Just the other day we were talking about what we would do if we were putting together a series of educational videos or audio recordings or something like that. Naturally, there was no dearth of suggestions about what to cover, e.g., “What is Money?” (a personal favorite, not that you’d know it from reading this blog. . . .), “What is Justice?”, “What is Private Property?” (are you detecting a certain theme here?), and so on.
|Law #1 of the common good: you can't illustrate the common good.|
Part way through the discussion somebody mentioned, “What is the Common Good?” as a possible video. For some reason we hadn’t thought of it before, but it’s a natural subject when you’re talking about economic and social justice. Economic justice is a type of social justice, and social justice is directed not at individual good or goods, but at the common good.
So, what is the “common good”? In a philosophical sense, the common good of human beings consists of the “analogously complete” capacity each and every human being has to acquire and develop virtue.
You didn’t need that before you had your morning coffee, but all it means is that all human beings are exactly alike — “analogues” — with respect to the thing that defines us — and that means each and every one of us — as “human.” Every single human being is as fully human as every other human in this respect, and is human in exactly the same way. No one is more human than anyone else, and no one is less human.
This capacity to acquire and develop virtue is the one good that every single human being has in common with all other human beings. It is therefore THE common good. It should not — and must not — be confused with other things that some people think of as the common good, but don’t meet the definition, for example —
· The aggregate of all individual goods. Nope. It doesn’t matter how many people there are. They remain individuals, even if they are also members of a group. Each individual “owns” the totality of the common good — not as he or she would own a car, a house, or a dog, but as he or she owns life, and you aren’t less alive just because someone else is also alive.
|Aristotle: easier to illustrate than the common good.|
That’s because, in a sense, the common good is life — social life, not individual life. That’s because as “political animals” (as Aristotle described us) people ordinarily acquire and develop virtue (individual habits) within a social context or environment, and that environment consists of institutions or “social habits.” Only this vast network of institutions is properly the common good, because in order to become more fully human, each person needs access to those institutions.
· Goods owned in common by the community, State, or business. Nope. Goods owned in common are an expedient, not a necessity. Aquinas is very careful to warn people that the common good is not common goods. There is nothing that says roadways or any other infrastructure must be owned in common; even air and water can be privately owned under some circumstances, e.g., a spaceship. Nor can you do what you like with common goods. You only get the use of common goods (and then only the proper use), you do not actually possess them.
Possibly to make things clear (or not), here is what CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., had to say about the common good in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice:
The Nature of the Common Good
Every higher institution depends on all those below it for its effectiveness, and every lower institution depends on those above it for its own proper place in the Common Good. It is precisely this whole vast network of institutions which is the Common Good, on which every one of us depends for the realization of our personal perfection, of our personal good.
|Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
It is wrong to conceive of the Common Good as a sort of general bank account into which one “deposits” when, for instance he pays his taxes to the State; and “withdraws” when he is appointed public coordinator of something or other at a hundred and fifty dollars a week, or when the State builds a road past his farm and thus raises its value. It is surprising how many people think that distributive justice is the virtue that assesses taxes and Social Justice is the virtue that pays them. Both of these actions are distributive, that is, individual, justice; and become Social Justice only in a secondary way as they promote the Common Good.
Nor must we think of the Common Good as something which we can “share with another” like a candy bar or an automobile ride. Rather it is something which each of us possesses in its entirety, like light, or life itself. When the Common Good is badly organized, when society is socially unjust, then it is each individual’s own share of personal perfection which is limited, or which is withheld from him entirely.
Everyone Can Do It
When it is realized that the Common Good consists of that whole vast complex of institutions, from the simplest “natural medium” of a child’s life, to the United Nations itself, then a very comforting fact emerges: Each of these institutions from the lowest and most fleeting “natural medium” to the highest and most enduring organization of nations is the Common Good at that particular level. Therefore everyone, from the smallest and weakest child to the most powerful ruler in the world, can have direct care of the Common Good at his level. This is a far cry indeed from those social philosophers who before Pius XI could say with complete sincerity and conviction, “the Common Good is not something which can be directly attained.”
Now, just why this is important is something we’ll look at tomorrow.#30#