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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Appendix 3: The notion of the “common good”

A full examination of the notion of the “common good” belongs to the treatise on justice. However, certain misunderstandings of this notion will lead to objections to the conclusion reached in question F. Here I explain “common good” sufficiently to raise and answer these objections.

In the teaching of the Church and in older treatises on moral theology, it often is said (and always taken for granted) that in social matters the principle of moral rectitude in action is the common good. One might suppose that “common good” signifies a principle other than the basic human goods which contribute to integral human fulfillment or that it signifies certain categories of these goods exclusively—in other words, that some of them are common and that others are strictly individual.

“Common good” sometimes is used to signify something other than the basic human goods. For instance, one sometimes refers to common property or tools as a “common good”; it sometimes is said that shared natural resources, public facilities such as roads, and a shared body of national cultural objects are components of the common good of a political society. These things can pertain to the common good, but they are not principles of morality, for they are merely instruments to or expressions of common life and the humanly fulfilling actions and realities which perfect it. Hence, the common good which is a principle of the moral rectitude of action should not be identified with such goods.

There is no good which helps to shape morally right action except goods which can be sought for their own sake as a basis for a choice to act. The basic human goods precisely are all the kinds of good which can be sought for their own sake, whether in an individual’s or a group’s decision to act. Hence, the common good as a principle of moral rectitude cannot be a good other than the basic human goods.

Nor are some categories of the basic human goods common and others strictly individual. All the basic human goods can be purposes of both individual and communal acts; moreover, all of them have both individual and communal dimensions in their realization.

A person can individually choose and act for any of the goods. One might suppose that one could not individually choose and act for a good such as interpersonal harmony, but that supposition is a mistake. A private citizen who summons others to be concerned about what seems a social injustice is acting individually for justice, although such a person hopes that this individual action will lead to social action. One also might suppose that a group of persons could not communally choose and act for a good such as individual self-integration, but this supposition also is a mistake. A community of monks can choose and act together according to a rule of life, an important part of whose purpose is the development of self-control and detachment in each member of the community, since personal sanctification is part of the common purpose.

Moreover, there are individual and communal dimensions in the realization of all the basic human goods. Harmony in the existential domain is an interconnected whole; one does not have inner peace if one is at war with one’s fellows, and vice versa. Justice is realized in persons whose individual lives are perfected in community. Individuals are fulfilled by knowledge of the truth, but the truth of any field of study is known only by a scholarly community, with its many experts and specialists. Human life itself belongs to individual organisms, but it also exists in the common functions of sexual intercourse and procreation. Thus, there are no categories of human good inherently private or inherently social.

What, then, does it mean to talk about the “common good” as a principle for the moral rectitude of action in a social context? The common good of a particular society is the set of basic human goods insofar as members of that society are commonly committed to them and pursue them by cooperative action. The common good also can be thought of as including instrumental goods, such as public property. But these are not morally determinative. When the moral rectitude of an action in a social context is in question, an emphasis on the common good ordinarily means three things. First, that the principle of moral rectitude is found in intelligible human goods, not in empirical goods which appeal to emotion (considered simply as such). Second, that the relationships which constitute the society must be structured in a fair way, and this just order must be constantly reestablished when it is disturbed. Third, that actions which affect many must be directed by impartial (fair, just) judgments, not by partial (unfair, biased, selfish, prejudiced) decisions.8

As for the first of these points, morality as a whole depends upon intelligible goods. Still, in the case of individuals acting in respect to their own affairs and the concerns of small, intimate groups, such as the family, emotion normally is more or less integrated with reason, and in many cases one need not think much about what is truly good. However, in social affairs which involve larger groups, such as a whole political society, feelings seldom can be trusted. If upright judgments are going to be made, there must be constant attention to the fact that action must be directed to what is intelligibly good, not simply to particular, appealing states of affairs. For example, the policy of a nation at war ought to be directed to the intelligible good of peace, not merely to the empirical good of the euphoric day when the war will be brought to a successful end.

In general, the basic human goods are not good precisely insofar as they are realized in this or that individual or group; they are good because they are humanly fulfilling. There is a constant danger that my or our experience of sharing in a good will become an empirical objective whose emotional appeal will override reasonable judgments about the pursuit of that which is good—for example, peace and justice. The appeal to the common good in part attempts to forestall this danger.

However, the second point—the demand for fairness—is more precisely what it means to say that in social matters the principle of moral rectitude in action is the common good. Most large-scale societies are a complex of various sorts of interpersonal relationships, some of them based on morally evil acts. However, to the extent that there really is community and cooperative action, people are committed to the same goods and (in most cases) work so that these goods will be realized in such a way that all will share to some extent in their realization. For example, insofar as a political society has the character of a real community, its members are committed to justice among themselves and try to establish a form of life such that all will share in this good, by treating others justly and by being treated in the same way.

