What is the Common Good?
What is the common good? Does it include the happiness of its constituency? Or is this excluded? Another, perhaps more fundamental question, is whether or not the common good is always and necessarily at odds with the individual good. Or even perhaps, sometimes, at odds.
Thus we have the question between individualism and collectivism. CS Lewis correctly noted that the devil always sends errors out in pairs of two. On this topic, he took the classic conservative answer. We follow him in this.
I would contend that – if we avoid the error of Immanuel Kant, in thinking that the conscience is infallible – then we know that the individual’s best interest is never truly at odds with the collective’s best interest. This position can only be built, however, on the foundation that God has determined what is in the best interest of both the individual man and his common community.
We cannot say that what is good for the individual or the community is devoid of moral content. And moral content is determined by God’s decree, be it a direct command from God, or an eternal decree regarding the purpose of man, which is to glorify God and enjoy Him for eternity.
Narrowly, we have the dominion mandate which was given to man (male and female). This spoken decree which gave us a moral mission which would have continued without problem had there been no Fall. It continues today with thorns in the field and thorns in our side. Taking dominion still exists, and is essentially a collective task.
It is also a problem solving task. How do we cultivate the vast garden of God’s green earth? How do we work together to make this celestial ball flourish? Thus, the original task of tending the garden was really a logistical one. For example, think time management to irrigation, and everything in between.
So I submit tentatively, that there are two modes in a postlapsarian state by which we take dominion through problem-solving. One is directly for the individual good but indirectly for the collective good. And the other is directly for the common good, but indirectly for the individual good. Both are about solving problems.
As Abraham Kuyper pointed out, the interest of the individual and the collective were united before the French Revolution – 1789 ripped them apart. Ever since then, people have assumed that there is a pair of interests which are mutually exclusive and not ultimately united. They bicker and complain that the wife’s best interest is often, if not always, at odds with her husband; that what benefits the white community will necessarily harm the black community; and most obviously, in their view, that what supports the King, is a detriment to the People, and so on.
But conservatives, at least ones in the Christian camp, have never been so cynical as to hold this sort of view.
In years past, the public-private distinction was more solid in the mind’s of men. Perhaps this is why both socialism and libertarianism are on the rise (socialism wants to place the public good at the expense of the private, and libertarianism the opposite – the one ceases to exist because it is subsumed in the other).
These cannot be ultimately at odds; not if defined with moral content regarding God’s will. For if I go to church, work hard, and take care of my children raising a good family, this is not only for my own private good – ‘my own’ includes ‘my family’ – but it is clear that this is also a benefit to the collective; be that collective my church, my state, or my nation.
But are there not examples of where the collective, let us say my family, would benefit at my expense? True. But it is false that I don’t benefit in some way or another as well.
For example, suppose I must pay the ultimate sacrifice, and to die that my family may live. Is this not the clearest example of where what is in my best interest is also at odds with the best interest of my family? We give an emphatic no.
For in such a scenario, to live would be cowardly, to die is a duty. While it is true that to remain alive is a part of our interest, it is not our highest interest. Therefore, if the circumstances are right, what would appear to be against my interest – when exposed to the light of eternity – proves to be both in my interest and my family’s.
The common good and the private good are, in fact, united. But how does this play out more broadly, on the level of mankind?
I tentatively suggest that there are two institutions by which this is done. And historically, this has largely been understood.
What we normally call the “public office” or political office, represents the government which is to serve the common good, not the good of the individual, and his family, but the general population broadly. The politician does not directly serve his own good, that is.
Commerce and industry, however, directly supports the individual and his family; it is directed towards his own ends. But this doesn’t mean that the public office doesn’t support the private individual who is in that office, nor does it mean that the private work of an individual does not indirectly support the common good.
The simple distinction between direct and indirect is key.
The individual and the collective cannot be truly at odds, because God Himself created both….and God cannot be at odds with Himself.
The state and aspects of society focus on the common good of roads, (a problem solving logistical question), and businesses focus on how to get, let us say, certain products to a number of people who want them. Such problem-solving logistical concerns benefit both the individual and the collective, but in two different senses; two different ways.
Just as we cannot understand hot without understanding cold, fast without understanding slow, neither can we understand the common good without understanding it in contradistinction to the private good. And since God cannot contradict himself, and since God decreed both the individual good and the collective good, or common good, we cannot see, as Christians, these as mutually exclusive concepts. They cannot be at odds, because God Himself cannot be at odds with Himself.
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.