fbpx

Where (Not) to Begin with the Common Good

The common good is the flourishing of a community qua community. Every community is built around a common end, which is simply that it excel, in justice, as whatever kind of emergently real community it is. The common good is primarily a practical idea, but if our starting point is too practical we are apt to miss the challenge that the common good poses to the modern political imaginary. On the other hand, a starting point that is too metaphysical will fail to engage the real questions of common life.

The coronavirus pandemic has re-opened the question of the common good for liberal societies that generally prefer to ignore it. This represents an opportunity for Catholic thinkers, since the Aristotelian tradition is the only corner of the contemporary scene where the idea of the common good remains vibrantly alive. But getting rapidly up to speed on such a complex idea is no easy task.

The coronavirus pandemic has re-opened the question of the common good for liberal societies that generally prefer to ignore it. This represents an opportunity for Catholic thinkers, since the Aristotelian tradition is the only corner of the contemporary scene where the idea of the common good remains vibrantly alive.

 

To make matters worse, some of the main sources of twentieth-century Catholic thought on the common good set us down an unnecessarily circuitous path. The common good is primarily a practical idea; but if our starting point is too practical—as it is in many magisterial teaching documents—we are apt to miss the challenge that the common good poses to the modern political imagination. On the other hand, a starting point that is too metaphysical will fail to engage the real questions of common life.

Aristotle remarked that the beginning is “half of the whole.” Where then should we begin thinking about the common good? We should begin where he himself begins: from the (philosophically clarified) standpoint of thoughtful persons, who are trying to understand how to act together.

On the Ground

The most prominent example of an inauspicious start is the formulation found in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 26, where the common good is said to be “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Since its promulgation in 1965, any number of magisterial documents have confidently referred back to this text as the best definition (or handy summary, or at least starting point for investigation) of the common good.

It is, alas, none of these things. Russell Hittinger, whose knowledge of the matter is second to none, regards the Gaudium et Spes definition as an equivocation, if not an outright mistake. Though the “sum of conditions” approach has its defenders, the tensions with the longer tradition are hard to deny. No less an authority than St. Augustine writes that “God is the common good of them all.” Whatever God may be, pace Hegel, he is not a sum of social conditions. Furthermore, the common good is traditionally conceived not as a “sum” or aggregate but as the good of a whole, and also as valued in itself rather than as a “condition” of some further good.

It is certainly possible, with the application of real interpretive effort, to harmonize Gaudium et Spes with traditional conceptions of the common good, if we recognize that it gives an application of the term for the context of the modern state, not a philosophical definition. I’m all for exercising our hermeneutical muscles, but that’s not the way to begin considering a topic. Moreover, the “sum of social conditions” approach gives almost no hint of the profound grammar of human affairs that stands behind the concept of the common good, and that is its most valuable contribution to the vocabulary of politics. Since you have to be fluent in the discourse of the common good to see what is really meant in GS 26, it is not a good place from which to begin learning the language.

In the Stars

The other noteworthy case of an unhelpful point of departure is the debate kicked off by Charles De Koninck’s 1943 booklet On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists. For Catholic thinkers interested in a rigorous understanding of the common good, this debate is often a first port of call, as we see in Chad Pecknold’s recent post at First Things and in work by Michael Hannon, D. C. Schindler, or Thomas Osborne. There are at least two reasons for its continuing appeal. First, the debate is on topic: it is actually focused on the concept of the common good, which is a surprisingly rare thing in the long tradition. Secondly, the De-Koninck-Eschmann-Maritain debate, summarized here at Public Discourse by Brad Lewis and Joe Capizzi, was the main way for English speakers to gain access to the rich interwar conversation on the common good, which was otherwise conducted in French, German, and Latin.

If Gaudium et Spes is a poor place to begin because it is too practical, this intra-Thomistic dispute is too metaphysical. It is as if a bridge-builder asked me a question about the carrying weight of an I-beam, and I replied, “Well, let me tell you about quantum mechanics. . . .” Most commentators agree that De Koninck won the debate, in that he articulated the traditional claim that participated (i.e. common) goods are constitutive of human flourishing, and not merely instrumental to it. Using an abstract Thomistic jargon that recurs often to angels, the beatific vision, and the order of the cosmos, De Koninck universalizes a familiar fact: as the common good of the school defines the good of teachers, or the good of the polity that of citizens, so in general the common good defines the good of persons.

Unfortunately, this metaphysical thesis about the primacy of the common good does not much illuminate the tangible common goods in my own life (e.g. of family, parish, workplace, or polity), nor even whether I should prioritize them. All the human communities we face are partial. Thomas Aquinas writes that “man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has,” and the same could be said of any other human association. De Koninck himself notes that the common good of a given community “is the good of [rational beings] only insofar as the latter are members of the society.” The real question is, then, just how far am I a member of the United States, or St. Matthew’s parish, or the business where I work, or even my family?

