In general, the term “common good” is used to designate what is beneficial for a community and for all or most of its members. The term normally stands in contrast to “individual possessions” or “private interests” in order to distinguish what is valuable precisely as something capable of being shared from what belongs exclusively to one person or group. A system for the administration of justice, for instance, is a common good, as are an educational system, a free-market economy, the rule of law, civic peace, and the right to religious liberty. Yet these are goods that no one individual or group can possess unless they are in principle accessible to everyone. By contrast, things like houses, furniture, and food are goods that belong exclusively to one person or another. Access to such basic requirements for staying alive as food, water, and shelter, however, may rightly be considered examples of the common good, for such things are always good for everyone by virtue of the nature that we share as human beings.
There are diverse perspectives on the content of the common good. Some approaches treat the term reductively. Utilitarianism, for instance, has the notion of the common good but understands it in terms of the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals. Thereby utilitarianism tends to reduce it to the sum total of all the private interests of the individual members of a given group.
Some approaches emphasize the presence of political structures. For example, republicanism valorizes a democratic form of government and the right to participate in the political process by the election of representatives who are actually engaged in government. Here the danger to a proper understanding the common good comes from an excessive concern with the formal structures of democracy, and theorists need to include provision for careful safeguards against threats to liberty and justice, such as the tyranny of the majority. Progressivism, by contrast, tends to envision the common good in terms of the creation of a better material world by providing the economic and political infrastructures that promote equal access for everyone. With this position there is a danger that arises from a willingness to restrict individual liberties and to seize control of legitimately obtained private property for the sake of the general welfare. In extreme cases there is even a danger of compromising the interests of the present generation for the sake of the future.
Under various names, the notion of the common good has received recurrent attention by various religious traditions. In the normative texts of Judaism there are countless discussions of the good of the community (in Hebrew, ha am, “the people” ), and contemporary Judaism has often promoted a humanitarian ethics. The term common good is found frequently in Christian social teaching (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical). One of the earliest references to it in Christian documents is found in the Epistle of Barnabas from the late first century AD: “Do not by retiring apart live alone as if you were already made righteous, but come together and seek out the common good” ( 1912–1913, 4.10 ).
The Christian philosopher Augustine ( 354–430 ) in City of God takes up the notion of the “common weal” found in De Republica, by the Roman philosopher Cicero ( 107–144 ), and contrasts the understandings of common benefit that are typical of earthly cities with the common good that characterizes the heavenly city ( City of God 19.5–17 ). For the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas ( 1225–1274 ), the term common good even comes into the generic definition of law as “an ordinance of reason, for the common good, promulgated by the person in charge of the community” (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, q. 90, a. 4). In this definition, properly made law formally requires a consideration of what is for the good of the whole, and a law designed only to benefit some constituents rather than others risks illegitimacy if it imperils the welfare of others.
The idea of the common good came to be a central concept in the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, for instance, Pope Leo XIII ( 1810–1903 ) used this notion to argue to a position different both from laissez-faire capitalism and from socialism by virtue of his defense of private property as among the natural rights that can be derived from the natural law duties of each person; those duties include the obligation to make available to all the goods of creation that God gave to all human beings in common for their sustenance ( §4–5 ). Quoting from the 1965 document of the Second Vatican Council entitled Gaudium et Spes(at §164), the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.”
As used in political rhetoric, the term common good has a checkered career. By virtue of its altruistic connotations, the phrase can easily be abused in support of authoritarian and totalitarian causes. The advocates of populist notions like “the nation” and “the race” have found it easy to use the rhetoric of the common good to justify dangerous restrictions on individual liberty, the suppression of minority interests, the trampling of human rights, and unjust wars of aggression.
There is, however, an underlying philosophical issue here that goes far beyond the temptations of opportunism. In any political philosophy that turns the good of the state itself into the sole locus of value when making law, there is a danger that the proper relation between human beings and society will be inverted. One sees the origins of thinking about this problem in the political works of the ancient Greek philosophers Plato (e.g., The Republic) and Aristotle (The Politics), where there is a keen sense of the individual as the locus of moral virtue and yet where individuals are necessarily regarded as subordinate to the good of the whole.
Valuable as the principles of political order and unity are, they should not be thought simply identical with the purposes of human society, to the detriment of the intrinsic worth that properly belongs only to a human being. Arguments for the defense of the inalienable dignity of the human person include theological and philosophical approaches. In the tradition of Judaism and Christianity it was reflection on the biblical understanding of the human being as made in the image and according to the likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) that generated a strong sense of the need to understand the common good as a good common to human persons. Of special importance among philosophical approaches is the account of personhood as stemming from rational autonomy, for example, in Immanuel Kant's ( 1724–1804 ) presentations of the categorical imperative.
SEE ALSO Civic Associations ; Civil Society ; Communitarianism ; Community ; Compact and Covenant ; Conservatism ; General Welfare Clause ; Governance ; Liberalism ; Negotiation ; Public and Private Goods ; Public Interest ; Republicanism ; Social Contract .
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologiae. In St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, edited and translated by Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton, 1988.
Augustine. The City of God against the Pagans. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Barnabas. “Epistle.” In The Apostolic Fathers. Translated by Kirsopp Lake. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1912–1913.
Cicero. The Republic; and The Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd; edited by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 2004. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html .
Etzioni, Amitai, comp. Rights and the Common Good: The Communitarian Perspective. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
Hollenbach, David. The Common Good and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Maritain, Jacques. The Person and the Common Good. Translated by John J. Fitzgerald. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.
Sandel, Michael. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. (1931.) Translated by Olive Wyon. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
Rev. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.