Membership in a political society, citizenship, involves many specific responsibilities, which will be treated in questions C through E. The present question will clarify these responsibilities’ general ground in the common good. Then it will show how to apply the standard of the common good to decide whether a governmental measure is just or a supposed civic duty a true moral obligation.10
Many people, including many Christians, take one or the other of two erroneous attitudes toward political society and the responsibilities of citizenship. Contrasting the right attitude with the two wrong attitudes sheds light on this part of moral life, which is an important part of a Christian’s personal vocation.
a) Some people overlook or deny the moral claims of citizenship. Political society sometimes is regarded as a reality with great power, which the prudent, of course, will take into account, but which of itself makes no moral claim on its citizens. On this view, those in power cannot be ignored, and what governments do often has an important impact for good or ill. But one’s respect for the state is not essentially different from one’s respect for natural forces such as fire, floods, and winds. If this view were sound, membership in civic community plainly would involve no commitment but would merely be a given, to be arranged to one’s convenience as much as possible.
The amorality, or even immorality, of many public officials and public policies, as well as the flagrant appeal of contemporary democratic politics to economic self-interest, nurture this attitude by suggesting that political society is merely an arrangement enabling individuals and groups, not least the wealthy and powerful, to pursue their self-interest. For Christians, the neutrality (and, very often, the antireligious bias) of the liberal democratic state with regard to things of ultimate importance contributes to this attitude. It also finds fertile ground in the experience of many unsophisticated people, not significantly involved in the political process, who passively experience governmental action as the impact upon their lives of an alien force: they are doing this to us and demanding that of us.
b) Some people overestimate the moral claims of citizenship. In denying the irreducible distinction between God and creatures, the German philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel (who died in 1831), replaced the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption with a metaphysical theory of reality as a single, evolving whole. He secularized the Christian concept of the Mystical Body and held that the state is a quasi-divine superperson in which the human essence, which he identified as rational freedom, is most fully realized. It follows that the state embodies an unconditioned end and has absolute authority over both its individual citizens and the nonpolitical communities which make it up. On this view, the state is the first principle of morality for its members; its customs and laws specify their duty; and there is no higher standard by which they could evaluate its claims on them. Indeed, the only limit on a state is that set by the power of other states, and the moral sovereignty of every state makes wars among them not only inevitable but indispensable for human progress.11
While few people today accept Hegel’s view, some who are both morally serious and politically sophisticated do think of citizenship as holding the supreme (or, if they are devout, the almost supreme) place among all their commitments. Such people typically believe that, in promoting their nation’s interests and defending their political society, the regime is exempt from the moral requirements binding both individuals and other communities. Thus, they consider it morally permissible for officials of their government to lie under oath and even to kill the innocent, provided such acts are motivated by reasons of state rather than by personal considerations. This mistaken attitude leads to an intense desire to be a good citizen and an excessive deference toward governmental authority. Excessive deference often takes the form of unquestioning submission or a practically irrebuttable presumption that laws are just, commands must be obeyed, and when duties conflict, civic responsibilities always deserve priority.
c) A Christian attitude avoids both of the preceding extremes. As the next section explains, a Christian attitude agrees in part with (a): some exercises of governmental power altogether lack authority; and, while political society facilitates or obstructs Christians’ pursuit of the most important things, it does not directly concern those things: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 13.14), and so “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3.20; cf. Col 3.1–3). But a right attitude also disagrees with (a) and agrees in part with (b): political society does make a direct moral claim on its members—“One must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (Rom 13.5; cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 6)—so that the responsibilities of citizenship are an important part of one’s personal vocation, as Vatican II teaches:
May all Christians be aware of their special and personal vocation in the political community. This vocation requires that they offer a shining example of devotion to duty and of service in promoting the common good, so that they also show by their deeds how authority can be harmonized with freedom, personal initiative with the interrelationships and bonds of the whole social body, and appropriate unity with beneficial diversity. (GS 75)
At the same time, contrary to (b), a Christian should not treat citizenship as inherently more important than other central elements of vocation (such as work and family) and should not defer unduly to the government’s authority, much less regard the state as the first principle of morality. What the state demands can and sometimes does conflict with moral truth, and when that happens the Christian affirms: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29; cf. DH 11; S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 5).
