaking up. Eventually romantic love can turn into philia, the love between friends.

Are you up for the challenge?

With you in prayer this Valentines Day,


5 thoughts on “Dating & the Personalistic Norm

  1. I absolutely agree with the “Personalistic Norm” – as long as we’re going with the definition and development that Wojtyla gives! Yes, both he and Kant use the term “Personalistic Norm,” but the reasons that Kant gives for it, and the conclusions he comes to, are really messed up, and couldn’t be further from Wojtyla’s understanding of it.

    Kant’s reasons for the Personalistic Norm are anti-Trinitarian, and anti-communal. His understanding of a person’s dignity comes from his understanding of freedom: The goodness and value of a person’s will that obeys something comes from the fact that the person and the person alone determined that morally good will. Any infringement of that will – from another person, or from God – is destroying that person’s dignity. So you have to see the person as an end, and not a means, because you have to protect is completely isolated autonomy. The “Our Father” is Kant’s worst nightmare. Kant also goes on to explain that sexual intercourse is contrary to a person’s dignity, because in sex, you are necessarily using the other person. So the only solution to this – and the only way to in some sense protect the Personalistic Norm – is to get married, because that way, at least both people will be using the other person’s body equally. Kinda creepy. From my understanding of Kant, love doesn’t really have anything to do with the Personalistic Norm. The ‘Love’ part is Wojtyla (but maybe you can enlighten me. I’m a bit rusty with my Moral Theology).

    Wojtyla points out (both in “Love and Responsibility” and in his “Theology of the Body”) that marriage is one of the places where man’s bodily participation in God’s love is most evident – marriage is a privileged place where man can be MOST seen as an end, and not as a means. For Wojtyla, only when a person understands that he is most intimately connected with God can he be most free, and that freedom entails loving the other by giving oneself away (eg. in marriage), and only then is the Personalistic Norm fully implemented and understood.

    • Woah! YES, thanks Jeremy for pointing out the distinction. It’s been a while since I’ve read Kant’s work directly but I can tell you that I was much more inspired last summer when reading Wojtyla’s interpretation than Kant’s original development of the theory.

      And while Kant might suggest that abandonment to God infringes on our human will, it seems to me as though it’s only through the act of abandonment and the renunciation of our self-interested desires that we are truly able to love others and treat them as an end itself.

    • Hi David. Kant doesn’t use the term “personalistic norm” but he was the first to write that people should not be used as a means to an end, calling his idea ‘the second formulation of the categorical imperative’. It was Wojtyla who later elaborated upon Kant’s work under the name personalistic norm.

      • Thanks, that was my understanding too. Except that Kant says that we must always act so as to treat the humanity in any person *also* as an end, and not *merely* as a means. But I don’t really understand what Wojtyla wants to say about this on pp. 27-28 of Love and Responsibility.

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