The Common Good: Instrumental But Not Just Contractual


Is the fundamental and essential point of forming the polity the polity itself, or is the polity primarily a means of protecting and achieving many other valuable ends?

Yesterday on Public Discourse, Michael W. Hannon posted a vigorous critique of a thesis I have defended about the nature of the political common good. I will reply, but before doing that I want to thank Mr. Hannon. Although he did not manage to persuade me of the error of my ways, I was gratified and impressed by the intelligence and moral seriousness of his essay. When criticism is this thoughtful, one needn’t be persuaded in order to appreciate and even learn from it.

In my article “Ruling to Serve,” published in the April 2013 issue of First Things magazine, I argued “that the common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good and that this entails moral limits on justified governmental power.” Please note two things about this claim. First, I do not deny that life in political society provides many opportunities for the realization of human goods that are not merely instrumental. Second, I do not claim that the only moral limits on the scope of governmental power are those entailed by the nature of the common good of political society as fundamentally an instrumental good.

What does it mean to say that the common good of a community or form of association is fundamentally an instrumental good, as opposed to an intrinsic good?

It means that the community in question is primarily a means to the realization of valuable ends by members of the community; it is not an end in itself. Participating in the life of the community as one of its members does not immediately instantiate a basic aspect of our well-being and fulfillment as human persons.

Let’s begin with a clear case: a commercial business firm. When people cooperate to produce and deliver goods or services and generate profits, the primary point of the association is not the association itself. Although in the course of cooperating to make the business flourish, those associated with the firm have many opportunities to realize the good of friendship and other intrinsic goods, the point of the firm is not “to be the firm,” considered as something valuable in itself. On the contrary, the primary point of the firm is supplied by the ends to which the creation and flourishing of the firm are means. Those ends are the reasons the parties have for cooperating to establish and maintain this particular form of association.

This will become clearer if we contrast the common good of commercial enterprises with the common good of communities or associations whose common good is fundamentally an intrinsic good—the family, for example, or the church. To be sure, families and churches do many instrumentally valuable things for their members and others. But the point of being a family (and a member of the family) or being the church (and a member of the church) is not exhausted by ends extrinsic to the family or the church to which these communities are means. By participating in the life of the family or the community of faith, a person immediately realizes a basic aspect of human well-being and fulfillment. The most fundamental reason people have for participating in the life of the family is the inherent (i.e., constitutive) fulfillments of being part of the unique community of mutual obligation and care that is the family. Similarly, the most fundamental reasons people have to be members of the church are the inherent fulfillments of participating in the life—the communio, the koinonia—of the community of faith.

So the question arises: What about the political community? Is its common good like that of a commercial business firm, or is the political common good like that of the family and the church? It is on this matter that Hannon and I part ways. As I mentioned in my essay, however, “[t]here is, in what Sir Isaiah Berlin referred to as ‘the central tradition of western thought’ about morality a powerful current of belief that the common good of political society is an intrinsic good.” So, although I reject it, there is nothing odd or idiosyncratic about Hannon’s position; nor is my opposing view obviously and unquestionably correct.

Following Aristotle, Hannon maintains that there is a distinctive form of intrinsic value in the activity of ruling and being ruled, and in developing and practicing the virtues necessary to participate in this reciprocal activity. But here, I would suggest, we need to be as precise as possible and very careful. As I observed, it is certainly true that participation in the life of a political community (like participation in the life of a commercial business firm) provides many opportunities for the realization of intrinsic goods (and, let me add, the cultivation and practice of virtues of the sort necessary for the fulfillment of one’s roles as a member of the political community or the business firm). The decisive point, as I see it, however, is that there is no good pertaining to the political community that is alike in kind to the constitutive good of being a member of the family or the community of faith. If more efficient means than those provided by political organization and authority were available for realizing the ends government characteristically secures, nothing intrinsically valuable would be lost if the political order were to be dissolved and those ends were to be secured by other (more efficient) means. (Of course, as a practical matter this is not possible; that is because political authority is in fact the best—and sometimes the only—means of achieving certain ends that are central to the common good. This is why John Finnis, who shares my belief that the common good of the political community is primarily an instrumental and not an intrinsic good, also affirms, as I myself cheerfully do, Aristotle’s teaching that the political common good is “great and god-like” in its ambition to secure the vast ensemble of conditions—including all the forms of cooperation and collaboration—necessary for the flourishing of the polity and the people comprising it.)