Nations and lesser regional communities have a common good which calls for everyone’s cooperation; the structuring of the community for that universal cooperation makes it a political society. But far from the common good of political society being the unconditioned end of its citizens and of the lesser communities within it, political society in fact has an instrumental character. Still, in the morally upright acts of persons as citizens, the basic human good of harmony among persons, justice and neighborliness, is realized and in this respect the common good of political society is not merely instrumental to other goods of its members, but is a constitutive part of their fulfillment. At the same time, since justice and neighborliness also are realized in nonpolitical relationships, not everything should be politicized, and so political society’s common good does not include every moral good, although there are several ways in which government rightly promotes virtue and opposes vice.
a) Certain common interests require or call for political society. Individuals and families living in the same region have many diverse interests—religious, cultural, economic, and so on—which they pursue either by themselves or, more often, in and through various special associations, to which not all their neighbors belong. But those sharing a common homeland also have many important common interests, which demand or call for their cooperation.
The protection and promotion of certain of these common interests require or call for organizing the community as a whole with suitable structures and agencies. Such interests, shared by all individuals and families living in a region, include the following: avoiding or mitigating conflict among themselves, preventing insofar as possible the mischief of community members who might seriously violate others’ rights, vindicating justice by imposing punishment on wrongdoers, dealing with other regional communities, protecting their own regional community against unwelcome intrusions or other interference by hostile outsiders, meeting common responsibilities of distributive justice by drawing fairly on community members’ surplus resources to meet the needs of those lacking adequate resources, setting up cooperative arrangements to help families and other groups meet their responsibilities in matters such as education and health, and defining and supporting the responsibilities which pertain to certain important relationships (such as the duties of parties to contracts, of owners and others with regard to items of property, and of harm doers to those they have harmed) by making available regular forms and processes to shape action in such relationships and to provide remedies when responsibilities are not met. All these interests are operative in civilized nations with modern economies, and most are at work in all regional communities.
These and similar interests shared by members of a regional community constitute a distinctive common good. Since organizing the community in view of the various elements of its common good plainly is urgently necessary or very desirable, participation in that process is not morally optional for anyone (see GS 74). The necessary organization constitutes political society; a political society’s machinery for making and implementing decisions is its government, with its military and police forces, its systems of criminal and civil law, its taxing and spending, its programs to support hospitals and schools, and its many public facilities, such as a monetary system, roads, a postal service, and so on.
b) This common good also limits political society. While showing the moral foundation of political society’s common good, the preceding account simultaneously makes it clear that political society is only one community among others and should be limited so that it will not displace or absorb the others. In a variety of ways, individuals, families, and other groups pursue their own happiness, that is, the ends motivating those activities which they reasonably consider most worthwhile, such as the appreciation and understanding of nature, cultural pursuits, close personal relationships including marriage and parenthood, and friendship with God. A political society’s common good is not the overarching and all-inclusive end (the unconditioned end) of its citizens, their families, and their other associations. On the contrary, political society’s common good is instrumental and subordinate: “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (GS 26; cf. GS 74, DH 6).12
Understood in this way, political society is absolutely incompatible with totalitarianism of every kind. Rather than ruling a real state, a totalitarian regime strives totally to substitute its secularized caricature of the kingdom of God for political society and every other authentic human community.13 Moreover, inasmuch as a political society’s common good not only grounds but limits it, Aristotle’s notion of the state as a quasi-organic whole of which citizens are parts must be criticized.14 According to that notion, to attain the common good is greater and more godlike than to attain the good of any individual.15 But the attainment of the common good, understood as instrumental to the fulfillment of individuals and social groups, cannot be superior to the attainment of their fulfillment itself.
c) The common good contributes directly to citizens’ fulfillment. While the common good of political society is instrumental, it does not follow that it includes nothing intrinsically good or that the actions of citizens as such offer them no personal fulfillment other than what they attain as individuals, as family members, and as participants in other nonpolitical communities. An instrumental good also can be good in itself: people often rightly act for something intrinsically valuable and realize themselves in doing so although some ulterior good provides the reason for acting. For example, a person can do intrinsically valuable and fulfilling work in order to support his or her family; a person can seek theoretical knowledge for its technical applications; Christians can and should direct all their activities to the coming of God’s kingdom without in the least derogating from the intrinsic value and humanly fulfilling character of secular activities (see GS 36, 72).
