1.3.2 The common good
Back to 1.3.1
One of the most prominent terms in CST is ‘the common good’. Quite often, writers on CST pair this with justice. They say (for example) that the aim of government must be ‘justice and the common good’.
The basic meaning of ‘justice’ is quite easy to understand – and, in light of the last screen, I hope you have a sense of what it means.
The ‘common good’ is more challenging to understand clearly, and often this and similar terms are used in very vague ways. But what it means can be stated clearly and carefully. I hope you will understand it after reading this and the next screen.
Here is a helpful background point. The common good goes beyond justice. Justice is a kind of minimum standard: if people are experiencing injustice, they are not getting what they are due at minimum, as human beings in their particular circumstances. In contrast, the common good is not just a minimum standard, but is the best there can be (in this life). The common good is more than justice. It is the good of the whole society. It is the diverse range of wonderful things that make up a society’s shared life, and that everyone who already has justice can generate and enjoy together.
Recognizing, then, that the common good goes beyond justice, let’s try to understand further what this is. A passage in the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (from which a number of readings will be taken in this and later units) says:
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)
This quotation says something important, but it needs some unpacking! To understand it, we shall think about some familiar activities which can be called ‘small-scale 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 could not exist otherwise. No-one alone can produce or enjoy the live music of a real choir.
Therefore this is, inherently or intrinsically, a common good. We can call it an ‘irreducibly common good’ – because the good of choral music cannot be reduced to what a set of individuals could each generate or benefit from alone.
There are many small-scale goods which are irreducibly common in this way – even if sometimes some people don’t recognize that this is their nature. Here are some other examples:
- a football match, or any team game
- a party or big family celebration
- the friendship of a group of people that endures through time
- a good marriage
- the life of a local Christian congregation or a religious community.
Do you understand why it makes sense to say that these things are ‘irreducibly common goods’?
But as soon as we’ve understood the idea of such common goods, we need to take into account a really important qualification. To point out that these are irreducibly common doesn’t mean that, in practice, they are always good! In practice, the sorts of things listed above might have serious problems or flaws which detract from how they are supposed to be good for their participants. A football game can be violent (if the game’s rules are broken). A party can turn into an almighty row. A friendship can be destroyed by manipulation. A marriage can be wrecked by cruelty or infidelity.
This is very true. Yet the point in focusing on such small-scale ‘irreducibly common goods’ is to bring out the following: to the extent that such goods turn out actually to be good for anyone, this happens as people participate in the common action which, simultaneously, generates and gives benefit from them.
To see this more clearly, we can look at the way that ‘irreducibly common goods’ are different from what exists when we do things together only because it’s useful or convenient or efficient. People do many things together, not to generate a real common good, but because it’s a more effective way to bring about an outcome.
Here is an example: if office workers go to a particular stall or shop at lunchtimes to get a takeaway sandwich or a wrap, the reason for doing so is to buy the food they would like. While the activity of queuing and buying from such a stall is certainly a shared one, it’s done for convenience or efficiency. The good itself doesn’t lie in participating in the queue and the exchange at the counter, but in its outcome: the lunch they walk out with. In theory they could each make their own sandwiches or grill their own burger, and so achieve the same outcome (more or less).1
The sandwich stall can be called a ‘collective good’ – people act collectively because this is an effective way to bring about a result for each of them individually, to get food for lunch. There are many such collective activities, e.g. road building, furniture moving, travelling on buses… But these are not like choral music or football matches – they are not ‘irreducibly common goods’, because the benefit is not inherent in the shared action itself.2
Collective goods are not common goods. Both kinds are really important for living well. The point of looking at the contrast between them is not to show that one kind is better than the other but, rather, to bring out the way they are different.
Of course there are also goods that are inherently solo – that can be enjoyed only by people alone. Examples are: reading a book, and going for a solitary walk when you’ve been with noisy people all day. Some activities that are ‘solo goods’ can also be shared – but this changes the nature of the good. Walking with others for reasons of safety would be a ‘collective good’. A walk with others in which their presence is part of what makes it good for you (on a family outing perhaps) is a real ‘common good’. Its commonness is intrinsic to its goodness.
So we can distinguish ‘common goods’, ‘collective goods’ and ‘solo goods’. They are conceptually different.
Where does this take us? These examples can help us to understand the overall, large-scale idea of ‘the common good’. What this term means is that the good of the whole society is something irreducibly common. It is not just a collective good. We generate the common good as we participate in the life of society, and it is good for each and all of us.
To understand this, think of the whole society as like the choir or the football match: its good exists as we all participate in its common life, in simultaneously generating this and benefiting from it. We each do this, in multiple ways: at work, in our local community, through the arts, in family life, and so on. The large-scale common good is nothing other than the irreducibly common life of the whole society.
What this means is that a whole society – whether a village, a town, a city or a nation – is not just a ‘collective good’. It is not just an arena which people enter because it provides a convenient and effective means for them to get from it what they want as individuals. It is not like the sandwich stall. On the contrary, a village, town, city or nation is, however imperfectly, a real common good. As each person participates in making it real, he or she also receives great benefit from it.
Here is part of the quotation from the Compendium (#164) that I gave above. What it means should now be clearer.
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.
This should now make sense. Does it?
If not, re-read from the top of this screen.
There is plenty more to say about the common good, and here is one major point.
As CST understands the common good, this concept expresses a really big and important claim, not just about the nature of human societies, but about human persons. When CST refers to the common good, it is saying that human wellbeing, i.e. the ‘good life’ or human fulfilment, is an irreducibly common good.
In other words, human persons find fulfilment together with others, not as completely separate individuals. The overall common good is the ‘place’ in which the particular good of each person is found. Just like the singers in the choir, as we participate, each in our own way, in the shared action of the life of society, we generate a common good that is also our own good.
This is a hugely significant point. It has often been expressed in the simple phrase that the person is a ‘social being’. We are fully human in society, thanks to the large-scale common good we generate together.
Some people will find this quite a heady claim, not to say mind-boggling or just too much to take in. Some might even say it’s a bit scary, and there is at least one good reason for this which we’ll look at later.
- the common good goes beyond justice
- the good of society is an ‘irreducibly common good’, not just a collective good
- human persons are social beings: the good for each of us, human fulfilment, is found in the common good.–
End of 1.3.2
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This said, they might in fact have some other reason for going to that stall: perhaps they fancy the person who heats the pies… This is their ulterior motive (though not therefore a bad one). But it can’t account for the shared activity of queuing etc., in the way that the common good of choral music accounts for this shared activity. Rather, the food stall’s purpose is instrumental. ↩
Yes, builders or bus travellers (for instance) might well develop some camaraderie, and this would be a real common good. Among workers it is a highly important one. But this is a different thing from, it is over and above, the collective action of building or bus-travelling and the instrumental good this produces. ↩