2.2.7 The Common Good
Back to 2.2.6
We have looked at the principle of human dignity and at duties and rights before giving attention to another equally important principle, that of ‘the common good’. We certainly could have looked at the principle of the common good first. Indeed one can fruitfully study the main principles of CST in various different orders. I say this here because in no way is the principle of the common good secondary to that of human dignity. Yet in the overall vision which CST presents, they fit together coherently and indeed are inherently related.
What is ‘the common good’? Often this and similar terms are used in very vague, even wishy-washy ways. Yet the central claim made by appeal to the principle can be stated in a clear and rigorous way.
In a passage of the Compendium which will be set as reading shortly, it says this:
The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains ‘common’ because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it. (#164)
Does this help?! Well, to understand this it can be helpful to consider some activities familiar to us which are also ‘common goods’. Think about a choir singing or an orchestral performance. In both these, a group of people make a form of music which simply could not possibly exist for any of them, or for anyone else, unless they act together, each in specific ways – singing or playing a particular part in the piece of music. By this action together they generate a good for each and all of them, and for anyone listening, which simply couldn’t exist otherwise. No-one alone, and no computer or other machine, can produce the music of a real choir. It is not something that anyone can produce or enjoy alone. It is inherently or intrinsically a common good. The good of choral music cannot be reduced to what a set of individuals could each generate or benefit from alone – so we can say that it is an irreducibly common good.
There are many such goods – even if sometimes some people don’t recognize that this is their nature. Here are some other examples:
- a game of football, or any team game
- a big family celebration or a party
- a friendship of two or more people that endures through time, or a good marriage
- the life of a local Christian congregation or a religious community.
All of these are irreducibly common goods. This doesn’t mean that they might not have serious problems or difficulties which detract from how they are supposed to be good for their participants. They might well do so: a football match can be quite violent (if the game’s rules are broken). A party can turn into an almighty row. Rather, the point is that, to the extent that they are good for anyone, this is as people participate in the simultaneous generation and enjoyment of them.
Real common goods like this are therefore unlike when people do things together just because it’s useful or convenient or efficient, even though the outcome they attain could (in principle) be attained by each person alone. A good example of such a ‘collective good’ (using this term as a contrast to ‘common good’) is the production of takeaway food at lunchtimes for a group of people, say office workers, who go to a particular stall or shop for no other reason than to get the food they want. It is a shared activity, but it’s done just for reasons of efficiency. In theory they could each make their own sandwiches or grill their own burger.
These everyday examples help to illuminate the overall concept of ‘the common good’. The central point that appeal to this principle makes is that, for each and all of us, the ‘good life’, our fulfilment as human persons, is found by participation in the life of the whole society. To explain further, the whole society is like the orchestra or the football match: its good exists as we all participate in its common life, in simultaneously generating it and benefiting from it. And as we each do this, in multiple ways – in work, our local community, the arts, family life, and so on – we each benefit and find our own good. The common good is nothing other than the irreducibly common life of the whole society, in which the particular good of each and all is found.
Look again at the quotation from the Compendium above – it now may make more sense than it did initially. “The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each [individual]… [It belongs] to everyone and to each person… [I]t is indivisible and… only together is it possible to attain it.” (#164)
Does this statement make good sense in light of the explanation above?
If not, reflect further on the way this statement applies to musical performances and team games – which it does – and then apply this understanding to thinking about society as a whole.
We are giving special attention to ‘the common good’ here because it is central in CST – but the other CST module, ‘Public Responsibilities’, involves fuller study of it than this module does. We are not going to give sustained attention to it in later units of this module, though it will be in the background to all of them, and will be referred to several times.
Therefore there now follow a number of readings on ‘the common good’. I hope that the exposition of the idea given in above will assist comprehension of these passages.
Readings (8pp + 3pp)
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, ## 1877-1917 (Part III, Sec 1, Chap Two, Art I and Art II)
Each subsection of the Catechism is on a new screen. Use the ‘Next’ button to move through the reading.
2. Compendium, ##164-170 (Chap 4, sec II)
Optional reading (2pp)
At the following link, scroll down to the heading ‘The Common Good’:
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, The Social Agenda (2000), Article 4, ‘The Common Good’ (sec. X)
This simply consists of some statements about the common good from various documents of CST. It could be a useful reference resource.
Optional reading (12pp)
In summary, what these readings refer to as the common good is the overarching end, directly or indirectly, of all the activities which human beings properly do in this life. They are mainly speaking of the temporal common good, rather than the eternal common good of perfected communion with God. “The goal of society is in fact the historically attainable common good” (Compendium, #168). The common good is not contradictory to your good or my good. Rather, the good of each of us is found in our exercising our own particular abilities and gifts in ways that help to generate the common good, and simultaneously enable us to benefit from it. In short the common good is what would exist if only we all lived well, as God calls us to live.
End of 2.2.7
Go to 2.2.8 Jacques Maritain
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