Similarly, political society’s common good includes important aspects of the good of interpersonal harmony. A central purpose of political society is to establish or protect justice in various relationships, and to shape and assist the mutually beneficial cooperation which enriches justice with neighborliness. But interpersonal harmony is one of the basic human goods (see CMP, 5.D.7, 5.2), and so the justice and neighborliness included in a political society’s common good are intrinsically good, not good solely as means to ulterior good ends. It follows that when individual citizens, families, and other groups rightly fulfill authentic civic responsibilities, their morally good actions immediately and of themselves realize a basic human good and thereby contribute directly to their individual, familial, and other communal fulfillment.
While the earthly city must not be confused with the heavenly kingdom, all the justice and neighborliness imperfectly realized in the earthly city will be among the good fruits of human nature and effort which the blessed will find again in the kingdom (see GS 39). Consequently, a good Christian should be a good citizen, not only because political society’s common good is a necessary means to other parts of Christian life but because the responsibilities of citizenship pertain to each Christian’s personal vocation.
d) The common good does not include all justice and neighborliness. While political society’s common good includes some aspects of the good of interpersonal harmony, other aspects of justice and neighborliness fall outside the common good.
In the first place, as explained in A.5–6 above, patriotic Catholics should spread and defend the faith in their nation and should promote the national common good in other nonpolitical ways. In fulfilling these responsibilities, they protect and strengthen authentic social solidarity—which involves mercy, justice, and other aspects of interpersonal harmony—in their national community as such, not only or precisely insofar as it is or could be a state. An example helps make the point clear: While Ukraine was subjugated, Ukrainian patriots who fostered their peo~ple’s faith contributed to Ukraine’s national solidarity, and so to various aspects of interpersonal harmony within the nation; yet they did not contribute to any political common good, since their subjugated national community was deprived of organization as a political society, and their national solidarity did not contribute to the common good of the political society of which the subjugated nation was an unwilling part. Analogously, patriots in a liberal democratic country who spread and defend their faith contribute to their nation’s moral quality—which includes various aspects of mercy, justice, and so on—not insofar as their nation is a state but insofar as it is a people whose potential for community is prior to the political and transcends it.
Moreover, in the second place, the basic good of interpersonal harmony should be realized in every interpersonal relationship: in friendships, in marriage and family life, in the Church, and in schools, businesses, clubs, and other groups of all kinds. For the most part, justice, neighborliness, friendship, intimate love, and/or mercy can and should be realized in such interpersonal relationships without any intervention by any regional community and without any action by any government. In some cases, of course, political society rightly intervenes, not only to prevent grave injustices in nonpolitical relationships but to help families and other groups fulfill their proper responsibilities and to create conditions which favor their flourishing. For the most part, however, the various aspects of interpersonal harmony within families and other nonpolitical groups do not pertain to political society’s common good. There are two reasons for that. First, the promotion and protection of those aspects of interpersonal harmony which have limited impact beyond the people actually involved are not matters of great interest to other members of the regional community. Second, governmental interference often would be more detrimental than conducive to the goods proper to families and other nonpolitical groups.
