The Common Good: State Identity and the Cultivation of Virtue

The Common Good: State Identity and the Cultivation of VirtueBy D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
From the November 2011 Fraternity Newsletter

What is the common good? As the very name indicates, it is a good that is shared by many, and as such it stands in contrast to the individual good, a good that is peculiar to this or that person. One can say that any organized “society,” such as the family, an army, or a religious order, is bound together by a common good.

Strictly speaking, however, when we speak of the common good we have in mind that good which is the defining mark of a political society, or state. The common good is the final end of a state, in that it explains the very purpose for which the state was organized.

The common good is essentially a moral good, which is to say that it is a good which, once established and faithfully adhered to, enables the members of a political community, the citizens of a state, to live virtuous lives. Everything having to do with the structure and the running of the state, its constitution, the whole body of its laws, should contribute to the fostering of virtue. Such was the opinion of Plato and Aristotle, and of St. Thomas Aquinas as well. How many modern legislators, one might wonder, would view the matter in that light?

Laws, then, as the expression of the common good, are intended to make people good, but they can do so only if they are good laws, otherwise they will have just the opposite effect. The explanation for a situation where a state has developed the practice of promulgating bad laws is to be traced to a defective common good. It may be called “good” by such a state, but that is to misname it.

To understand this, we need to recall a basic distinction we make in ethics between a true good (bonum verum) and an apparent good (bonum apparens). St. Thomas gives considerable stress to the point that in all of our moral choices we always choose what we perceive to be good. We are constitutionally incapable of choosing evil just as evil. It may in fact be evil, objectively considered, but we have to “translate” it in our minds, making it out to be something good, before we can actively will it. If this happens on the individual level, it happens on the social level as well, with respect to the common good. A political community can set in place and dedicate itself to a common good which is not a true good but an apparent good only. And when that happens the political community in question is heading for disaster.

The common good, we said, is to be contrasted with the individual good, but the two should work together harmoniously. The common good, the good shared by the entire political community, must support and enhance the individual good, and in no way inhibit it. And the individual good of any particular citizen should not be at variance with the common good. And those smaller societies which are included within the embrace of the larger society which is the state, especially the family, should have their proper goods protected and nurtured by the common good. There should be no conflict between the good of the whole and the goods of the parts of the whole.

In recent times we have witnessed a number of governments who have operated under a perversely distorted understanding of the common good. I have in mind those totalitarian regimes which did anything but foster a genuine common good, for, first of all, they certainly were not intending to create a virtuous citizenry, and, second, far from preserving and protecting the individual good, they did everything they could to suppress it.

These governments allowed only for a single, monolithic “good” which tolerated no competitors, and to which everyone had slavishly to conform. If any individual attempted to pursue a good that was antithetical to the pseudo-good of the Party or the Cause, prompt and often lethal action was taken against him.

The common good, again, is a good which is shared by many. It is not exclusively my good, nor yours; it is ours. The common good is what binds a society together; it is a unifying factor, making a political community a coherent, integral whole. This being the case, any movement within a civil society that has the effect of undermining its unity, such as programs that seek to promote “diversity” and “pluralism,” can be said to militate against the common good.

Aristotle defined an oligarchy as government by the rich. An oligarchy would be a defective form of  government because it is incompatible with a genuine common good, benefiting, as it does, not the whole society, but only a small part of it. Another defective form of government cited by Aristotle was what he called “extreme democracy”; this is a democratic government which has run amok. What chiefly characterizes extreme democracy is the dominant influence within it of a false idea of freedom, where what is called freedom is really little more than license. In extreme democracy extreme individualism — i.e., sheer selfishness — reigns, with the result that individual goods are pursued to the extent that the common good is blithely ignored.

A current and fairly prevalent misunderstanding of the common good has it that it is no more than the sum total of individual goods. The poverty of such a notion consists in the fact that it fails to recognize the common good precisely as common. One can sum up individual goods from now to Doomsday and never arrive at a common good, for the individual good and the common good are different in kind. An individual good, by definition, is proper to one person; a common good, by definition, is a good shared by many.

The good is the proper object of the human will. It is that for which we were created, and the attainment of which makes for true human fulfillment. All goods, if they are true goods, derive their identity and desirability from the fact that they have their ultimate source in the Supreme Good, God Himself. In the final analysis, then, the test of whether or not any political community is guided by a genuine common good is to be found in the degree to which that good is rooted in a dedication to the Supreme Good. The good that is common to any state should be the same good that is common to the whole of humanity.

November 5, 2011