According to Thomas Aquinas, every genuine law is an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by public authority, and rightly promulgated or made known. Any enactment that lacks any of these qualities—for example, any enactment that isn’t directed to the common good—is a sort of fraud or impostor. It is more like an act of violence than a law.

Blunt examples of both rules that are and rules that aren’t directed to the common good can be found in the recent response to the coronavirus pandemic. Public health is a common good, and some governmental decrees—requirements for infected people to quarantine themselves, for example—were obviously necessary. And it was reasonable, at the depth of the pandemic, to direct people to keep a certain distance from others inside public buildings and in other public places where the flow of air was limited.

But other coronavirus dictates seem utterly impossible to explain in terms of the common good. Consider first all the decrees that do nothing but punish activities the rulers don’t like, such as worship. At one point, in San Francisco, city authorities restricted attendance in places of worship to one person at a time. That included the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, which has a capacity of 3,000. They even tried to prevent people from worshipping outdoors. Yet retail stores were permitted to admit up to half of their usual capacity, and hair salons and massage parlors were allowed to stay open, even though they bring employees and clients into close and sustained physical contact. Later, even more draconian—but equally inconsistent—restrictions on worship were enacted for the entire state of California. No one was permitted to enter the Cathedral or any other building for worship, even though Hollywood was permitted to have studio gatherings and singing contests.

Other rules seem devised to shift burdens onto persons whom the rulers disapprove, or whom they consider less worthy of life. Early in the pandemic, the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, decreed that people with the coronavirus be moved from hospitals to nursing homes, causing a surge of infections and deaths among the elderly, who are the most vulnerable of all citizens. Later, he defended the policy by saying that old people are “going to die” whatever you do.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Then come all the edicts made by authorities who don’t really think these rules are necessary but want to make a hypocritical pretense of concern for public health. In November, the mayor of my own city of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler, livestreamed a video urging citizens to stay home and avoid travel, because “we may have to close things down if we are not careful.” He didn’t mention that he was streaming the video from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he was on vacation. The problem was not that he traveled there, but that he did so while telling citizens not to do so.

Finally, we should never underestimate the sheer satisfaction that some officials take simply in telling people what to do. Apparently, no other motive is really needed. When the coronavirus began to spread, the governor of the State of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, ordered that although citizens would still be allowed to kayak, canoe, and sail, they would be forbidden to use such craft as motorboats, jet skis, and other powered craft. The tissue-thin rationale was that powered craft need servicing, which involves close contact among people, but that craft such as sailboats don’t need any.

The moral of these stories is that rulers will always claim that their enactments are for the common good, but such claims must be carefully examined. It may be true that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but the tendency of those who hold power is to try to fool as many as possible for as long as they can.

It may be true that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but the tendency of those who hold power is to try to fool as many as possible for as long as they can.


What Is the Common Good, Anyway?

I doubt that we give enough thought to what we mean by the common good. One reason for this fact is that the common good comes in different flavors. A good may be shared, or common, in different ways and to different degrees, and even St. Thomas’s expressions are sometimes a little ambiguous. Often people call a good common in the extremely weak sense that it is good for everyone. For example, wealth or aggregate wealth is called a common good merely because we all have material needs. But this is a misleading way to use the term “common good,” because I might get more wealth by taking it away from you. We don’t enjoy community in this good, and that is what is essential. For this reason, Thomists have in mind a stronger way of speaking of common goods. Some of these have been rediscovered by social scientists, though they tend to give them a different twist.

First, a good may be common in the strong sense that it excludes competition. Pie doesn’t exclude competition, because if I have a bigger slice, there is less left for you. Literacy does exclude competition, because my becoming more literate doesn’t make you less. Second, a good may be common in the still stronger sense that no one is prevented from enjoying it. The comradeship of a healthy family is a common good in this second sense, though, such as it is, not the comradeship of an unhealthy family that ridicules or torments some of its members. In itself, a bridge over a river is a common good in this second sense, but it wouldn’t be if I set up a toll gate and allowed only those who paid the toll to cross. And even though literacy is a common good in this sense too, it wouldn’t be if I used force to prevent you from learning how to read.

Third and stronger still, a good may be common in the sense that if anyone enjoys it, no one even could be prevented from enjoying it. National security is a common good in this sense. I can prevent some people from crossing a bridge, and prevent some people from learning to read, but if invaders are kept out of the country for me, they are also kept out of the country for you.

Finally, a good may be common in the extremely strong sense that there couldn’t even be a rational motive for preventing someone from enjoying it, because even if I don’t have it, I gain from the fact that you have it. Virtue is like that. You might have greater virtue than I do, but if so, you didn’t get it by taking it from me. More important, not only does your virtue make you a better person, but if you are more virtuous, then I am better off just because you are.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the very reason for the institution of private property is that it serves the common good.


Paradoxes of the Common Good

As you may have noticed, the question of whether a good is common or not presents paradoxes in all of these senses. For example, wealth doesn’t seem to exclude competition, as we saw. But really, that depends on social arrangements, doesn’t it? If I can become wealthier only at your expense, then the competition for scarce resources remains. On the other hand, if there are ways for us to cooperate so that we both become wealthier without making anyone poorer, then wealth might be a common good after all.