Consequently, while the autonomy of families and other nonpolitical groups is limited, within the necessary limits the state should respect the liberty and privacy of the communities within it. If, in pursuit of perfect justice, a government were to attempt to vindicate every right of every individual which is violated in every relationship, and/or, for the sake of neighborliness, were to attempt to assure the flourishing in every respect of every family and other group; then that government not only would exceed its authority, which is grounded in political society’s common good, but would harm families and other nonpolitical groups. Indeed, such governmental excess would tend to displace all other communities and absorb them into political society. In doing so, it would violate the common good of political society itself, insofar as that is subordinate and instrumental not only to the fulfillment of citizens as isolated individuals but to their integral fulfillment in friendships, in marriage and family life, in the Church, and in other kinds of nonpolitical community.
e) The common good limits the ways government may promote virtue. Even though a political society cannot flourish without virtuous citizens, it plainly cannot be government’s proper end directly to promote virtue in general, since not even all justice and neighborliness are included in political society’s common good. Moreover, both the limits of political society’s common good and its instrumentality in relation to the good of citizens as individuals and as members of nonpolitical communities set analogous limits on the extent to which government can rightly concern itself with other aspects of morality, especially insofar as they concern the interior acts and affections of hearts rather than the outward behavior which directly affects other people.16
Nevertheless, governments rightly do promote virtue and oppose vice in several ways. First, by forbidding harmful behavior and facilitating the cooperation of the nation as a whole in its common tasks, making and enforcing just laws directly promote the justice and neighborliness which pertain to the political society’s common good. Second, this direct moral effect of just laws usually also has significant morally good side effects. These include reducing the competitive advantages available through wrongdoing and so making good citizens’ upright actions less burdensome and more rewarding to them, and removing or lessening certain occasions of sin; for example, governmental action for distributive justice reduces both excessive affluence and excessive poverty, thus reducing the temptations incidental to both conditions, and the outlawing of pornography reduces occasions of sins against chastity.17 Third, by providing appropriate help to families and other nonpolitical communities, including churches, so that they can fulfill their proper responsibilities, governments indirectly promote virtue insofar as those communities do so.
The Christian teaching that “there is no authority except from God” (Rom 13.1) must be understood correctly. It points to authority’s moral ground, due to which civic duties are moral responsibilities, which may not be set aside without adequate reasons. The correct understanding of authority’s origin in God excludes three widely held, incompatible, but equally erroneous views: the theory that civil authority is delegated divine authority, the contract theory of authority, and the theory which confuses public authority with coercive power.18
a) Authority is from God means it is morally grounded in the common good. St. Paul teaches: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13.1–2; cf. 1 Pt 2.13–17). This teaching sometimes has been taken to mean that all civil authorities have a direct and personal authorization from God to exercise ruling power on his behalf within their assigned jurisdictions. On this view, of which the theory of the divine right of kings is one example, just as prophets speak for God and priests preach the gospel and administer the sacraments in persona Christi, so civil authorities rule as God’s agents and on his behalf.
However, Catholic tradition and the Church’s teaching exclude this interpretation of the scriptural text. St. Paul means, not that rulers are appointed by God, but that the authority-obedience relationship as such belongs to God’s plan, according to which humans by nature are social beings, morally required to pursue the common good, for which authority is necessary.19
This teaching can be explained as follows. Society is natural: human persons are endowed by nature with practical reason, which calls them to pursue their true good and to avoid evil; they also are so constituted by nature that, for the most part, they can pursue what is truly good only as a common good, in and through ongoing cooperative action; and the union of persons in ongoing cooperation is society. But authority is natural just as society is: since cooperation carries out a choice, and the capacity to make that choice is authority, society cannot exist without authority (see 7.E.1). Consequently, authority comes from God in this sense: it is grounded in the moral order, which comes from God.
b) Governmental authority is not derived from a social contract. According to the social contract theory, individuals are driven by self-interest to form the state, whose government they set up by their mutual agreement and promises, so that a government’s authority comes from the citizens’ delegation of their personal right to pursue their own interests in their own way. The American Declaration of Independence drew on a version of contract theory, which, however, incorporated the belief that humans are created by God and endowed with natural rights, which they reasonably seek to preserve and implement by entering into a social arrangement. Some other versions dispense with God and natural rights; post-Christian versions, assuming that humans are the sole source of meaning and value in reality, regard authority as nothing but a concession of arbitrary decision-making power—a concession necessary for people to obtain some of the things they happen to want.
