American conservatives have increasingly turned to the idea of the common good as a solution to the vexed state of our politics. For example, in a recent column in First Things, our colleague and friend Chad Pecknold argues that our political debates need to be debates about the common good, but that a pervasive refusal of that idea has been an obstacle to the sort of public discussion we need. He commends the debate about the common good by some Catholic thinkers that took place during and immediately after the Second World War to show what our own debates lack, and hopes for an opportunity to rethink political first principles after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other conservatives have recommended “common-good capitalism” and “common-good constitutionalism” as solutions to particular dilemmas. There is, then, something of a bull market for the common good at the moment.

Or is it a bubble? We have our doubts.

First, it is unclear how the debate that Professor Pecknold celebrates from the 1940s will help us much. He recounts the dispute as one between Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain. In some respects that is true, but it is a strange debate in which the main protagonists never directly address one another. The debate was very much an affair of Roman Catholics, as it turned on fine points of Thomistic metaphysics and Church doctrine. Much of the conflict played out by innuendo and involved personal motives that remain somewhat cloudy. Moreover, how the disputed versions of the common good would decide actual practical political questions was often unclear—indeed, on most practical political issues De Koninck and Maritain were largely in agreement. Disagreement about “the common good” didn’t amount to disagreement about politics.

De Koninck was not a well-known figure outside the small world of Catholic philosophy; Maritain was probably the most famous Catholic intellectual alive at the time. He had been taking part in political debates since the late 1920s, when the French monarchist and quasi-integralist political movement Action française—with which he had been tangentially associated—came under papal condemnation. From the early 1930s Maritain forcefully argued for a political stance that he called personalism against liberal individualism on the one hand, and the right- and left-wing forms of collectivism on the other.

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Much here turned on Maritain’s view that human beings are both individuals and persons, although the latter is far more important. Individuality is simply a function of our material separateness, but personhood is the locus of our spirituality and freedom. Insofar as we are mere individuals, Maritain held, we are needy and often selfish. As persons, however, we are generous wholes with a dignity that transcends our material nature. More politically significant was Maritain’s view that as individuals we are parts of society, but as persons we transcend society and realize an essentially transpolitical fulfillment in our relationship with God. For Maritain, this view told against both a liberalism that emphasized human individuality and reduced society to a merely instrumental good, and the forms of collectivism that absorbed and instrumentalized the person and set the collective itself against human dignity by usurping the place of God.

De Koninck’s 1943 book aimed to vindicate the common good against a personalism that he worried made man his own end. He was concerned that the adoption of personalist rhetoric by Catholics had come at the expense of the absolute transcendence of God. Personalists, he argued, were so concerned with the individual flourishing of persons that they lost sight of the good that was the root of true human flourishing, a good that was common in its universal radiation of goodness. Human dignity was best protected by emphasizing God as the most common good because union with God was human flourishing and not anything unique to individuals.

De Koninck held that the effect of personalism was to make individual human beings their own ends and to make union with God a private good. This had the collateral political effect of pitting the good of the person, ultimately a private good, against another kind of common good—that of society. In such a competition, the political common good was viewed as an alien good either properly instrumental to the good of the individual, as in liberalism, or a good that overawed and consumed human persons. This took the form of a Leviathan state in fascist or Marxist versions (although the Marxist version always seemed the more dangerous threat to De Koninck).

Although he never mentioned Maritain, many read De Koninck’s criticisms of personalism as aimed at Maritain. And, however right De Koninck may have been in his criticisms of “personalism,” none of the views he condemned were views that Maritain held. Among the first to note this was Yves Simon, an old student and close friend of Maritain and acquaintance of De Koninck, who taught at the University of Notre Dame. In personal correspondence with De Koninck and then in a review of the book, Simon worried that De Koninck’s attack would be taken as directed at Maritain and would unjustly or recklessly harm his mentor’s reputation. When pressed about his intentions, De Koninck was evasive. A ham-fisted defense of Maritain by his friend, Fr. Ignatius Eschmann, distorted both Maritain’s and De Koninck’s views, and only made matters worse. Simon was beside himself and thought that the whole affair was a public relations disaster for Thomism.

Simon was right. The De Koninck–Maritain debate, such as it was, has always had its devotees—mainly Thomists, who labor over the fine points disputed and usually hold that De Koninck had the better of the exchange. Most readers have found it frustratingly opaque. Either way, it is difficult to see how it could be of much help to us now. Certainly, taking “De Koninck’s side” against “Maritain’s” leads nowhere: whatever disagreement they may have had—and if Simon was right there may not have been one—is of little consequence outside the academy. Maritain and De Koninck were both committed to the common good as relevant to political reflection, in at least the very general sense of calling citizens to regard the flourishing of the community as a whole as an appropriate end of politics. In this very general way, both echoed the Catholic tradition all the way back to its Greek roots in Plato and Aristotle: the common good draws political reflection beyond individual or class interest toward regard for the good of the whole.

Who’s against the Common Good?

