What is the Common Good?

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The louder he talked of the common good, the faster we counted our spoons. That’s not the original quote, of course. What Ralph Waldo Emerson actually wrote over a century and a half ago was, “the faster he talked about his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” But the sentiment is the same: that virtuous talk of honor and the common good must always be accompanied by an awareness that something less than virtuous might be afoot—that we might be in danger of being deprived of something precious under cover of sonorous and earnest-sounding declarations of private or public virtue. 

And counting our spoons we should be. For over a year now, America has been subject to a dizzying array of extraordinary economic and public health measures—including proposals for vaccine passports and perhaps even mandatory inoculations—intended to deal with the economic and public health challenges posed by COVID-19. And all these measures have been accompanied by some sort of appeal to the “common good.” 

But can the idea of the “common good” do the work implied by its constant evocation? Can it really provide a basis for all the draconian measures implemented over the past 11 months? Or is it really just a hollow phrase—one that cannot possibly meet the challenge of justifying all the measures that have been taken to date, let alone all those proposed under the banner the “Great Reset.” Or, worse, is all this chatter about the common good really of a piece with Emerson’s houseguest talking faster and faster about his honor?

If we look back over the long tradition of Catholic political thought, it is possible to identify three basic answers to these questions.

The first of these is the Aristotelian-Thomistic answer. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the “good life” consisted of each individual human being living a life of virtue. Only by living such a life, they argued in their respective ways, could a person truly flourish as a human being. Significantly, both thinkers also agreed that what constituted the “good life” for one human being constituted the “good life” for all human beings, by virtue of their common or shared nature. The “good” in the “good life” was thus common to all humans. 

As a political concept, as a goal of government policy, both Aristotle and Aquinas believed that the “common good” was thus a state in which all people could lead—or perhaps would be forced to lead—lives of virtue. In other words, as the truly political community was, by its very nature, ordered toward the promotion of the common good, and as the common good was the good common to all individual human beings, the purpose of the state was necessarily to promote, encourage, and enforce the common virtues that all human beings had to live by if they were to flourish or realize the good that is common to all. 

The second answer to these questions, let’s call it the organological answer, traces its roots back to both the medieval Catholic notion that society is a kind of persona ficta—that is, a fictitious person that is more than simply the sum of the parts. Specifically, it locates its origins in the “organological metaphor” most famously articulated by the 12th-century cleric and philosopher John of Salisbury in his treatise Policraticus.

According to this metaphor, society is likened to the human body, with the various aspects of the “body politic” analogized to various parts of the human body. Thus, the government is likened to the head, the Church to the heart, the laws to the circulatory system, warriors to the hands, laborers to the feet, and so on. Significantly, as the political community was conceived as an organic whole, it was understood to have corporate or holistic interests that were irreducible to those of its constituent parts (just as the human body has interests that are irreducible to those of its hands, feet, and so on). 

On this view, the “common good” was defined in terms of the flourishing of the body politic as a corporate or organic whole. It was more than the sum of the parts—indeed, the good of the parts were necessarily subordinated to the good of the particular parts. Echoes of this organological idea of the common good can be found in later medieval “corporation theory,” a 12th-century body of thought developed by canon law jurists to define the structure of small groups within the Church (a cathedral chapter, for example) as well as the universal Church itself.

The final approach to the common good is what we might call the Augustinian approach, after its inventor, Augustine of Hippo. Augustine rejected the Aristotelian view, which he only knew via the works of Cicero. Augustine argued, instead, that the common good had nothing at all to do with the shared pursuit of virtue or morality—indeed, he argued that such a common enterprise was a logical impossibility. 

All human political communities, according to Augustine, comprised a mixture of the citizens of the Heavenly City (i.e., the just and virtuous) and the Earthly City (the unjust and less-than-virtuous). As these two groups had radically opposed supreme “loves” or values—one, God; the other, man—they simply could not share a common set of fundamental interests, purposes, or ends. 

In other words, there could be no such thing as the “common good” in the Aristotelian sense. All that was possible was a qualified agreement on a limited number of intermediate goods that had a “common usefulness” (communis utilitas): peace, concord, “the satisfaction of material needs, security from attack and orderly social intercourse.” On this view, the communis utilitas was an essentially amoral phenomenon having to do exclusively with the material security and well-being of the community and its members. Ultimately, for Augustine and those influenced by his thought, the common good (redefined as communis utilitas) was understood in terms of peace and order rather than peace and virtue

With this somewhat clearer picture in hand, we should now be able to answer the question, “What public health and other measures related to the current pandemic are required or justified by the common good?” And the answer is…. Well, it’s not clear to me exactly what the answer is.

Does the organological perspective give rise to a policy of lockdowns? Would an Augustinian understanding support a policy of closed borders? Does the Aristotelian view imply or support a “herd immunity” strategy?

I don’t know. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe one can’t simply read pandemic policy—or any policy—off of the common good, however defined. Maybe attempting to justify every new and more draconian measure—or its opposite—in terms of “the common good” truly is the equivalent of talking faster about honor. And maybe, if that is the case, the more those seeking to advance a particular approach to the pandemic do so by loudly invoking the common good, the faster we should be counting our spoons. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the past two decades. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson.

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