A contract theory of the latter kind plainly cannot be reconciled with the Christian conception of authority as morally grounded. But Catholic teaching rejects as inadequate even versions of contract theory which presuppose a God-given moral order and natural rights. Although they acknowledge moral objectivity and include God, they miss elements essential to the Church’s understanding of the truth that authority comes from God, namely, that humans are naturally social and that authority is immediately grounded in the moral implications of the common good. On the contract theory, society is artificial and authority is created by a prudent delegation by the people—“the consent of the governed”—a delegation which, it is worth noting, is a mere fiction rather than a real, historical act.20
In rejecting contract theory, however, the Church does not reject democracy. For, while authority comes from God, just government must be for the people inasmuch as it must serve the common good, which is the good of the people as a whole. Moreover, government normally should be by the people since they should participate insofar as possible in the exercise of authority by helping to choose public officials. Thus, as John Paul II points out, it is important for the rule of law (as against the arbitrary rule of a regime) that there be a distinction between and balancing of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.21 He likewise affirms the value of democratic elections: “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate [note omitted].”22 In electing those who will govern, citizens themselves share in making political choices; they shape cooperation for the common good, and so act as public officials at the highest level. Thus, in the democratic system, citizens exercise authority, which nonetheless comes from God.
Still, if the democratic system is impossible or breaks down, government remains necessary, and another form of government can be morally justified and deserve obedience. This point has a constant practical importance, since all just governments deserve the obedience of many people who in no way share in their authority: minors and various groups of noncitizens within their jurisdiction. Moreover, even a regime which wrongly holds power, such as the victor in an unjust war, or which abuses it, as the Roman emperors did, in many ways serves the common good, for example, by maintaining order and providing some essential services. Insofar as it serves the common good, such a regime exercises authority, which comes from God, and so deserves obedience, just as the New Testament affirms with respect to the Roman imperium.23 (Of course, insofar as such a regime does not serve the common good, it exercises no authority, deserves no obedience, and should be opposed [see D.6, below].)
c) Citizens’ duties are not measured by government’s coercive power. Here coercive power means the government’s capacity to enforce laws, ultimately by physical force and by penalties such as fines and prison terms. Even some people who are conscientious about their responsibilities in more intimate relationships take the view that, as citizens, they are morally required to do only what the government can compel them to do, and always are free to do as they please, provided they are willing to suffer the consequences. This confuses public authority with the coercive power of the government; such people overlook or disregard authority’s moral claim, and so fail to understand and accept their own responsibility as citizens.
Still, civil authority and coercive power are closely related. Unlike any other community, political society embraces everyone in a certain region and is necessary to their well-being; yet, in any region, some people residing or sojourning there are unwilling to respect the common good or to contribute fairly to it. Thus, certain elements of the common good cannot be secured without the use of coercion, and so governments must be able and ready to use it. At the same time, the kinds of coercion regularly used in political societies seldom should be used in the family and other nonpolitical communities. They are hardly ever apt means for promoting or protecting such communities’ common goods, which, by comparison with that of political society, depend less on outward behavior and more on inward dispositions.24 Consequently, political society has a virtual monopoly on the justified use of physical coercion.
Nevertheless, a government’s coercive power neither is identical with nor the source of its authority. Coercion is a mere instrument of authority, and its use is justified only when authority is ignored and only insofar as the common good requires. In a perfectly virtuous world, officials always would make decisions fully in accord with the common good, and citizens, patriotically loving the common good, would willingly do their fair share in cooperating to promote and protect it. Even guests in the community, respecting their hosts’ rights, would obey the laws. No one ever would violate a law while keeping an eye out for the police; no coercion ever would be needed; and the role of the police would be limited to directing traffic, helping people in distress, and so forth. Obviously, the real world is not perfectly virtuous, but the point is that no citizen should measure his or her civic duties by the government’s capacity to enforce them.
d) The duties of citizenship are moral responsibilities. Not understanding the true sense in which authority comes from God, even many Christians who are fairly conscientious in other matters fail to take seriously their civic duties. They might argue: Many leaders are corrupt, many laws are more or less unjust, and no individual’s dutifulness makes much difference.
