Three of the terms used most frequently in Catholic social thought—and now, more generally, in much secular discourse—are social justice, the common good, and personal (or individual) liberty. Often, these terms are used loosely and evasively. Not a few authors avoid defining them altogether, as if assuming that they need no definition. But all three need, in every generation, to recover their often lost precision. Otherwise, the silent artillery of time steadily levels their carefully wrought strong points and leaves an entire people intellectually and morally defenseless. I have tried, in three short essays, to find some precision in these three realities and to define them in terms as dear to the left as to the right—that is, in ideologically neutral ways. If I have failed in that task, perhaps someone can do it better. The more of us who try, the better.
In this, my second essay, I will examine the common good.
What Is the Common Good?
A number of years ago, at the Human Rights Commission in Bern, a misuse of the term common good poked its head through the clouds like an Alp. I had prodded the Soviet delegation to recognize the right of a married couple, one of whom was from one nation and one from another, to share residence in whichever nation they chose. The Soviets staunchly resisted the idea—and did so in the name of the common good. The Soviet Union, they insisted, had invested great sums of money and much effort to educate each Soviet citizen, and the common good demanded that these citizens now make comparable contributions in return. The Soviet partner in such a marriage could not, therefore, leave the Soviet state. Individual desires must bow to the common good of all.
Before this experience, it had never entered my mind that anyone could use the term common good to override the rights of free persons. I could understand the willing surrender of one’s own life or lesser goods for the sake of the common good. But the enforcement of the common good as a weapon against individual rights—or, to put it more exactly, against the rights of the free person—had not occurred to me as a subject for such abuse.
This experience taught me to reexamine other often-encountered uses of the term common good. Not infrequently, the common good was invoked against the evils of individualism and self-interest. Several ideologies of the twentieth century had set out to make war on “the atomic individual” and the selfish “decadence” of “individualism.” Instead, these ideologies raised up the nation and the collective will and abandoned the feeling of solidarity with the downtrodden. I remembered a letter written by a young German to Albert Camus on the vanity of Western individualism and (by contrast) the nobility and power of social purpose under one strong leader.
Not only Leninism and Stalinism but also fascism and Nazism exalted the collective good over the good of the individual and coerced the sacrifice of individual purpose for the sake of the communist, fascist, or Nazi collective future. Even some of my early intellectual heroes, the Personalists, went over to France’s Vichy regime to prevent the creeping spiritual decadence of Anglo-Saxon individualism from advancing onto the continent, and to reassert the primacy of the common good over the individual.
An important point lies embedded here. We often use the words individual and person interchangeably, but there is a distinction to be made. Statist ideologies have set out to diminish the individual in the name of the common good; the Church affirms the dignity of the person. Interestingly, when a state defines its foe as the individual, such statism actually gives the state the sort of opposition that it will more easily defeat and that ultimately will serve the state’s purposes. When the Church speaks of the nobility of the person, it is with the understanding that each person is a unique being endowed by God with a range of gifts—not the least of which is freedom—that enable that person to be an originating, creative source of action.
Statism, in effect, reduces the person to the individual—to a fungible, replaceable piece of the machinery of statist society rather than a unique, free being created by God, responsible for his own destiny, possessing dignity, and commanding respect as such. Persons are the real enemy—the real danger—for statism. Personhood is what the Church affirms, and persons are the strongest opposition to statism.
I also remember my excitement on reading Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas message, with its ringing defense of the human rights of the individual against the crushing weight of collectivism in Europe. Jacques Maritain later marked this message as a turning point in the Catholic defense of the human person in modern history. Henceforth, Catholics were warned to defend not only the common good, but also the individual person. The fruit of this shift was evident in the definition of the common good as set forth in the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes: “the common good, that is, 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” (Gaudium et Spes, 26).
