In the twentieth century, reflection on the concept of the common good was advanced in a particularly important way during the pontificate of Pope john xxiii, who implicitly defined the common good as the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby men are enabled more fully and more readily to achieve their own perfection (Mater et Magistra 65). The concern with the perfection of men is limited in this article to particular aspects of human beings insofar as they "are by nature social beings … raised … to an order of reality which is above nature" (ibid. 219). The exposition assumes the principle that "individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution" (ibid. 219). It also presupposes that the perfection of man and society consists in a "right ordering of man's conscience with God …" (ibid. 215).
Notion. The concept of the common good is not static. Pope John noted that the common good itself progresses and that the general norms by which it is defined are in accord with the nature of things and the changed conditions of man's social life (ibid. 220, cf. 65). Among the particular conditions to which Pope John had reference are "scientific and technical progress, greater productive efficiency and a higher standard of living" (ibid. 59). These factors have produced the principal characteristic of the mid-20th century: the "increase in social relationships, in those mutual ties, that is, which daily grow more numerous and which have led to the introduction of many and varied forms of associations in the lives and activities of citizens, and to their acceptance within our legal framework" (ibid. 59).
The same factors that have produced a growing interdependence among the citizenry at a national level have also caused a growing international interdependence. Consequently, the common good of a single political community can no longer be achieved in isolation from the world family of political communities. "Hence there will always exist the objective need to promote in sufficient measure the universal common good, that is, the common good of the entire human family" (Pacem in terris 132).
The encyclicals of Pope John clearly state that a correct understanding of the common good rests on seeing the true nature of a human being as a member of a society, the need for expanding social organizations and institutions, the growth of concern in a national political community, and the requirement of an international authority to unite the family of nations. This list of required elements must be immediately distinguished from the forces of cohesion that unify a society. A political community may be stabilized on such grounds as ethnic kinship, common language and history, or shared religious persuasion. But the common good is the set of concrete ends or goals at which political communities aim rather than the grounds on which societies were founded. This distinction obviates the possibility of misunderstanding the basic nature of the common good. For the common good is achieved through principles and directives regarding social affairs that should be adapted to the changing times, whereas the foundations of political unity are historically fixed and do not require similar modifications.
Plato and Aristotle. A historical survey of the notion of the common good reveals both that it is an ancient notion and that it is variously understood and formulated. plato identifies the common good with the total virtue of the citizenry. He bases his analysis on the primacy of the polis (Gr. πόλις, state or city) over the citizen, since it is the polis that has been divinely sanctioned by Hermes's gifts of justice and reverence. The individual man has worth and dignity if he lives within a political community that is intrinsically just. The Republic allegorically argues for this sense of community based primarily on an analysis of justice. The good and the end of man is the virtuous life achieved through "the care of the soul." But the just law of the polis is the ultimate sanction for virtuous living. Hence the Crito has the laws say to Socrates: "You are our child and slave."
For Plato society is natural, and Athenian society is based on just laws. The common good is the virtuous life of the entire community. Since Plato is convinced that only a very few gifted men can achieve the life of virtue, the limited communal good must be directed by law. Because laws are formulated by men, and hopefully by virtuous men, virtue is more a force of cohesion in the community than a set of conditions for individual self-fulfillment, i.e., a common good.
aristotle, like Plato, sees society as natural and the virtuous life as the end of man. But, unlike Plato, he looks to the autonomy of human reason rather than to the just society as the sanction for the good life. It is the capacity of individual reason in a man within the society that distinguishes the citizen from the natural slave. And it is only the citizens, or those who have a share in the constitution, among whom the commonwealth, such as honor and money, is divided (Eth. Nic. 1130b 30–1031a). Aristotle does say that "… if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city states" (ibid. 1094b 6–9). In the Politics, Aristotle asserts that the happiness of the individual and the state are identical, but he also insists that there is a qualitative difference between the capacities of a statesman and the master of the household. Although happiness, i.e., the virtuous life, is the identical goal for both individual men and society, it cannot properly be said to be the common good in the sense of those conditions whereby men are enabled to realize their own perfection. By definition, the good of the state is the cumulative good of the individual citizens, and the restrictive qualification of citizenship makes impossible the notion of a good common to all men. The sense in which the good of the state is "finer and more godlike," and hence to be preferred to the good of the individual, is neither a relation of substantive priority nor one of entitative subsidiarity. It is rather a preferential judgment based on an analogy to science, in which meaning and significance are found in the universal and not the particular. In the achievement of moral goals, as in scientific accomplishments, the measure of worth is the universality of its conclusions.