The answer is: Participating in political life and obeying just laws are necessary for the common good; everyone should work for the common good and should be fair to others in this obligatory undertaking. Even though some officials are more or less corrupt and not all laws are perfectly just, fulfilling civic responsibilities contributes to the community’s cooperation for its common purposes. One obeys laws, not lawmakers, and laws deserve obedience insofar as they are just, even if more or less corrupt officials do not deserve respect or gratitude. Moreover, one hopes other people will be good enough citizens that society will continue to provide the essential services one needs; it therefore is unfair to neglect to do one’s share in fulfilling civic responsibilities.
Insofar as leaders and laws are imperfect, being a citizen is like living in a town where there is only one primary employer, a factory where most townspeople make their living. Even if the factory’s manager cheats the employees and treats them harshly, and their struggle for justice meets with little success, the workers owe it to one another to do good work so that the business will make profits and survive. For if the factory fails and closes, everyone in town will suffer far worse evils. Similarly, everyone should keep faith with his or her compatriots by being a good citizen and obeying just laws, even though leaders and laws are never perfect.
e) Hardship does not easily excuse one from fulfilling civic duties. Sometimes a government tries to impose unfair burdens on certain citizens or groups of citizens; in such cases, citizens can rightly evade those burdens. Moreover, sometimes a conflict of duties can be resolved fairly by not fulfilling one’s civic duty. However, civic duties can be very burdensome without being unfair. Meeting responsibilities to others always requires self-sacrifice, and so one is not excused from genuine civic responsibilities merely because it is hard to fulfill them. When unusual self-sacrifice is called for, very often everyone has a similar motive for not responding. For example, when violent crime terrorizes a neighborhood, nobody can identify the criminals and testify against them without running great risks, yet the neighborhood never will be safe unless some citizens take those risks. Therefore, nobody is excused from fulfilling civic duties by the vague and general claim that fulfilling them would be too hard.
In questions C through E, the common good of political society—which from now on usually will be referred to simply as the common good—will be presupposed as the most important principle for evaluating governmental measures and identifying civic responsibilities. However, many people find the notion of the common good obscure and confusing. Both the general idea of common good and the relationship between the common good and the good of the individual were treated in a previous chapter (6.C.1.d, 6.D), but one might still wonder: In practice, how can the common good be used as a standard?
The list (in 2.a, above) of common interests requiring or calling for the organization of a regional community as a political society constitutes a sketch of such a society’s common good. That sketch includes various instrumental goods, such as protection against hostile outsiders, systems of criminal and civil law, and a variety of public facilities. As was explained (in 2.c), the common good also includes something which is not only instrumental but intrinsically good: justice and neighborliness in certain relationships among compatriots. Proceeding from this understanding, together with general moral norms, especially the Golden Rule and moral absolutes, one can easily formulate the questions by which to determine whether political actions and policies truly serve the common good.
While that determination is necessary, it is not sufficient to answer questions about a citizen’s responsibility to comply with the law in various kinds of cases. Therefore, other considerations essential for answering those questions will be treated below (in D and E).
a) To use the common good as a standard, one must answer six questions. Each of these questions bears on political actions and policies, and so on what officials are doing. But the point of asking the questions is to find out whether what they are doing truly serves the common good, and so deserves citizens’ cooperation. Since this is the point of the questions, each focuses on one way in which a political policy or action sometimes fails to serve the common good: (i) it can be directed toward something other than the common good; (ii) it can unfairly distribute burdens and benefits among citizens; (iii) it can violate subsidiarity; (iv) it can be unfair to other nations; (v) it can be unfair to other individuals or groups; and (vi) it can violate a moral absolute.
i) Because officials sometimes abuse their power in order to pursue purely private benefits, and interest groups sometimes try to secure their own advantages by political means and public action, not all governmental measures which are morally acceptable in themselves deserve the cooperation of citizens as such. To determine whether citizens are morally required to cooperate in the action (or all the actions in the complex set) under consideration, one must ask: Precisely how would this action (or these actions) contribute to a purpose or purposes which pertain to the common good? If, for example, it is suggested that a public program be initiated to support the arts by providing grants to a small number of artists and subsidizing their work for the benefit of a small portion of the population with a taste for it, the question is: How would this program contribute to the culture of the nation as a whole? Again, if elected officials accept financial support from certain economic groups, one must ask: Has that support purchased favors for those groups’ private interests?