Prior to Vatican II, a great deal of intellectual effort went into forging new conceptions, not only of the common good, but also of the person. One example is the powerful debate between Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain in which Maritain’s position is marked out in his important title: The Person and the Common Good (1947). Just as the council was to define the common good in terms of the fulfillment of the human person, so also, in due course, did the human person come to be defined in terms of caritas, communio, and—with John Paul II—solidarity. In this new intellectual field, it became rather more common to define person in terms of communio and the common good. At the same time, the common good is not achieved until human persons are free to reach their personal callings, and the person is not complete until he or she turns in service to the common good. According to this “new anthropology,” person and community are defined in terms of each other.
In 1961 it was Karol Wojtyla, the young bishop of Krakow, who, in two long letters to the preparatory commission for Vatican II, suggested that these two themes, the person and the common good, ought to undergird all the work of the council. Later, as pope, he described the common good as “not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately, it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the person” (Centesimus Annus, 47).
It would be rash to think, however, that our search for intellectual precision in the definitions of person and common good are at an end. Let me call attention to two remaining problems.
First, it seems natural to speak of the common good of, say, Europe and the United States in the year 1900 as being advanced over their common good in the year 1800. It seems, furthermore, that considerable progress was made between the years 1900 and 2000 in achieving the common good and the fulfillment of persons, albeit after immense and unprecedented sufferings. Is an achievement of the common good yet higher than that we have today imaginable?
From such considerations we learn that the common good is a temporally analogous concept—a concept driven by a moving dynamism of intellectual reflection and institutional invention. Achieving the common good seems to involve a moving target that is set to ever-higher and wider-ranging standards.
Jacques Maritain taught us to think of setting proximate goals—goals realistically achievable in a relatively short time (if we work hard, and our work is blessed by Providence)—rather than holding only to currently unattainable ideals and so letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Futher, Friedrich Hayek taught us that many contributions to the common good are not intended by any one person or group but are the result of practical human actions: One person’s actions adjust to another’s, often over a long stretch of time, and they do so without all the parties to the result ever meeting one another. One example Hayek offered struck me with a certain force, as I had often experienced it hiking in the Alps: a well-worn path that marks out a moderate, rational course while well diagnosing the area’s topography. No one person mapped out the path; it achieved a certain order as the result of the practical intelligence of many persons over time.
Another example occurs to me: President Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 respected the practical intelligence of each homesteader to develop his own land in his own way, given the land’s possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages. Moreover, it was to each homesteader’s benefit to accommodate and synchronize his own efforts—in planting, cultivating, harvesting and marketing—with those of others, to the mutual advantage of all. No one told the homesteaders what to do. No one preplanned the resulting order. The imperatives of practical intelligence led to a certain mutual adjustment and workable order.
The second point that needs to be defined with more precision is the multidimensionality of the concept of the common good. As part of a Ph.D. thesis, S. Iniobong Udoidem, a scholar from Africa, developed a chart based on the work of Yves Simon. In the chart, Udoidem maps out twelve different usages of the term common good. He distinguishes between the particular and the general common good, the material and the formal common good, and the earthly and the spiritual common good. He also distinguishes between the temporal common good and the eternal, universal common good of all humans, which is union with God. This fine piece of work opens our minds to the full richness—and many demands—of the common good.
Naturally, when questions of practical wisdom are directed to pluralistic peoples, there arise not only many competing ways of identifying the temporal, earthly common good, but also many competing ways of discovering how best to achieve it. In these matters, therefore, to assert that “X” is the common good is not to close the question but to submit it to the competition of ideas, which is essential to a free society. This is why the achievement of the temporal common good—That “sum,” in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” —requires full measures of civility, of humility, and of the willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. It is through such acts of self-government, in fact, that we achieve true personal liberty—the subject, tomorrow, of the third of these essays.
Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God. The three pieces in this series of essays, prepared with the assistance of Elizabeth Shaw and Mitchell Boersma, are derived from Novak’s speech on November 13, 2009 at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Conference, “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good.”
Published in First Things Online December 2, 2009