Debates over the nature and purpose of the state are never out of season. From Aristotle to Hobbes and beyond, the same critical questions arise anew in each age. Today, with new contests over nationalism versus globalism, the size and scope of government, and the very meaning of our political order, the issue remains as important as ever.

Beyond the world of policy, political philosophers debate the nature of the common good of the polity. Specifically, they ask whether the political common good is intrinsically good or only instrumentally good. Although it may seem abstract, the answer to this question has serious implications for both public policy and private life. Our answer provides the foundation for our views about, for example, the state’s role in organizing communities (should I see membership in my political community as valuable for its own sake?) and about the state’s role in regulating morality (should the state regulate virtue and vice, per se, or only for getting at other ends?).

As Aristotle taught, some things are intrinsically good, good in themselves, and thus we seek them for their own sakes. Other things are only instrumentally good, and thus we seek them as instruments to other ends. Health, friendship, and knowledge, for example, are things worth having in themselves, even though there are other benefits to possessing these goods. It’s useful to have a friend to pick me up from the airport, but it would still be worth having friends even if none of my friends had cars or driver’s licenses.

So how should we understand the common good of a nation? Is it worth pursuing for its own sake, or do we pursue it for the sake of the benefits it provides to us and those we love?

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It seems to me that the common good of certain communities (such as a family, a church) is worth pursuing for its own sake. But the distinctive common good of the political community is not in that category. To be sure, the common good of the political community is very much worth pursuing. But that’s for the sake of its instrumental benefits. That is, the state helps to create the conditions under which human flourishing can occur, but participation in it is not itself a part of human flourishing. Of course, the state plays a critical role in supporting human flourishing. Still, membership in the political community is not like membership in a family, which is valuable for its own sake and not only for what one “gets” out of it.

Business versus Family

Perhaps the best way to illustrate and examine the difference between the two views is through examples. We might contrast a community whose common good is plainly instrumental with a community whose common good is plainly intrinsic, and then return to the more difficult case of the common good of the political community.

A business is a good example of a community whose common good is primarily instrumental. Its purpose is to provide goods and services and to turn a profit. The fact that people can pursue a vocation through participation in the business—imagine that the business crafts exquisite violins, or does anything else that requires a skillful performance—demonstrates that people can realize human goods through participation in a community of this sort, even if that is not its primary function. It is similarly true that customers and proprietors can instantiate the good of friendship through participation in the business. But the distinctive common good of the business remains primarily instrumental, securing conditions for the participation in other goods. That is, the business aims primarily at providing goods and services to customers that enable them to instantiate human goods (such as playing a symphony) and at providing monetary income to the proprietors (with which they purchase food and education to instantiate the goods of health and knowledge). Providing goods, services, and income is the primary aim of the business and therefore is the end by which its common good is identified.

In contrast, a family is a clear example of a community whose common good is primarily intrinsic. To be sure, there are many ways in which participation in a family or religion is partly instrumental. Family members share costs for housing, for example, and children have their basic needs supplied by their parents. Nevertheless, being part of the family is good for its own sake. Thus, while the common good of the family may entail instrumental benefits to a greater or lesser degree in different families, often depending on material circumstances, these advantages do not make it more or less of a family. Likewise, the point of being part of the family does not vanish even when the instrumental benefits do. This explains why it is wrong to renounce one’s family to join a wealthier one, even though this would provide more instrumental benefits. Or, at least, it explains why something very real and irreplaceable is lost when one abandons one’s family to obtain better material circumstances.

A similar argument applies to religious groups, such as the Catholic Church or the People of Israel. The common good of these communities is primarily intrinsic. Participation in them can indeed provide many instrumental benefits. For instance, a congregation might provide daycare services, employment, or welfare assistance. As with the family, however, the common good of the Church or Israel is primarily intrinsic, because it resides in being a member of the people of God. In other words, the primary value arises in virtue of being part of that community, for its own sake, and not because of any instrumental benefits.