ii) Any cooperation involves various burdens and offers various prospective benefits for different individuals, families, and other nonpolitical groups. Inequalities in wealth, education, and so on lead to differences in political power, and these can lead to violations of the Golden Rule as some members of a political society gain unfair advantages at others’ expense. Thus, one must ask: Would the burdens and benefits involved in and resulting from this action (or these actions) be distributed fairly among the members of the community? For example: Does a law levying the same percentage of tax on all income unfairly burden people of modest income? Again: Do citizens eligible to vote do their fair share toward assuring their political society of sound government if they fail to vote conscientiously?
iii) Excessive action by political society can weaken the self-reliance of individuals and the solidarity and effectiveness of families and other nonpolitical communities. Then public action, rather than serving the common good, becomes self-defeating, since its undue expansion is inconsistent with the common good’s instrumental character. Thus, one must ask: Would this action (or set of actions) violate the just liberties of individuals, families, and smaller communities or absorb functions which, perhaps with suitable public funding and/or other help, they themselves could and should fulfill?25 For example: Does this public school system respect the primacy of the right and responsibility of parents to educate children?
iv) Differences in national power can lead to violations of the Golden Rule in international relations, and, as has been explained (in A.2.a), a nation guilty of such violations harms its own common good. Thus, one must ask: Would this action (or this set of actions) unfairly harm or selfishly fail to help any other nation or group of nations? For example: Will these regulations on international trade tend further to impoverish less developed trading partners?
v) A political society can ignore with impunity the legitimate interests of outside individuals and groups when these interests are not supported by another power. Here, too, violating others’ rights harms the common good. Thus, one must ask: Would this action (or set of actions) violate the rights of any outsider? For example: Does this immigration policy selfishly refuse to welcome refugees who could and should be granted asylum?
vi) Sometimes it happens that basic human goods other than those included in the common good are at stake in political action. Then the action’s bearing on these goods must be considered and can be morally decisive independently of any direct consideration of the common good. For example, since killing the innocent is always wrong, the Nazi program of genocide was immoral in itself, so that participation in it could not have been anyone’s civic responsibility. Indeed, the official program and the activity of all Germans who wrongly cooperated in it violated their nation’s common good. And in general, when members of a political society acting as such do anything wrong in itself, their action violates the common good precisely because it involves the society in something wrong in itself. Thus, one cannot use the common good as a standard for evaluating governmental measures and identifying citizens’ responsibilities without asking: Is the action (or any one or more of the complex set of actions) under consideration morally excluded as always wrong?
b) False conceptions of the common good should be avoided. Many people ignore or misinterpret the specific justice and neighborliness which are central to the common good. In place of the relevant aspects of the good of interpersonal harmony, they focus on other things.
Some, perhaps assuming something like Hegel’s organic theory of the state, emphasize the nation’s power and status in the international community, its military success and maintenance of peace on its own terms, as if greatness of these sorts were good in itself. They think members of a political society do as they should insofar as history will judge their actions to have contributed to their nation’s glory.
Others, presupposing a form of consequentialism (criticized in CMP, 6), hold the common good (which they sometimes call the “general utility” or “common interest”) to be nothing but the greatest good for the greatest number of individual citizens. In explaining what constitutes the common good, they emphasize instrumental goods, for example, a prosperous national economy and good public facilities. Indeed, they think that even social justice and the protection of the fundamental rights of persons are objects of social concern only insofar as they are instrumental. According to this utilitarian view, members of a political society do as they should insofar as their actions tend to bring about a state of affairs in which such instrumental goods are realized, so that people can enjoy a rich and satisfying life, as individuals and in private associations, with a minimum of unpleasantness.