Hannon says that “an essential perfection of the social nature of man is political virtue.” Now, I do not doubt that virtues of various types are required for the proper fulfillment of persons’ civic duties, just as various virtues are required for properly carrying out one’s tasks as a worker in a commercial enterprise. Nor, as I have already suggested, do I deny that there are frequently opportunities for the realization of more-than-merely-instrumental goods in connection with one’s activities as a citizen or worker. I certainly agree that among the human goods whose intelligibility we grasp as providing more than merely instrumental reasons for action are intrinsic goods (such as the basic human goods of friendship and marriage) that are realized precisely by participating in relationships of certain types. This is the evidence that man’s nature is indeed, as Hannon says, “social.” The fundamental and essential point of entering into a friendship is the friendship—not ends extrinsic to the bond of friendship itself to which the relationship is a means. The fundamental and essential point of entering into a marriage is conjugal union itself, and not extrinsic ends to which the marital bond is a means. (That is why it is incorrect to view marriage as merely instrumental to the admittedly profound good of procreation and the nurturing and educating of children.)

The rub, however, comes when we ask if the same can be said for a decision to enter (or establish or maintain) the political community. Is the fundamental and essential point of forming the polity the polity itself, or is the polity primarily a means of protecting and achieving many other valuable ends (some of which, to be sure, will themselves be inherently social and not “individualistic”)? Here, to me, is where the political community much more closely resembles the commercial business firm in a way that distinguishes them both from the family and the church.

What determines the intrinsic or instrumental nature of the common good of any community is the set of reasons people have for forming and maintaining the community. The reason we need political communities is not that the political community is valuable quite apart from the many profoundly important ends to which it is a valuable and often even indispensable means; it is, rather, because families and other institutions of civil society are not self-sufficient. They cannot by themselves accomplish all that needs to be accomplished for their own flourishing and the flourishing of their members. At a certain level, they require assistance. What they cannot do, yet needs doing, must in some cases be done by political authority—and that is why political authority exists and is justified.

It is here, of course, that the doctrine of subsidiarity (on which I placed great emphasis in my First Things article) enters the picture: When government seeks to do for individuals, families, churches, and other institutions of civil society what they could do for themselves, it unjustly trespasses on their authority.

If I have understood Hannon correctly, his view eliminates that possibility of a distinction between (a) a form of association’s being necessary for realizing our all-round flourishing as human persons, and (b) a form of association’s being a constitutive aspect of such flourishing (i.e. an intrinsic good). But the distinction is real and important. It is a mistake to assume that (b) is entailed by (a). This can easily be shown by considering the legal-economic category of contracts for trade. Contractual relationships (or something very much like them) are indispensable to the all-round flourishing of political communities. They are practically necessary even in primitive tribal societies. Abolishing the category of contract would deeply damage the common good of just about any community. Yet, obviously contracts are of instrumental, not intrinsic, value, and the common good of contractual partners is primarily instrumental rather than intrinsic.

A serious error I must point to in Hannon’s critique of my view is his suggestion that it reflects, or presupposes, or somehow entails “egoism” and “atomistic individualism.” There is simply no basis for this suggestion. This error is related to another: namely the identification of my view with “Lockeanism.” It is tempting but often misleading to slot ideas and arguments into pre-existing categories or schools of thought, such as “Lockeanism” or, for that matter, “Aristotelianism.” Because someone rejects an important feature of, say, Aristotle’s thought about politics (for example, the idea that the political common good is fundamentally or primarily an intrinsic good, like the common good of the family), it doesn’t follow that he or she necessarily accepts Lockean individualism (much less a view that could justly be labeled “egoism”). It is a mistake to imagine that these are the only options. In the case at hand, they are false alternatives.