Indeed, none of the instrumental goods of communities necessarily requires the religious group for its attainment, and the absence of such goods would not negate the nature of the religious group or the intrinsic good realized through participation in it. Put plainly, daycare services can be acquired without the Church, and the Church does not cease to be the Church if it does not provide them. The one thing that cannot be attained without the Church is membership in the people of God. If it ceased to realize that good—or at least ceased to be some people’s best attempt to realize that good—then it would cease to be the Church, and membership in it would cease to be an instantiation of a basic good.

The Common Good of the Political Community

With this framework in mind, we can consider the common good of the political community and the question whether it primarily is intrinsically or instrumentally good. For Aristotle, the common good of the political community is primarily intrinsic. Membership in the polis is like membership in a family or religious group.

I disagree. As I see it, the purpose of being in a polis is to cooperate with other citizens for the attainment of security and other conditions that enable individuals, families, and religious groups to flourish. As in a business, membership in the political community provides many opportunities for citizens to realize human goods, but these friendships and so forth are not the point of the political community. Therefore, the common good of the political community is primarily instrumental.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that Aristotle thought that the common good of the political community was intrinsic. The ancient polis was very different from the modern nation-state, and he believed the political community was “great and godlike”—different in degree, but not in kind, from the family. Under those circumstances, it makes sense for Aristotle to have seen intrinsic value in membership in the political community. Speculatively, Aristotle’s view can be explained by the fact that he did not know an institution like the Church, that is, an intrinsically significant community larger than the family but distinct from the political community. On the contrary, for Aristotle the polis was, in a sense, the Church (anachronistically), and the gods were the gods of the city. This mode was inherited by Rome. Later, partly because of Christianity, the polis was seen less as a clan, and the city and God gradually separated.

We might analyze this more directly by returning to our examples, particularly the case of one leaving his family or business for more favorable material circumstances. Whereas it would be wrong for children to abandon their family to join a wealthier family, no one would say the same about leaving an employer to take a better job elsewhere. Precisely because the common good of the business is instrumental, it makes sense to change companies when the instrumental goods being realized can be more fruitfully realized elsewhere. The same cannot be said for a family, because the common good of the family is primarily realized in being part of the family in itself. The separation of a family is a loss, a tragedy not fully recovered by joining a new one.

What about citizenship? One can understand how Aristotle might see renouncing one’s citizenship in the polis as akin to renouncing one’s membership in a family. Yet leaving one’s country to seek better material circumstances is not the same as leaving one’s family. There are many important constraints governing a person’s choice to leave his country, including his commitments to family and other social groups; but the common good of the political community, being instrumental, does not weigh definitively against emigration, unless the good to be realized in the new community does not match the old—that is, unless the new political community does not secure the conditions of flourishing at least as well as the old one. Giving up one’s citizenship for membership in a new political community could constitute a deficiency in gratitude for the old political community. But in general, leaving one’s political community is not the same as severing ties with one’s family.

If correct, this may mean that political life, writ large, is not valuable for its own sake but, instead, for the goods it secures, whether in the form of material benefits or in the conditions that permit and even nourish the rest of human flourishing.

This may also mean something for our current debates over policy and the role of government in organizing our lives. While not necessarily the case, those who see the common good of the political community as intrinsically good—worth pursuing for its own sake and not just for what it gets us—may be prone to seeing an outsized role for the state in organizing our lives rather than securing the conditions that allow us to organizes our lives for ourselves. If we remember that our government and laws are valuable (and critical) as a means to an end, but not as an end in themselves, then we will also remember that the very test of good government and good laws is whether those institutions foster or undermine the common good that exists outside of politics. That might help keep things in perspective.

This essay is adapted from my article, “New Natural Law Theory and the Common Good of the Political Community,” in the Special Issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, guest edited by Ryan T. Anderson, focused on new natural law theory.