Understandably, neither Plato nor Aristotle saw in every man an intrinsic worth and dignity consequent on creation. They did see a need to maximize civic worth extensively. To this end Plato turned to the most just law capable of enforcement; Aristotle, to the functionally best form of government. By turning to law or government as the norms of self-fulfillment, Plato and Aristotle unwittingly began a tradition that progressively inverted the proper relation between human beings and society. The principles of political order and unity are not identical with the purposes of human society. The effect of confusing political principles with societal goals is to invest the political community with an intrinsic worth that properly belongs only to a human being. Such a fallacious concretization puts an indefensible premium on national sovereignty that has the immediate effect of restricting the range of responsibility the nation owes to every member of the political community. The common good under such assumptions has historically been identified only with those aspects of human existence that contribute to the stability of the nation, and not with the total conditions of self-fulfillment.
Cicero and Augustine. cicero, for example, speaks of the commonwealth as the "people's affair," and "the people is not every group of men, associated in any manner, but is the coming together of a considerable number of men who are united by a common greement about law and rights and by the desire to participate in mutual advantages" (On the Commonwealth, 1.25). Cicero explicitly says that the purpose of rule is the endurance of the state, which is in no way equatable with maximizing the conditions for each man's self-perfection. In fact, for Cicero, only law may be equally shared by all citizens. In all other matters inequality is natural and ought to be preserved by the state.
St. augustine, in viewing Cicero's conception of the commonwealth, finds a serious fault. Augustine insists that "there never was in Rome any true 'weal of the people,"' and hence never any Roman Republic. For Augustine the "common good whose common pursuit knits men together into a 'people"' is absolutely restricted to those who are subject to God and who live religiously, and Augustine insists that the Romans did not serve God but demons (Civ. 19.2).
Augustine, unlike Cicero, does insist that "the bond of a common nature makes all human beings one" (Civ. 17.2). He is, therefore, concerned with world community. This concern is basically limited to the attainment of peace, but because of the passions endemic to human beings, universal peace is beyond permanent achievement, and "the city of man remains in a chronic condition of civil war." It is the duty of the political community to seek peace, which is "an ordered harmony of authority and obedience between citizens." And earthly peace, however tenuously obtained, is enhanced by the enjoyment of temporal goods that include "health, security and human fellowship." Yet such temporal goods are specifically spoken of as gifts of God, and Augustine does not seem to think that it is the business of the political community to enhance programmatically the opportunity for all men to acquire such gifts. Evidence for this view can be found in Augustine's admission without censure that: "Our holy Fathers in the faith had slaves, but in the regulation of domestic peace it was only in matters of temporal importance that they distinguished the position of their children from the status of their servants" (Civ. 19.16). In matters of worship of God, the Fathers had the same loving care for all the household. For Augustine, the common good of the city of man was peace, but a peace that had to be judged by the divine law and serve as a vehicle to the "eternal life" that is the end of the city of God. Because of Augustine's preoccupation with the permanence of the end of the city of God, he found little reason to concern himself with changing social conditions that would call for a redefinition of the norms by which the end of the city of man could be more fully realized.
