Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes unasked

Common Good

by John Ziegler

There is a great deal of confusion over what is called the "common good". Politicians and pundits babble on about it, without ever making it clear what they mean. One gets the impression that they are merely "paying lip service" to something worthy, as is the wont of such people. Academia doesn't seem to help: from that quarter one gets a notion of the common good no more precise than the politicians'. The rest of us can hardly be blamed for being no wiser about the common good than the politicians seem to be. And, following a theme of Aristotle, and seemingly confusing us further, Thomist philosophers like to refer to the Common Good of the entire universe.

To begin to discuss the common good, it may be useful to eliminate what it is not: so let us start at something familiar: ownership.

Ownership refers in its primary meaning to material things. It is a right (that is, that relation to the acts or omissions of others according to which such acts or omissions are due to the haver of the right). Ownership is a right, but not precisely the right to use (because there may be an impediment to that), but the right of disposal.

Now, ownership can be private to a private person: private ownership, so that the owner has right of disposal. Or it can be by several persons who each has the right of disposal of his share (and then it is simply the sum of private goods). Or again it can be by several people, but in such fashion that only the collectivity has right of disposal, such as in the case of a club. This last, the collectivity, is said to be a "moral person", and goods thus owned are public (to the collectivity). Thus, the material goods of a parish are public to the parish. Public goods are not the sum of private goods. In recent times, the people running the railways of New South Wales had an advertising slogan intended to exhort citizens to make more use of the public railway system: "you own the railways" - as though each one had ownership. But it is unique to public ownership that no member of the collectivity has the right of disposal of any part: I can't sell up my share of the public roads of New South Wales and move to Queensland.

Note that generally with ownership that it is a reason of divisiveness; if I own my shoes, then you cannot. Ownership is of an exclusive benefit; exclusive because it is material. Material goods are in some place, and place is exclusive.

What we call private refers to what is exclusive in the sense that privately owned goods exclude other owners. This is because both the goods owned, and the owner in so far as being private owner, are limited by matter. Man is a private owner in his capacity as individual member of the human species: individuals being distinguished by matter from other individuals.

It is different with goods that are immaterial. Mathematical knowledge is an immaterial good; it cannot be owned in the exclusive sense, and that precisely because it is not material. If I have thirty degrees of mathematical knowledge, that is no bar to your having eighty, and to our friend Fred Chan's having ninety-nine. It is a non-exclusive benefit. Indeed the opposite of divisiveness is true. Given that we both have some mathematical knowledge we are likely in unison to seek to spread the benefit to others as a mathematical society. This good, far from being a reason of divisiveness, is even a reason of unitedness. Note that it is not as individual, as material, that man has immaterial goods; it is man in his immaterial, that is spiritual, capacity: and in this capacity man is called person. Thus, individual and person are to be distinguished as opposites: yet, each one of us is both individual and person.

Now, this good of mathematical knowledge is had both personally and also in common, in so far as it is the same good we all (in the mathematical society) have. It is both personal and common, and can be common precisely because it is personal (that is, immaterial).

Reflect on what we mean by calling it a common good. First, it is the end we pursue in concert, so that it is desired and pursued as something social. Indeed we desire mathematical knowledge, but to the extent that we desire it socially it is reason to be social. Secondly, whilst each has it personally, as it is something social it is obtained and enjoyed socially.

Human Society

As was said, human society is composed of those who are at the same time both individuals and persons.

In the material order, the collectivity is superior to its members. Thus as individuals we are members of the species, and are naturally beholden to society for the help of others, such as for sustenance and defence. Thus, in national peril, my country has the right to summon me in its defence.

But outside the material order, as persons each can and must seek his own immaterial good, which society, as collectivity, cannot do. Hence as person each is naturally superior to the collectivity. Thus, my country has not the right to have me lie.

This means that man is naturally social for two different reasons: first, as individual, he is needy and depends upon society; secondly, as person he has his own fruitfulness and so is abundant, and society is beholden to him.

