The Common Good: what it is and isn’t.

I used the term “common good” in a previous column, and used similar terms in other columns (greater good, good of the community, etc.).  But what is the common good? Philosophers and theologians have worked on an answer for centuries without ever coming to an agreement acceptable to all. There is no ideal common good from which all manifestations of it are derived.  The best we can do is to approximate it in a way that works for “our people” in the time and place in which they live.

For that reason there are many who deny that nothing called the common good can be more important than what individuals believe is best for their own self interests.  Any moral or ethical good shared in common with others must take the form of transactions creating temporary alliances. Trump’s world view is an extreme example.  Utilitarianism is a more popular approach to the common good.  We know it as the greatest good for the greatest number, often calculated in economic terms. It can easily morph into the greatest good for the most powerful. It can also be used to deny common good to minorities, a practice that has haunted America’s history for too long. Kings, emperors, dictators, and autocratic religious leaders declare what it is, claiming they have divine authority to do so. A professor friend says his freshman class students offer only a blank stare of incomprehension because they weren’t exposed to the idea in high school. As a Christian writer I believe God has authoritatively declared what standards are that the common good must meet, but has left it up to us to figure out how to apply them.

Messy as definitions of the common good are, they are the bedrock of stable societies, and more particularly of democracies like ours.  Phrases such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “in order to form a more perfect union” are portions of a fence that encircle the common good. The Constitution and amendments form the greater part of the fence.  More sections of fence are made of long standing American virtues including individualism, self reliance, voluntary action, generosity, faith in democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, etc.  The whole fence is never completed; it has gaps, is in need of repair, and sometimes fails.  Nevertheless, it encloses a hard to define sense of what adds up to the common good. 

However it’s understood, the common good is necessary for modern life to exist at all. No person or family can make it on their own. We depend on each other’s knowledge, labor, and resources to make it through even a single day.  That means the welfare of other people and of the community as a whole must be a priority for all.  It’s a priority that relies on the collective resources invested in improvements, maintenance, and preparation for the future.  It means individual rights to do as one pleases for one’s own self interest are not unlimited.             

As much as possible, the common in common good must be at least a tacit understanding and agreement by the community. To be good it must be equitable, show no favor to anyone and provide opportunity for every person without discrimination.  In a democratic republic such as ours, it is a standard never to be met, yet always approximated. What is customarily accepted as the common good must be subjected to continuous testing and evaluation that moves to correct historical inequities and strives to avoid future ones. It’s an uncomfortable process because it can never come to final resolution.  

Yet, simplifying the resolution for the common good by replacing democracy with the imposition of hierarchical authority is not an answer to this age old dilemma. 

© Steven E. Woolley

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