Making the paradox still deeper is the fact that the private and the common may be complementary. According to Thomas Aquinas, the very reason for the institution of private property is that it serves the common good. How so? First, each person takes better care of his own property than of what belongs to everyone at once. Second, it is easier to pinpoint responsibility if each person is charged with caring for particular things. Third, when goods are divided so that each person has something of his own, there are fewer quarrels. So even though some may have more or better property, the institution of private ownership can make everyone better off than if everything were owned in common.

Since St. Thomas’s time, other ways in which private property can contribute to the common good have also been discovered. For example, a collective economy—which is of necessity a planned economy—cannot allocate resources to their most efficient uses, meaning that an allocation cannot be changed without making anyone worse off in his own judgment. Markets incline toward efficient outcomes spontaneously, because they depend on voluntary exchange, and no party will agree to an exchange if he does view it as making him worse off. So the institution of private ownership of property is a common good, even though property per se is not one.

Here’s another paradox. We’ve seen that you and I can’t possibly have a rational motive for competition over virtue. Yet we can have irrational motives for competition, can’t we? For example, I may envy you for being braver than I am. Although we cannot really be in competition for courage per se, we can certainly be in competition for rank, and so, unexpectedly, something that has no room for rivalry in one sense becomes a motive for rivalry in another. Any good at all may give rise to competition if we bring in the motive of envy. Since even common goods suffer this problem, let’s call it the Paradox of Envy.

The Paradox of Envy has political repercussions. To see this, consider national security again. As we saw earlier, if the country is invaded for anyone, then it is invaded for everyone, so in that sense there is no possibility of competition. Yet although citizens cannot be unequally protected from invasion per se, they may be unequally protected from the burdens of preventing it or the burdens that result from it. For example, they may be unequally likely to be drafted into the army, unequally taxed to pay for it, or dwell unequally close to the places where fighting is likely to occur. Concerning these things, they may well compete. They may fight with each other to shift the burdens of conscription, taxation, or dangerous locale onto others.

The only defense against the Paradox of Envy is for each person to regard all the others as friends, as fellow members of a partnership in a virtuous life.


Doing It for Love

The only defense against the Paradox of Envy is for each person to regard all the others as friends, as fellow members of a partnership in a virtuous life, one in which not only can each of us flourish, but also each of us can contribute to the flourishing of the others. They are friends insofar as they form a community; they are potential friends insofar as they aspire to form a community. The very prevalence of this attitude, and of the conditions that make it possible, is another common good. We already share in what used to be called the “community of nature,” but we need to share in how that is fleshed out in particular communities.

Now, I freely acknowledge that this is an ideal. I am not presently discussing how to get people to believe in the common good, or speculating as to what is going on in their minds when they deny the possibility of a common good or have contempt for it, nor am I suggesting that agreement to cherish it would solve all problems. I am simply trying to explain what the common good is. You have to believe in the coherence of the ideal before you can take any steps toward the amelioration of our messy reality.

The people we sometimes call rational egoists aren’t really rational at all. Suppose you counseled a mother that it would be foolish to risk her life by dashing in front of a speeding truck to push her child to safety. Suppose you told her that even though the child’s death would sadden her, she could always have another one—and besides, if she were crushed to death, then she would lose the possibility of happiness. People who say such things have never loved. In the first place, another child is not this child. Loving someone isn’t like having a favorite chair one finds more comfortable than others. In the second place, the death of the mother’s child because of her failure to act would be a greater death to her than her own death would be. Echoing Aristotle, St. Thomas remarks, “since he who loves another looks upon his friend as another self, he counts his friend’s hurt as his own, so that he grieves for his friend’s hurt as though he were hurt himself.”

We speak of looking out for Number One, but the mother no longer experiences herself as Number One. And she is right. To say that we are social beings is in part to say that human experience is open to love; the good life is only good for us when we throw in our lot with others who can enjoy it with us. Openness to love is the only satisfying defense against the supposed conflict between private happiness and the common good, the only thing that can convert the common good from an abstraction to a lived reality.

The best love is charity, in which, by the grace of God, I am enabled to love others as God Himself loves them. Because charity is a supernatural gift, not something we can work up in ourselves by our own unaided efforts, it would be too much to demand that everyone in the temporal community have charity toward his neighbors. Even so, we can recommend charity. Besides, even everyday love—natural fellow-feeling for the other members of the community—can go a long way.

Whenever individuals bear burdens for the sake of the common good, they do it for love. Friends take risks for their friends, parents take risks for their families, and doctors, soldiers, and policemen take risks for their neighbors. This doesn’t mean that individuals are mere tools of the collectivity, because ultimately, the common good of the community is for the sake of the individuals who make it up. What it does mean is that they view each other as friends.