Still others, taking an individualistic approach, reject or qualify utilitarianism, for they regard personal liberty and equality as good in themselves. Such theorists emphasize individual rights, even at the expense of the diverse roles necessary for community and the aspects of justice which cannot be reduced to equality.26 On this view, citizens do as they should insofar as their actions maximize the equality of all members of the political society in doing as they please and obtaining whatever they need and want.
Elements of one or more of these erroneous views often are introduced into discussions of public policies and civic responsibilities. Hence, in applying the measure of the common good, one must avoid allowing such misconceptions to confuse matters.
10. On the matters treated in this question, see Yves R. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1–71.
11. For an introduction to Hegel’s theory of the State: Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, vol. 7, Modern Philosophy, part I, Fichte to Hegel (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1965), 252–61. The most important primary source: G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942); see especially 215 (§ 337).
12. Papal teaching on the common good is diffuse, so that many passages must be studied and compared to gather its full sense. See, for example, John XXIII, Mater et magistra; AAS 53 (1961) 410, 417, 421, 438–39; PE, 267.40, 65, 78–81, 151; John XXIII, Pacem in terris; AAS 55 (1963) 272–73, 280–8l, 293–94, 298; PE, 270.55–56, 84–85, 136–39, 154–55. For references to the teaching of previous popes on the matter 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 (1878–1958) (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), 114–24.
13. See Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, AAS 31 (1939) 431–34, PE, 222.52–63; GS 73. A brief explanation of totalitarianism, with a helpful bibliography: New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “totalitarianism.”
14. See Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1253a18–29.
15. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.2.1094a26–b10. By contrast, consider the position articulated and defended by Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), 5–20.
16. See S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 5. Still, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 10.9.1179a32–1180b28, and St. Thomas, De regno, 15 (or 2.4), hold that the general promotion of virtue and suppression of vice should be the main component of the common good of political society; in this, they overlook limits on the competence of the state which have been clarified by recent Church teaching regarding the instrumental character of political society’s common good, the principle of subsidiarity (see 6.E.5.c, above), and religious liberty (see DH 2–8).
17. Freedom of communication necessary for cooperation in worthwhile activities should be legally protected (see 7.B.4), but governments can justly outlaw pornography insofar as it degrades those depicted, tempts children and the sexually addicted, and contributes to a depraved cultural environment, which is conducive to sexual harassment (see 9.E.9.d).
18. A helpful philosophical analysis of the moral ground of authority: John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 231–59.
19. See Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, ASS 18 (1885) 162–63, PE, 93.3–5; John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1961) 269–73 and 293, PE, 270.46–56 (with quotations from St. John Chrysostom, Leo XIII, and Pius XII) and 270.136.
20. See Leo XIII, Diuturnum, ASS 14 (1881) 4–8, PE, 84.5–14. For a criticism of the contract theory, including St. Robert Bellarmine’s transmission theory, see Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 246–54.
21. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 44, AAS 83 (1991) 848, OR, 6 May 1991, 13.
22. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 46, AAS 83 (1991) 850, OR, 6 May 1991, 13; cf. GS 75.
23. Thus, Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes, ASS 24 (1891–92) 525, PE, 119.19, writing to the French about their history after 1788, distinguishes between the French nation’s civil authority (an “immutable power” coming from God) and the various governments, which emerged from chaos after violent and often bloody crises, and draws the conclusion: “Consequently, when new governments representing this immutable power are constituted, their acceptance is not only permissible but even obligatory, being imposed by the need of the social good which has made and which upholds them. This is all the more imperative because an insurrection stirs up hatred among citizens, provokes civil war, and may throw a nation into chaos and anarchy, and this great duty of respect and dependence will endure as long as the exigencies of the common good shall demand it, since this good is, after God, the first and last law in society.”
24. The justifiable use of force by parents and guardians in raising small children is another matter; coercion is used because the small child simply is not capable of cooperating, so that community is limited, and parents or guardians must act unilaterally for the good of children.
25. This test is the so-called principle of subsidiarity (see 6.E.5.c). The politicization of the economy characteristic of even democratic socialism is not entirely acceptable: see the quotation from John Paul II in 6.E.5.d.
26. See Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991), for an extended critique of views of this sort.