When we come to consider civil, that is political, society, then it too can own goods by public ownership. However, what flows from such ownership also devolves on the citizens in that each can have benefit of public works and the like. Hence such benefit, such as that of the facility to social life of a public road system, is a common good (although the material entity, the road system as a material thing, is a public good). Note too that the ultimate end of civil society is nothing else than the happiness of the citizens, and this coincides with the personal end of each citizen: but is common in so far as pursued socially.

Civil society is called a "perfect" society in the sense that it is not subordinated to any other society in the same order. Thus, the family is a society indeed, but subordinate. So also are those many associations found within civil society - clubs, mathematical societies, commercial companies.

Thus of the individual there are private (material) goods and personal (immaterial) goods, and correspondingly of (political) society there are public goods and common goods. There is exclusivity between private goods, and between private and public goods, but there is no exclusivity with either common goods or personal goods. That is, personal goods tend to unite, and precisely as they do unite they are common goods.

Clearly, human society is natural, for in man there are by nature two reasons for it: as individual he needs society, but as person society needs him.

For all that human society is natural, it is not a natural unit in the sense of being one substance: those who comprise it are its natural units, and remain units in spite of what is taught by state absolutism, that each is absorbed into the collectivity and thereby loses person-hood. The principle of unity of civil society is rather a unity of end, and it is this unity that distinguishes it from a mere aggregation, like a heap.

Let us look closer at this notion of unity by reason of end.

Unity by Reason of End

First, artificial things have an end imposed on them by the artificer; the unity of a motor car is what it is intended for: transport; so the artificial is unified by reason of what it is for - its end.

Members of human society com-pete: strive together (for a common good), as indicated by the word origin. This is of the very fundamental notion of human society. (Unfortunately, the word "compete" has come to mean "strive against" as rivals strive: thus losing its "com".) Human society is one by reason of end: end for which its members strive in common. One might think that human society is artificial, although a work of the very persons it comprises; and that is true, but it is true by reason of man's nature. Hence society is more natural than artificial. Some have not seen this, and think that it has no natural norm, merely an artificial one. But its natural norm is that common end: the common good.

It is precisely its end, its common good, that unifies every society and is the reason it exists. Secondly, in so far as the end is common, it can be obtained only in common, precisely by associating (otherwise it is personal to each and its social character is not had). It is true that each member severally of the mathematical society acquires mathematical knowledge, but inasmuch as it is the same good we all (in the mathematical society, as a society) have, then we not only have it as something in common, but it is in common that we obtain it, and in common that we propagate it. One might define common good as: a non-exclusive benefit, desired as a social end, and obtained socially.

Note that because its common good is the end of every human society, and indeed even of non-human societies (as we shall see), and that end is the unifying principle of a society, then we can say that its common good is the very soul of every society.

Hence the very first requirement of governance of human society, since man naturally associates, is the removal of obstacles to association for the common good (rather than the imposing of them, as when governments allow and even promote unfairness in exchanges by favouring sellers or buyers). That same requirement includes the suppression of harmful "parasites" on association in so far as they deflect from the common good; including not only suppression of criminal activity, but the defining, in good laws, of limits of reasonable conduct. (And a bad law, one not conducive to the common good, is by that very fact not a law at all.)

Thus its common good is to be understood as the very motive ("soul") of every human society: its reason for existence and continuance, so that society is unintelligible without it.

How is it then that one may speak of the common good of the whole universe? Simply in the sense that the common goal of everything, not as it is some thing (as hot things tend to spread heat and dogs to produce dogs) but as it is the reason of being a goal - its "goal-hood" - is the same as what we call "good". Aristotle has that theme "entelechy" - "having end in self" - as hot water acts to heat, so the end (terminating) the action is heat (in the heated), and this is because of the heat (in the water). The hot seeks that good which is Heat and dogs that which is Dog. Nevertheless, "good," says the same Aristotle, "is that which all appetise". So, the common good of the universe is its common Good: goodness itself. To that, taken concretely, we give the name God.


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 8 (2000).
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