Creating Friendship

This “solution” doesn’t “solve” every problem or answer every question. Also, it is obviously more effective in personal friendship than in civic friendship, which is more watery and less intense. Yet to the degree that a community of friendship is a compound of many personal friendships, friendship is more effective than one might think. Even a soldier who has doubts about the Roman maxim “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” may not hesitate to throw himself on a grenade to save his buddies. And even today, despite the glaring disorder of our political culture, most people would swiftly agree if an elderly next-door neighbor asked for help in changing a light bulb in a ceiling fixture. They wouldn’t say, “First tell me how you’re going to vote in the next election,” and they wouldn’t demand payment afterward.

Moreover, there are approaches to living together that can make the approach that I am suggesting still more effective. That is why Aristotle said that good legislators give even more attention to friendship among the citizens than they do to justice. In the first place, if the citizens are friends, they will want to do each other justice. In the second place, if they are friends, they will rise above justice, doing things for each other without keeping score. They won’t always be checking up to make sure they are getting what’s justly coming to them.

The most important element of the common good, therefore, is that all of the members of the community regard themselves, somehow, as friends, or at least as “in potentiality” for friendship. This is first of all true at the local level, in each little partnership in the good, such as a family. But it is more broadly true at the general level, for the political community is not just another partnership in the good, but a partnership among partnerships in the good. Fellow citizens need to view themselves as friends concerning the good common to this partnership of partnerships—and by taking this view, they bring this good into being.

So when Thomas Aquinas says that a true law must be for the common good, he is not merely saying that good legislators will take good care of the city water supply or try to prevent disease, although of course they will do that too. He means chiefly that by the discipline of the laws, they habituate the citizens to a communion of friendship with each other. As he writes, “the principal intention of human law is to create friendship between man and man.”


Someone may suspect that because I stress the aspiration to civic friendship and the importance of living in such a way as to make it possible, I must have a rosy view of political conflict. Actually, my view is rather dire. For example, I don’t think the decrees that I cited as examples of edicts contrary to the common good arose chiefly from carelessness or haste. I think they were made in bad faith—for example, in consistent, considered hostility to religious worship under the guise of concern for public health. Moreover, there is an increasing tendency not only to do whatever it takes to attain office, but to try to block the very expression of views with which one disagrees. Increasingly, parties and factions refuse to recognize the principle that one must not do what is intrinsically evil even for the sake of a good result.

Those who reflect on politics should approach political disorder the way doctors approach bodily disease. Even if perfect health will never be achieved, still, in order to recognize disease and work out how to ameliorate it, one has to know what health is. In the same way, even if civic friendship will never fully be achieved, still, in order to recognize civic enmity and discern what to do about it, one has to know what civic friendship is. Legal scholars sometimes use the term “realism” for ignoring all moral considerations, as though it were somehow more realistic to ignore part of reality. The part of the reality I have in mind is that humans are moral beings even when they are behaving wickedly. A vicious or untrustworthy man is not the same sort of thing as an untamed dog or an untrustworthy wolf.

Some say that people are more divided today than before because there have been injustices to some groups in the past. I think a deeper reason is that our political and intellectual classes are increasingly skeptical of any difference between the just and the unjust. They think such words are merely disguises for selfish group interests. Others say that people are more divided today because they live so differently. But people have always lived differently.

The greatest reason we see such wide divergences today is that fewer people believe any longer in a shared human nature, or that a good way to live can be discerned by reasoning. If I don’t believe in objective truth, then my opinion about things isn’t even an opinion about things any longer—not in the proper sense of the term—because, after all, an opinion is an opinion about what is true. What we still, anachronistically, call “believing in” X, Y, or Z becomes merely a personal characteristic or identity, like the color of my hair. If we think this way, of course we are divided. How could we not be?

Legal scholars sometimes use the term “realism” for ignoring all moral considerations, as though it were somehow more realistic to ignore part of reality.


What Is to Be Done?

I don’t know “how to get there from here,” but I can suggest some of what getting there would mean.

As to our view of reality, cherishing civic friendship requires a willingness to believe that there really is such a thing as a common good, that there are such things as objective goods and evils, and that the human moral intellect can get a grip on these things.

As to our moral life, it requires giving up the shallow idea that virtue means political correctness, whether of the Left or the Right. A person may hold the approved opinions—even true ones—and yet be gravely deficient in justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. To consider ourselves just, courageous, temperate, and prudent just because we hold certain opinions rather misses the point.

As to our intellectual life, it requires the habit of reasoning together. What do you mean by that? How do you know it’s true? What difference does it make? Not only must we be able to ask each other these questions, but we must also stop treating feelings as automatically valid. A feeling may be justified, but no feeling is self-justifying. “I just think. . . .” “I just feel. . . .” We must do better than that.

As to our political life, we must repent that we ever said in our hearts, “Let us do evil that good will result.” We must resolve never to do it again. And we must begin again to believe all of the things that have to be believed in order for such a resolution to make sense.

It may be objected that all this would require a kind of conversion, but what of that? When everything easy fails, one must do what is hard.


This essay was adapted from a paper originally presented as part of the Common Good Project, Faculty of Law, University Of Oxford.