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The Concept of the Principle of Totality


A simple expression of the principle of totality means, "the parts of the physical entity, as parts, are ordained to the good of the physical whole." From the medical perspective, the principle of totality would mean that "all the parts of the human body, as parts, are meant to exist and function for the good of the whole body, and are thus naturally subordinated to the good of the whole body."

The term "totality" points to the duty to preserve intact the physical component of that integrated whole. In the following sections we will discuss the philosophical and theological foundations, different views, and the scope of the principle of totality.

Philosophical and Theological Foundations of the Principle of Totality


The roots of the principle of totality are spread through the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas. St. Bonaventure and the Scholastic moral theologians also expressed the idea of the principle of totality. This principle has been used for many centuries as a justification for mutilation.

Concerning the official teaching on the principle of totality, we find application of the principle very briefly in Casti Connubii (no. 23) by Pius XI and, in a wider perspective in the writings of Pius XII.

Although moralists had incorporated the teachings of Aquinas on the subordination of the part to the whole, Pius XII made many official statements regarding the medico-moral application of the principle. He first named it as the principle of totality (13th September 1952, in his allocution to the Italian Society of Histopathologists).


Theory: The principle of totality presupposes that "parts exist for the whole ... The good of the part is subordinated to the good of the whole; the whole is the determining factor for the part and can dispose of its own interest."

Aristotle puts it briefly as totum quam parte, prius esse necesse est.The main notions on which the principle grounds itself are "the whole, the part, and their mutual relationships."

Regarding the part, Aristotle explains it in the following manner:


1) A part denotes any portion of a quantum into which it can "be divided, for that which is taken from a quantum qua quantum" remains always a part of it. For example, two can be named "in a sense a part of three." There are two types of meaning for it. In the first place, part means "only those which measure the whole," which includes only two. In another sense a part cannot be considered as a "part of three."

2) Part can be understood as the constituent element of a dividable kind "apart from the quantity." For instance, "species are part of the genus."

3) Whole, which includes a part, can be divided. Here Aristotle uses the term 'whole' in the sense of "form or that which has form." He gives the example of the bronze sphere or bronze cube which is from bronze or it can denote a portion of material body which gives form to that.

4) Finally, the constituent "elements in the definition which explain a thing are also parts of the whole."

Aristotle explains the 'whole' in the following way:

The whole is: y (1) "that from which is absent none of the parts of which it is said to be naturally a whole, and y (2) that which so contains the things it contains that they form a unity; and this in two senses - either as being each severally one single thing, or as making up the unity between them.

According to Thomas, Aristotle's concept of a whole includes two things:

1) "the perfection of the whole be integrated from the parts of which it is constituted;" y 2) "that these parts form a unity.Without its parts, there is no ground for the whole. Hence, the concepts of part and whole are correlative.

The Principle of Totality and the Justification of Mutilation by Thomas


an organ that is endangering an individual's whole body may legitimately be removed by his own consent for the sake of the well-being of the body as a whole, since each individual is responsible for the well being of his body as a whole. And the same reasoning applies where it is somebody else's responsibility to look after the person with the infected organ. In any other case it is wrong to mutilate another.

Mutilation is licit according to Thomas when it is necessary for the good of the entire body

Three basic elements that justify mutilation in the teachings of Thomas

1) Mutilation is justified for the well-being of the whole body. y 2) It is not against the role of the human person as the protector of his/her body. This is done on the basis of a human person's limited power over his/her body for the betterment of whole body. y 3) Mutilation in the form of penalty for a crime can be done by the state.

Encyclical Casti Connubii (Dec. 31, 1930), no. 23 states:


It is to be observed also that even the individual human being-as Christian doctrine teaches and the light of reason clearly shows-has no power over the members of his own body except so far as he uses them for their natural purpose

He cannot destroy or mutilate them, or in any other way render himself incapable of his natural functions, except where there is no other way of providing for the welfare of the body as a whole.

Pius XII

According to him, "a part of the body has no meaning outside its reference to the whole, that as a part is to be thought of only in relation to the whole."

The Principle of Totality and the Justification of Mutilation in Moral Theology


1) A diseased part is harmful to the whole body. All moral theologians unanimously agree upon a legitimate sacrifice of a part for the good of the whole.

2) Another question pertains to "the predicament of a person who was ordered by a tyrant to cut off his own hand." The scholastic moralists hold that the "self-inflicted mutilation was licit" when "the sacrifice of the part was" to safeguard the whole.

3) Another case is "the necessity to amputate an extremity." The example is that "the foot of a person is caught in the railroad track as the train rapidly approaches." Traditional moralist justified "the subordination of the part to the whole.