Of course, the precise states of affairs for which a community undertakes common action usually cannot be achieved without such common action—which is why common action is undertaken. However, in many cases individuals or smaller groups can enjoy many of the rewards of the common undertaking although they do not contribute fairly to bearing its burden. Moreover, individuals often can prefer objectives other than the common ones; their action for these can be unfair merely because they are pursued selfishly to the detriment of the common undertaking. Further, some individuals relate to others on a completely amoral basis; they consider only their own satisfactions and care nothing for others except insofar as they can use them or must beware of them. Hence, there is much unfairness in the life of any large-scale society. The appeal to the common good is an appeal for fairness in the conduct of every communal undertaking.

On the basis of the preceding explanation, it is easy to grasp two senses in which it is correct to say: “The common good is superior to the goods of individuals.”

In one sense, this means that intelligible goods are humanly superior to empirical goods, and thus the human good itself is more important than whose good it happens to be. For example, that truth be known is more important than that I know it or you know it. Of course, truth is not known unless some individuals and groups participate in it. But the whole possible fulfillment is larger than any participation, and each participation is humanly good because of what it is, not because of whose it is.

In another sense, the superiority of the common good means that the fulfillment of the group by its cooperative action has priority over any unfair individual satisfaction. Any individual who views common life selfishly, any group which views public life solely in terms of its partisan interests, will seek unfair satisfactions and violate the primacy of the common good, understanding “common good” in this sense.

Aristotle’s conception of the common good was that individuals are related to society as parts to a whole. The common good, on this view, is the only true and complete good of the individuals, just as the common life is the only real life they have. On this view, as Aristotle says: To attain the common good is greater and more godlike than to attain the good of an individual.9 Unfortunately, by way of St. Thomas and others, this conception has found its way into Catholic moral and social thought (see S.t., 2–2, q. 47, a. 10; q. 64, a. 2; q. 141, a. 8).

The trouble with this view is obvious. It simply is not true that individual persons are subordinated to communities as parts of an organism are subordinated to the whole organism. Parts of one’s body as such do not have moral standing of their own. For example, the life and health which is a human good is that of the person as a whole. Hence, not only may one cut off a cancerous part for the life of the whole, one may cut off an organ healthy in itself to protect the well-being of the whole—for example, one may amputate healthy testicles to impede breast cancer in a man, because the normal hormonal product of the testicle contributes to the virulence of such cancer. But one may not kill members of society—particularly innocent ones—for the welfare of the whole. To do so is to violate the eighth mode of responsibility.

Needless to say, St. Thomas does not develop Aristotle’s dictum into a justification for Machiavellianism. For Thomas, human persons are not ordered to political society according to all they are and have, but rather to God (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 21, a. 4, ad 3). Faith teaches that subordination to divine goodness requires not the destruction of persons but their fulfillment.10 Hence, in Catholic social teaching, passages abound in which the primacy of persons is declared. For example, Vatican II teaches that the political community exists for the common good, and “the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of social life by which individuals, families, and groups can achieve their own fulfillment in a relatively thorough and ready way” (GS 74).11

8. Usually “common good” is used in the Church’s teaching as if the sense of the expression were obvious. Hence, it is impossible to verify the point made here by reference to any single place. However, comparison of many references to the “common good”—for example, in the two great social encyclicals of John XXIII—does point to the conclusion that appeal to the common good is nothing more than appeal to justice in the social pursuit of the genuine human goods of persons in communion. See Mater et magistra, 53 AAS (1961) 410, 417, 421, and 438–39; The Papal Encyclicals, 267.40, 65, 78–81, and 151; Pacem in terris, 55 AAS (1963) 272–73, 280–8l, 293–94, and 298; The Papal Encyclicals, 270.55–56, 84–85, 136–39, and 154–55. For additional references and a summary: Jean-Yves Calvez, S.J., and Jacques Perrin, S.J., The Church and Social Justice: The Social Teaching of the Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), 114–24.

9. See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics i, 1094a28–b10.

10. See St. Thomas, In Decem Libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum Expositio, i, 2, where the dictum of Aristotle is qualified doubly: first, that what is in question is the pursuit of the same good for many or for one; second, that politics is not supreme absolutely. See also Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), 5–20; Carlos Cardona, La metafísica del bien comün (Madrid: Rialp, 1966).

11. This statement of Vatican II need not be taken as a definition of the common good, reducing it to a purely ancilliary role. In a generally sound treatment of common good, Johannes Messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Western World, rev. ed. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1965), 123–50, considers the common good attained in social cooperation to be only auxiliary to the fulfillment of distinct persons (143) although he holds this order to be of intrinsic value (149). Messner seems not to understand clearly that at least the good of justice in the society, which is the formal aspect of anything that can be called “common good,” not only requires cooperation for its attainment, but can only exist in the community. For although interpersonal harmony is not real apart from persons, it is real only in persons-in-communion, not in many individual persons as a mere aggregate. (See Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge, 29 AAS [1937] 158–59; The Papal Encyclicals, 218.30, for an explicit recognition of properly social goods.) Behind Messner’s difficulty (and also Maritain’s) is no doubt a reaction against the organicism of totalitarian theories and perhaps also a residue of a religious individualism, which sought the fulfillment of the person more in individual salvation (union of each soul with God by a private act of beatific vision) than in social liberation (communion of divine and human persons in the perfected kingdom).