There is only one form of community that actually encompasses all the various facets of my flourishing, which demands and deserves my unqualified moral allegiance, and so always has primacy for me: the common good of the whole universe as ordered by God. Needless to say, it is very hard to know in detail what its flourishing may require, at least by comparison with my soccer team. Still, on occasion “The Common Good” in this grand, capital-letter sense may require me to set aside my concern for any of the human communities of which I am a member, as Antigone did when she insisted upon burying her brother. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, “each individual as an independent practical reasoner has to answer the question of what place it is best that each of those goods should have in her or his life.” Sometimes it is not possible to be both a good citizen and a good man.

Given the plural structure of common goods, this would be true even if we had a clear and correct understanding of each community. In real life, what vies for our allegiance is a stew of often-inchoate, often-wrongheaded claims about what common flourishing in various domains might consist in. In voting, for example, practical efficacy may well demand that we choose one of the options on the table, even when none reflects all our views, much less captures the complex reality. A pristine metaphysical account like De Koninck’s conveys a mistaken sense of our situation as practical reasoners, and the degree to which we can grasp and prioritize the (always-arguable claims about) common goods that we face.

Where to Begin Instead

Where can we find the better starting points that we need? Fortunately, the Catholic intellectual tradition is not without resources. Within magisterial social doctrine, the so-called “Leonine tradition,” encompassing the popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, expounds a tighter and more fruitful account of the common good than the postwar documents. Working on this tradition, Russell Hittinger has written two of the most trenchant expositions of the Catholic social vision ever published in English: “The Coherence of the Four Basic Principles of Social Doctrine” and “The Three Necessary Societies.”

On the side of philosophy, Aristotle’s more-practical approach to the common good is reflected in two seminal works of Yves Simon that yoke Thomistic metaphysics to the concerns of acting persons: “Common Good and Common Action” (available in A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism? Perspectives from the “Review of Politics) and chapter 1 of his Philosophy of Democratic Government. Alasdair MacIntyre has given the most provocative, though not necessarily systematic, Aristotelian treatment in recent decades, especially in chapter 14 of After Virtue, chapters 9 and 11 of Dependent Rational Animals, and in his essay “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good.”

I warn the interested reader, though, that the authors I recommend are chary of defining the common good succinctly. Read them and you may still find yourself asking: “what in tarnation is the common good, anyway?” Here is my own brief summary, inspired by these texts.

The common good is the flourishing of a community qua community. Every community is built around a common end, which is simply that it excel, in justice, as whatever kind of emergently real community it is. The common good for a school (and its members) is to be an excellent school, and the common good of an army is to be a flourishing army. Neither goal can be finally reduced to anything non-social such as teachers’ knowledge or soldiers’ strength. More generally, wherever there is common action, there are ends that cannot be reduced to individual goals or benefits, and must therefore be measured by the just flourishing of the common project. As the Catechism suggests, in human affairs there is no such thing as the common good, full stop, but rather “each human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such.”

Any community should be “recognized” as a form of solidarity or friendship, the good of which is partially constitutive of—and never merely instrumental to—the flourishing of its members. These common ends are built into the social reality of any community. To ignore them does not remove their normative pull, but only ensures that they will not be shared justly. As political (and matrimonial, and ecclesial) animals, human beings need to share in, and be inevitably formed by, the common goods of various communities in order to live well.

What “the Common Good” Is Good For

Beginning well is also a matter of not setting our hopes too high, as to what questions the common good can ultimately help us to answer. Lewis and Capizzi rightly warn against the recent conservative vogue for the common good as a political panacea, since the concept is well upstream of any particular policy stance. There would be nothing amiss about finding “common-good progressives” as well as “common-good monarchists,” and “common-good socialists” just as much as “common-good capitalists.” The notion of common good itself does not answer the divisive questions there, even if it helps to frame the answers.

Yet the concept of common good is not quite as inert as Lewis and Capizzi imply, especially in today’s world. Many, perhaps even most, political disputes are conducted as if aggregations of individual goods were all that is at stake, whether in the form of public utilities or by market exchange. But there is always something more at play, namely the common good shared by citizens (or the members of other associations) and its formative influence upon their lives, which can appear only in a distorted form in data-driven technocratic debates.

The question 'Who are we to become?' is always answered together. In a world where this fact were well understood, we would use the grammar of the common good in the course of practical deliberations about how to act together justly.

 

The question “Who are we to become?” is always answered together. In a world where this fact were well understood, we would use the grammar of the common good in the course of practical deliberations about how to act together justly. There would still be competing proposals to weigh, based on different estimations of the common project, and of who deserves what as part of its full-orbed flourishing. But any sincere proposal would take account of the deep entanglement of individual flourishing with common action.

Needless to say, that is not our world. Our dominant social imagination cannot even conceive a genuine common good, much less point to its realization. For us, then, the language of common good has an important role to play in clarifying our vision. It is a salutary reminder that the stakes of life together, in liberal societies and everywhere else, are higher and other than we usually suppose. Indeed they are never less than the shaping of souls. That acknowledgement, which already takes us far from the usual terms of political debate, is the right place to begin with the common good.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!