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To Flourish or Destruct

A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil

To Flourish or Destruct

A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil

In his 2010 book What Is a Person?, Christian Smith argued that sociology had for too long neglected this fundamental question. Prevailing social theories, he wrote, do not adequately “capture our deep subjective experience as persons, crucial dimensions of the richness of our own lived lives, what thinkers in previous ages might have called our ‘souls’ or ‘hearts.’” Building on Smith’s previous work, To Flourish or Destruct examines the motivations intrinsic to this subjective experience: Why do people do what they do? How can we explain the activity that gives rise to all human social life and social structures?
Smith argues that our actions stem from a motivation to realize what he calls natural human goods: ends that are, by nature, constitutionally good for all human beings. He goes on to explore the ways we can and do fail to realize these ends—a failure that can result in varying gradations of evil. Rooted in critical realism and informed by work in philosophy, psychology, and other fields, Smith’s ambitious book situates the idea of personhood at the center of our attempts to understand how we might shape good human lives and societies.

384 pages | 8 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Philosophy: Ethics

Religion: Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Ethics

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


“Smith extends his careful work on the individual, as presented in What Is a Person?, to demonstrate the insufficiency of human motivation and agency in the work of social scientists, in particular sociologists. . . . Smith’s careful readings of Marx and sociologists Goffman and Durkheim reveal how their reductionist readings of human motivation cannot account for why humans act or fail to flourish. Smith then sets out a careful theory about the sorts of needs humans must satisfy in order to flourish and the ways that these needs structure human action. This major work in sociological theory should be read by social scientists in all disciplines. Highly recommended.”


To Flourish or Destruct poses a powerful and important challenge to the entire discipline of sociology. Smith is becoming the anchor of a humanist renewal in sociology and although he is not alone in this movement, what makes To Flourish or Destruct different is a coherent, new, oppositional perspective that draws on critical realism to affirm both human personhood and the ever-present moral element in human affairs. Smith’s Personalism could become the banner around which a very different kind of sociology develops, one that respects the centered consciousness that is human personhood.”

Douglas Porpora, Drexel University

“Speaking in a voice of common sense and reasonableness, and using everyday language, Smith blasts apart most of the assumptions of modern social science and relativism and sets up an alternative scaffolding of moral realism and the theoretical position he calls Personalism. This book represents a major advance in sociology and more specifically within critical realism, which is gradually emerging as a full-fledged alternative in the social sciences. I am fundamentally convinced by this book.”

George Steinmetz, University of Michigan

"Center stage in this new book is Smith’s effort to provide 'a better account of human motivations and interests that give rise to actions and practices.' Smith argues that other sociological theories either discount human motivations or define them much too simply. A core task of To Flourish or Destruct is to develop this criticism and, in light of it, uncover a richer, more accurate description of the motivations which explain our human actions. . . . At stake here is not some abstruse philosophical contention but a point crucial to our understanding of ourselves. It concerns the extent of our power to control, and hence be responsible for, what we do. . ."

Fare Forward

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Critical Realist Personalism—Some Basics

Chapter 2: Rethinking Motivations for Action

Chapter 3: Against Social Situationism

Chapter 4: Human Nature and Motivations in Classical Theory

Chapter 5: On Basic Human Goods, Interests, and Motivations

Chapter 6: Toward a Theory of Flourishing

Chapter 7: Understanding Failure, Destruction, and Evil





International Critical Realist Association: Cheryl Frank Memorial Prize

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