But, as our emphasis on “very general” suggests, contemporary invocations of the common good are of limited political value. For one thing, it simply won’t do to invoke the notion of the common good as if, by itself, this reminder will restore people to their senses. Is anyone against the common good? The easy marks of contemporary conservative critique—such as Kant, Locke, and Rawls—all reflect on common goods in at least this very general sense. Often, they will use different terms—for instance, Locke’s reference to the “public good” in the Two Treatises—but they all make reference to goods held in common that limit and measure the exercise of good governance. No politician campaigns on a platform that rejects the common good (even if, in fact, he does). Instead, most of our political debates, precisely insofar as they are political debates, are debates about the common good. To suggest otherwise would seem to evince a very low opinion of one’s fellow citizens. There are always criminals, grifters, and demagogues, but these are not most people nor even most politicians.

To speak of “common-good constitutionalism” or “common-good capitalism” seems similarly unhelpful. The term “common good” comprises at least some basic commitment to general ideals such as the rule of law, a sense of reciprocity, and a commitment to elevate some public values over and above the rough and tumble of daily partisan politics. Given that definition, is there a form of constitutionalism that is not for the common good? What is the point of constitutionalism, whatever its substantive commitments, if not the common good? Is not economic policy as policy committed to some notion of the common good? So-called “collective goods” are usually conceived of as thinner than a notion of the common good, but surely they are part of it, and economic policy is always concerned with such things. Are Keynesians, supply-siders, and monetarists opposed to one another over some commitment to or abandonment of the common good?

Nearly everyone—except perhaps the most ardent libertarian—appeals to some notion of the common good; thus merely to invoke the term “common good” cannot suffice to improve contemporary political discourse. No problems are solved or policies recommended by saying, “but the common good!” Such invocations don’t point in any particular direction and serve no analytic function. No matter the policy or disputed social trend, “but the common good” illuminates nothing. Indeed, much of the current conversation is already about the common good, both in terms of specific policies that will contribute to the good of our community and in terms of the character of that community. Interestingly, this happens without any specific reference to the common good as such. By our count, Yuval Levin’s excellent book A Time to Build contains only one reference to the phrase “the common good,” yet the entire book is the kind of practical reasoning about our political life that counts as common-good reflection. Debates about philosophical fine points related to the concept of the common good are no substitute for analysis of which constitutional structures, laws, and policies best promote and protect the common good.

Modern Societies and Secular States

Sometimes it is suggested that even if one concedes that contemporary liberal societies have some notion of the common good, that notion is too attenuated to pass muster by the more traditional ideal. The common good should be understood as the life of virtue ordered to the ultimate common good, God. This was certainly the point of De Koninck’s argument. But the fact is—and it is a fact—large and internally diverse modern societies simply do not have enough agreement on these goals to make them general guides for public policy. A feature of large modern societies is their comfort with a staggering number of diverse, competitive worldviews. Any advocacy for the conception of the common good as ordered to God has to take that pluralism into account in a way, say, in which Aristotle and Thomas did not.

Moreover, there are serious questions about whether the modern state as a political form can carry the load that the more classical view would suggest. The modern secular state—large, complex, bureaucratic enterprise that it is—can secure certain public goods effectively and serve as a centralized means for extracting, distributing, and mobilizing social resources. It is also dangerous and has often been oppressive. This has led some to the conclusion that the notion of the common good is actually at odds with the realities of the modern state, and that sound practical reason requires that we either abandon the common good as a norm for politics or reject the modern state as illegitimate.

We think both of these conclusions go too far. No one would want to live in a political community that did not in some important way aim at the good of all citizens rather than just a few, or that was seen as a purely neutral means to the self-realization of atomized individuals. The common good is the goal of political institutions and practices, and the modern state must be limited by it. But the diversity of modern societies and the character of the modern state require that the common good be necessarily thinner at the national level.

It is probably for that reason that the authoritative social teaching documents of the Catholic Church have for the past sixty years described the common good of political society as an ensemble of conditions that enable individuals and groups to more easily achieve their perfection. They still describe God as the ultimate common good, and even see a more transcendent common good for social life generally.

However, where the state and its institutions are concerned, the Church has adopted a more cautious and restricted view that seems appropriate to our own circumstances. Bishops today do not look to the state as the locus of human happiness or fulfillment (in the language of Gaudium et spes), but instead require it to establish the conditions in which individuals and groups may seek that fulfillment. This requires that much more work for the common good be done locally and in the context of civil society—that is, by the very American practice of building and maintaining associations that promote both the natural and supernatural perfection of human persons.

Of course, most of the daily grind of political life is not concerned with these grand themes. What is the right level for subsidies of domestic agricultural products? What is the right level of immigration into our country? What, if any, is the appropriate level of tariffs on foreign manufactured goods? Should we focus more on bilateral or multilateral trade agreements with other countries? How much funding should we provide to international organizations? How should we reopen our society after the pandemic? It is difficult to see any clear relationship between how we settle such questions and the sorts of discussion of the common good that animates much contemporary discussion among Catholic intellectuals.

If we are to prevent the bull market on the common good from turning to a bear, we must not think invoking the term is more important than doing the daily and estimable work of politics: the arguing, contesting, and negotiating that people of diverse views embrace almost reflexively in their attempt to construct a more livable nation. The common good is the final cause of political association, not least because practical decisions are always decisions about achieving what is good and avoiding what is bad. But invoking the common good under the influence of De Koninck, Maritain, or even Aquinas doesn’t advance the political conversation that characterizes a healthy polity. In each case we will have to do the work of politics: the work of good faith argument with fellow citizens about the kind of people we are and want to be.