Nor is it sound to suggest that in my own thought “the common good of the political community is merely the proper setting of the stage for its constituent members to attain individual goods.” The role of the political community, as I view it, is to enable individuals and communities of various sorts (the common good of some of which is an intrinsic and not merely an instrumental good) to achieve or more fully realize their goods—many of which are inherently social (i.e., not reducible to individual benefits).

Collectivism and strict libertarianism, though opposing views, are alike in their tendency to see only the individual and the state in thinking about the terms and conditions of social and political life. They tend to leave out of the picture the many—and profoundly important—institutions of civil society whose cultivation and flourishing is crucial to the preservation of both liberty and social solidarity—the “intermediate” institutions that are, in a sense, a buffer between the central power of the state and the life of the person, and that play the primary role in transmitting to persons in their formative years the virtues that are essential to meaningful lives and successful polities.

So, although I do indeed, understand the common good of political society primarily in terms of conditions for the realization of a range of other goods, Hannon inadvertently misrepresents my view when he describes it as a set of conditions “for the undisturbed attainment of individual goods.” And it is on the basis of this misunderstanding that he slots me into a school of thought for which I have no sympathy and against which I have contended forcefully, namely, what he calls “the social-contract perversion of philosophical anthropology.”

Moreover, it is on this basis that Hannon seriously overstates my position (in the Lockean direction) by saying that it “no longer understand[s] political authority as natural, necessary, and proper to man, but instead view[s] it as a contractually created restraint on our individual autonomy.” On the contrary, I hold that political authority is (1) “natural” precisely inasmuch as it is necessary—in practice, always and everywhere—for the realization of the overall common good. Authority is necessary because (i) unanimity in decisions required for the coordination of human behavior for the sake of the common good is practically impossible, and (ii) the alternative to authority and consensus is brute (unauthoritative) force, which is unjust. Perhaps it is worth noting here that the fact that there is a practically impossible but conceptually conceivable alternative might support the proposition that political authority—while a practical necessity—is not actually constitutive of our flourishing. If we all regularly reached consensus we could avoid coordination problems without any serious privation or harm to the human good. The same is not true of the family or the church, however, revealing that the common good of these communities is indeed primarily intrinsic and not instrumental. I hold that political authority is (2) “necessary” because it is the best and often the only way of securing certain important aspects of the overall common good; and that (3) it is proper because it serves the interests of members of the community who, as human persons, are the ends to which social systems of every type—political, economic, legal—are means. What is more, I deny that political obligation and authority require a social-contractual basis, and that the primary purpose of authority is to restrain individual autonomy. Its primary purpose, rather, is to coordinate human behavior for the sake of serving the overall common good of persons—individuals, to be sure, but individuals who find their fulfillment in significant part in being in relationships with others of types that are intrinsically fulfilling and not merely instrumentally valuable.

Another problem with Hannon’s critique is that he supposes—quite wrongly—that my view of the common good of the political community as fundamentally an instrumental good is driven by an antecedent desire to find a secure basis for limitations on the scope of the power of government. It isn’t. If anything, things are the other way round: The contours of my views about the proper limits of government have been shaped significantly (though not exclusively) by my conviction that the common good of the polity is fundamentally an instrumental good. This is not to say that I would abandon belief in the importance of limited government or the validity of the set of norms comprising subsidiarity if I were to be persuaded that the common good of political society is fundamentally an intrinsic good. It is merely to say that I arrived at my view of the nature of the political common good (and its implications for limited government) “on the merits,” and not because I was fishing around for the best justification for limiting government.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.



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