Aquinas. St. thomas aquinas, in his comments on Aristotle's Ethic, observes that "nothing is good unless it is a likeness to and a participation in the highest good." The same formula is used in the Summa theologiae: "Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness, as from the first exemplary, effective and final principle of all goodness" (1a, 6.4). Aquinas is unquestionably indebted to Augustine for his notion of the common good. It consists essentially in the ordination of all men to God. Such an ordination is achieved and preserved by love of God and love for men. Consequently, Thomas interprets Aristotle's remark that the good of the city-state is "finer and more godlike" in terms of what is extensively the most lovable: God. He concludes, then, that when Aristotle spoke of "that good which is common to a single man or to many states, he intended a method, i.e., an art, which is called politics. Hence it belongs to politics in a most special way to consider the ultimate end of human life" (In 1 eth. 2.30). In considering the characteristics of a good ruler, Aquinas says that the primary concern is "to establish a virtuous life in the multitude subject to him." The reason for this charge is that "men form a group for the purpose of living well together" and "the good life is the virtuous life." Aquinas is not oblivious to the fact that a single man must live in a group because he is in no way self-sufficient and that physical accouterments are required for living the good life. But he identifies sufficiency of material goods with the necessities of life, i.e., with the minimal requirements for social existence. He states "that a society will be the more perfect the more it is sufficient unto itself to procure the necessities of life." Aquinas seems not to be concerned with the need for a world community of political organizations, for he calls any political entity, a city or a province, a perfect community if the ruler can defend the community against its enemies in addition to providing the necessities of life for the citizenry.
Aquinas's identification of the common good with the virtuous life of the citizenry is the key to the interpretation of his remarks that "it is impossible that a man be good, unless he be well ordered to the common good, nor can the whole be well ordered unless its parts be proportioned to it. Consequently, the common good of the State cannot flourish, unless the citizens be virtuous, at least those whose business it is to govern. But it is enough for the good of the community that the other citizens be so far virtuous that they obey the commands of their rulers" (1a2ae, 92.1 ad 3). The latter part of the quotation could leave the mistaken impression that Aquinas was defending absolute monarchy. Such is not the case, but it must be said that Aquinas had little practical concern with the exigencies of social change and political organization. For example, he does hold that the private good can be prior to the common good if the private good is not in the same genus as the common good. His telling example is the priority of virginity over carnal fecundity. However, in every case in which the good of the individual and the common good are in the same genus, the common good is prior, and the search for the common good is indispensable for achieving man's own good, the virtuous life.
Aquinas, like Augustine, was primarily concerned with the common good in the specific sense of setting down the invariable principles governing man's relation to society. The perspective of those principles was mainly limited to man's relation to God as his ultimate end and his relation to society as a natural and necessary means of achieving his end. In this light, the principles of Augustine and Aquinas can be taken only as necessary presuppositions for the task of the redefinition of norms for which Pope John called. But in themselves they do not suffice as constituting the explication of the common good in the changed social conditions of the 20th century.
Modern Thinkers. To call the principles of Augustine and Aquinas presuppositions serves to reinforce their indispensability in contemporary discussion. For to deny the true nature of man is to make impossible the proper considerations of the true relation of man to society, and a fortiori to redefine the norms of the common good. Evidence for this assertion can be found in the treatment of the common good in the Enlightenment, when society was regarded as contractual rather than natural and its ends were declared to be determined by self-interest rather than by divine ordination (see enlightenment, philosophy of).
According to T. hobbes, government was established to remedy a defective human nature. The function of formed government is simply to reduce the natural brutishness of man against man. Organized society is thus united by a common power that is supposed "to defend [the citizens] from the invasion of foreigners, the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly" (Leviathan, 1.17). A common power is certainly not a common good that is essentially different from the aggregate of private goods. Hobbes says: "The nature of man being as it is, the setting forth of Publique land, or of any certain Revenue for the Commonwealth is in vaine: and tendeth to the dissolution of Government" (ibid. 2.24).
J. locke, as Hobbes, sees the common good as definable in terms of the private good. He insists that in society the source of value is private: "Labor puts the difference of value on everything." Locke does make one concession to the common good. He sets a limiting condition on what a man has a right to keep, even if he has produced it. Using agriculture as his model, he says that a man can keep only what he can use, and if there is a danger of spoilage, the surplus that cannot be privately consumed reverts to common possession.
J. bentham is most explicit in deriving the meaning of the common good from that of private interest. "The interest of the community then is—what? The sum of the interests of the several members who compose it….It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the interest or to be for the interest of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures; or what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains" (Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1.4–5).
By the middle of the 18th century the notion of the common good was completely modeled on that of the private good, especially the material goods that men accumulated. Adam smith in The Wealth of Nations dealt with the problem of the public interest in strictly economic terms, for these had become the pervasive language in which the goals of society were defined. He noted that there were three classes of people differentiated by their source of income: landowners, who received rent; laborers, who worked for wages; and dealers, who lived by profit. Smith declared that the interest of the first two groups is inseparably connected with the general interest of the society, but that the interest of the profit makers is "always in some respects different from, and even opposite to that of the public." He went on to warn that the public should be suspicious of any legislative proposal originating with the profit makers because they "have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public …" (bk. 1, concl.). Although Smith was clear that the common good was not the simple aggregate of private interests, he saw moral suasion as the only remedy for the inevitable injustice resulting from the doctrine of the priority of private interests.
The 19th century inherited and advanced the doctrine that the main business of government was to do for the multitude what no one citizen could do for the corporate person, viz, defend the nation from attack and maintain domestic order. The notion that government should do for the individual what he could not do for himself or that government should provide the social conditions for universal self-fulfillment was unthinkable. The notion of the common good and its priority over private interests had completely disappeared, and its loss involved the denial of the belief that every man has intrinsic worth and dignity.
Modern Catholic Teaching. In 1891 Pope leo xiii wrote rerum novarum in an effort to correct the abuses that had arisen from economic liberalism (laissez-faire capitalism) and as an alternative solution to that proposed by the socialists. The encyclical noted that the spirit of the times was revolutionary, both politically and economically. The focus of the encyclical was on the condition of labor and, in that context, Pope Leo redefined the norms of the common good—guidelines that his successors have followed. He reasserted the intrinsic dignity of every man; he called for an expanded but flexible range of concerns on the part of the government; and he asserted the right and the need of workmen's associations and other social institutions that would aid each man in his right to self-fulfillment.
Pius XI. Forty years later, Pope pius xi wrote the encyclical quadragesimo anno to commemorate the anniversary of Rerum novarum. Again social changes demanded a redefinition of the norms of the common good. Industrial capitalism had affected the social sphere to the extent that even those living outside its ambit were affected by "its advantages, inconveniences and vices." The basic issue was "a right distribution of property and a just scale of wages." Pius recalled Leo's formulation and then added his own development. He was particularly insistent that "the public institutions of the nations must be such as to make the whole of human society conform to the common good, i.e., to the standard of social justice" (Quadragesimo anno 110). Economic and social individualism was singled out as the dominant evil that had weakened or destroyed social institutions concerned with the welfare of particular segments of society. Pius called for a reform of institutions but "principally the State." He was not opposed to state intervention in social and economic affairs, but was convinced that not "all salvation is to be hoped for from its intervention" (ibid. 78). His proposed solution was the principle of subsidiarity. "The State should leave to these smaller groups the settlement of business of minor importance. It will thus carry out with greater freedom, power and success the tasks belonging to it, because it alone can accomplish these, directing, watching, stimulating and restraining, as circumstances suggest or necessity demands" (ibid. 80).
Pius insisted on a revitalization of institutions within the political community and on an extended range of concerns for the state. He suggested further that the various nations promote economic cooperation, for he saw that the economic aspect of the universal common good could no longer be achieved at a national level.
Maritain. The rise of totalitarian regimes—Facist, Nazi, and Communist—and the consequent World War II demanded a contemporary restatement of the intrinsic dignity of man without which the common good of nations simply could not be achieved and, even less, the universal common good. Jacques maritain was probably the most influential writer of this period (see thomism). He carefully distinguished the temporal common good from the supernatural common good; and, within the temporal concern, he separated the political structure of the state from the economic organization of society. The key term in Maritain's definition of a society of free men was "personalist," by which he intended to reaffirm man's ordination to God as an end—an end that transcends every common good. But it is only in virtue of that ordination, says Maritain, that any ordination to other common goods is possible. Maritain saw that the political erosion of man's dignity led to totalitarianism and also that changes in the systems of property and production would inevitably occasion political reorganization. He noted that such changes "will in any case give way to a new system of life, better or worse according to whether it is animated by the personalist or totalitarian spirit" (Rights of Man and Natural Law, 95). Whether or not the democracies would be able to give man his due as a person was problematic. Maritain hoped they would, but saw as an indispensable condition a reorientation away from the individualism of the 19th century.
Maritain's "personalism" came under considerable attack from scholastic philosophers, notably Charles de koninck. The burden of the differences, however, were mainly metaphysical and not immediately concerned with the interpretation of the social changes to which Pope John XXIII subsequently addressed himself.
John XXIII. The notion of the common good is almost entirely absent in contemporary philosophical discussion. When it does appear, it is usually in a context concerning justice or law, as was the case for the Greeks and Romans. Moreover, the depth of contemporary discussion concerning the common good is severely limited by the acceptance of at least the technical language that was the legacy of economic liberalism, social Darwinism, and legal positivism. Examples can be found in four principal aspects of the common good selected by Pope John for his presentation, viz, (1) neglect of the person in favor of the individual, (2) the multiplication of social institutions, (3) increased governmental intervention, and (4) the growth of nationalism.
First, "it is agreed that in our time the common good is chiefly guaranteed when personal rights and duties are maintained…. For to safeguard the inviolable right of the human person, and to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties, should be the essential office of every public authority" (Pacem in terris 60). The pope's use of the word person must be sharply differentiated from the more commonplace term individual (see individuality). The social connotations of the term individual are those of an instrument of production or a possessor of property. Manuals of jurisprudence consistently define person as "the substances of which rights and duties are the attributes." The legal attribution of rights and duties, however, is radically distinct from the assertion of God-given inviolability. In the latter case it must be asserted that a human being has an intrinsic dignity or worth that transcends and takes priority over every form of political association, whereas in the case of attribution a man has a social or political value that is contingent on a particular political or economic system. The functional definition of man in the systematic terms of any science emphasizes his needs and acquisitive desires, which are satisfied by material goods. Such definitions omit the inherent richness of the person that is the basis of fruitful interpersonal association. Persons have the duty of giving and sharing, but individuals can rest on their right to acquire. Since the person is the end of all social institutions, person must be understood as transcending every particular form of social and economic institution, whatever it may be.
Second, the failure to distinguish between individual and person results in divergent interpretations concerning the natural multiplication of social organizations that are directed to the satisfaction of many personal rights, including health services, education, leisure, and recreation. Technological developments and economic affluence are two of the reasons why persons can reasonably aspire to a greater share of the common wealth, but which they cannot obtain without banding together in common action. Pope John made it clear that the proliferation of such organizations is not a threat to personal responsibility and absolutely rejected the notion that increased communal action will cause a man to lose his initiative and consequently become an automaton. Since the emerging complex social organization is the creation of persons, it has as its purpose making the accouterments of the good life more accessible to the greatest number of persons. It is not intended as providing a more facile way for individuals to acquire a disproportionate share of the common wealth. If institutions are seen as the fitting way for a person to carry out his rights and duties "and to fully develop and perfect his personality," then it follows that every institution is obliged to enter into dialogue with all other institutions. For only through the institutional expansion of concerns can the person fully receive his due. The tradition of economic individualism, however, views such expansion with suspicion because it conceives the function of institutions to be concerned primarily with the means of retaining what was individually acquired. Consequently, individualism stresses institutional independence rather than interdependence, and thus prefers silence to dialogue in the face of social change.
Third, Pope John observed that "this development in the social life of man is at once a symptom and a cause of the growing intervention of the State, even in matters which are of intimate concern to the individual, hence of great importance and not devoid of risk" (Mater et Magistra, 60). He saw that opportunity for free action by individuals is restricted by governmental intervention. But that danger is not serious enough to offset the advantages that governmental intervention brings. The problem, at least in the economic sphere, is that "the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth. This it is which guarantees the personal development of the members of society, which is the true goal of a nation's economy" (ibid. 74). The propriety of governmental intervention was defended by the pope on the factual ground that the common good evolves in correspondence with the growth of economic prosperity. Such an evolution makes possible a national focus on distributive justice, according to which all members of the community are given a proportionate share of the communal goods. The theory of individualism, however, rejects the evolutionary concept and insists that the business of government ought to be restricted to the tradition of noninterference in the modes of acquisition and retention of private goods. On this view governmental concern with justice should be mainly directed to correcting the inequities arising from illegal modes of acquisition. This emphasis on corrective justice disallows an organic view of a national polity and consequently insists on an isolated national autonomy rather than on any international organization that would benefit equally the family of nations.
Fourth, Pope John observed: "At the present time no political community is able to pursue its own interests and develop itself in isolation, because its prosperity and development are both a reflection and a component part of the prosperity and development of all the other political communities" (Pacem in terris 131). He pointed out that a national common good is no longer achievable without concern for the universal common good and that the universal common good in concrete form is a "public authority, having world-wide power and endowed with the proper means for the efficacious pursuit of its objective …" (ibid. 138). It is clear that Pope John held that the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person can be realized if and only if national political organizations transcend their own domestic concerns. Just as all men form the human family, so the common good must be universal if it is to be maximally achieved at any national level. The corollary is that the more powerful states have a moral obligation to assist the less privileged communities, but according to the principle of subsidiarity. The proponents of individualism, having rejected an organic notion of a political community and an evolutionary concept of the common good, see no justification for any nationally transcendent obligations. Instead, they would pursue a policy of economic accommodation and military reaction that is intended to defend the integrity of national rights, particularly the right of property.
Recent Developments. Church leaders, pastoral letters, and synodal documents since Vatican II have largely echoed and extended the analysis of the concept of common good offered by Pope John XXIII. The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes ) repeats verbatim John XXIII's definition of the common good and dedicates several paragraphs (see nos. 26 and 74) to a careful explanation of the proper role of public authorities and government agencies in protecting and enhancing the conditions that foster human flourishing and fulfillment. In his encyclical Populorum progressio (1967), Pope Paul VI reminds us that "the right to property must never be exercised to the detriment of the common good" (no. 23). He also amplifies his predecessor's insight about the ever-widening extent of internationalized obligations to promote the common good by authoring the stirring phrase "the social question has become worldwide" (Populorum progressio, no. 3). Pope John Paul II has likewise frequently couched his own exhortations to social justice and assistance to the needy in terms of advancing the common good, often offering substantial reflections on aspects of contemporary economic, political, and cultural life which so tragically detract from greater attainment of the common good.
A number of documents emanating from various gatherings and groupings of bishops have likewise made substantial reference to the common good. Justice in the World, the document of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, emphasizes the temporal obligations we all have, as both citizens and believers, to promote the common good (no.39). In recent decades, episcopal conferences in several parts of the world have issued pastoral letters that use the category of the common good to analyze economic and social realities in their own distinctive contexts. The U.S. bishops, in their 1986 pastoral letter on the American economy, Economic Justice for All, called attention to the special obligations of leaders of industry to use their wealth and influence to promote the common good, declaring: "Business people, managers, investors, and financiers follow a vital Christian vocation when they act responsibly and seek the common good. We encourage and support a renewed sense of vocation in the business community" (no. 117). Finally, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the concept of common good extensively in its section on social life in the human community (nos. 1878-1912). Here the master concept of common good emerges as a privileged lens through which we may view and make judgments about political and economic realities and events.
Conclusion. It is simply impossible to define the common good in a final way irrespective of the changing social conditions. However, the social encyclicals on which this exposition rests completely reject the philosophy of individualism and insist that the norms for the common good of individual political communities as well as the universal common good "cannot be determined except by having regard to the human person" (Pacem in terris 139).
See Also: authority; community; man, natural end of; person (in philosophy); society.
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