Is there such a thing as a common good?

The multifaceted rationales to conjure societal unity


I. Introduction

Common good refers to common interests or common facilities extended to community members to express conformity to a relational obligation persisting due to the acknowledgement of common interests. The underlying thread of citizenship is ‘political’ or ‘civic’, mandating the synthesis of shared facilities, manicured by their common interest, to resolve differences].

Though, mounting evidence lends credence to the dismissal of the idea of the common good as pious rhetoric, with polarisation and inequality exacerbating. Interest groups with fundamentally opposed ideologies duel in legislative assemblies, consultative committees and the media. However, I will argue that the notion of common good is neither futile nor vacuous on three tenets:

  1. Incentives existing for the pursuit of the common good
  2. Negotiation of personal and sectional interests with the idea of common good
  3. Extension of the principle of common good beyond political morality


II. Incentives existing for the pursuit of common good

The understanding of these incentives necessitates the recognition of the embedded moral deficiencies in a private society – a society whose members’ interests pertain only to individual needs. In such a society, the motivational horizons are constrained to focus only on people and endeavours in the realm of individual interest. This society, hence, will be inept to converge for the formulation of public goods, whose absence will be sub-optimal and diminish aggregate societal welfare. There, consequently, exists an impetus for the formulation of a public agency which draws individuals into mutually beneficial patterns of cooperation. Moreover, the inevitable presence of society itself imposes certain relational obligations upon people which must be upheld for the functioning of a public agency. In a liberal democracy, for example, by virtue of the endowment of the right to vote, private citizens have been transfigured into public agents, a role requiring them to think and act in a manner different from a private individual and adhere to certain standards of political morality to preserve common societal interests.

Additionally, in a private society, no efficacious framework of collective decision-making is conjured due to the absence of collective thinking in the first place. Hence, collective decision-making needs to unfold in the broader public life, where participation mandates, to some extent, the transcendence from personal concern to a common standpoint. While pluralists argue that even in public life, people negotiate for the trumping of their own interests or policy preferences, Waldron, and others, contend that many actions are prompted by a care for certain wider interests and liberties – a care arising due to a shared framework of reasoning. It is argued that pluralists fail to differentiate between individual decision making in a market context – where people prioritise their interest at the opportunity cost of others – and in a democratic framework, where the rationalising framework is opposite to that in a market because, as Rawls argues, “it is a political convention of a democratic society to appeal to the common interest.” As proponents of the epistemic conception of democracy argue, democratic decision-making is a prerequisite for the sustenance of political morality, which is premised upon the existence of laws which reinforce common interests; this sustenance, in turn, extends the stability necessary for sustained societal progress and is, hence, desired by citizens.

Another argument for the presence of common good stems from the deliberative conception of democracy, a theory propagated by Joshua Cohen. He argues that as no citizen, in the long run, would submit to a legislative proposal contradictory to his interests. Political morality, therefore, creates space for negotiation and induces pluralism in policies, thereby adopting a common good orientation. However, some may contend that this is too utopian and cannot explain the lower positions of groups in a hierarchical society – which, in essence, every society is. The response to this is that with the logical framework of common good and endeavours ushered for its attainment, there is an ongoing prioritization and reprioritization of the importance of interests of different groups as per the needs of the broader society. Hence, the form in which common good manifests in society is fluid and diverse.

Along with this political association of individuals, there exists a deeper social dimension to their relationship. This political relationship in which members exists imposes, like all other relationships, certain obligations upon people to enact certain ideals, such as solidarity. Hence, the onus exists on citizens to carry out their ‘prioritization and reprioritization’ in a manner that embodies these values.

Though what constitutes common good varies in societies, there are certain shared characteristics of the common good which manifest everywhere. The first is a joint vantage point for the rationalising of behaviour. Just acting in ways mandated by political morality does not suffice; a common pattern of reasoning is necessary to engender mutual concern and predictability required for the smooth functioning of society; this mutual concern enables citizens to prioritize societal interest in extenuating circumstances, where personal interests may have trumped otherwise. Secondly, there are certain common institutions, tangible or not, that citizens agree to tend to. For example, adherence to the social institution of private property benefits citizens by extending the ability to exert control over the physical environment, making its conception a common good. Hence, citizens have a relational obligation to preserve common faculties as they cater to the needs of the wider political group. The propensity to serve wider needs exists due to an inoculated solidaristic concern, whereby a person alleviates the status of the interest of others to his or her own interests. This occurs because society binds individuals to wider faculties, giving way to mutual concern, and an attack on a single member is perceived as an attack on broader social institutions.


III. Negotiation of personal and sectional interests with the idea of common good

The negotiation can be rationalized by understanding the constitution of society. As Rawls stated, a large society is segmented into different subgroups, and their sectional interests revolve around bettering life prospects. Their claims, subsequently, compete with similar interests of other subgroups. However, it is pertinent to recognize that the conception of private and sectional interests is a response to an incentive to create a particular type of society – what that type may be differs in every culture. This more fundamental attempt to create and maintain particular social conditions stems from the essential need to preserve the social bond of citizenship. This prioritization of the status of the citizen in the axiomatic structure of identities emerges from the need to prevent positional competition from undermining basic liberties and prevent envy in order to enjoy a stable social order. People, in such cases, are not induced to endeavour to contribute to the good of each society member but rather to contribute to the large good extended by the community to them. This participation and cooperation, in turn, cause convergence between pursuits of individual goods and those of the common good. However, there may be times when the prioritizations of different groups differ. In such circumstances, groups converge to create common faculties and vest authority in them to decide the distribution of resources among sectional groups when the axiomatic structure becomes dysfunctional.

However, some may argue that the fulfilment of relational obligations may be premised merely upon the extension of private incentives for individuals, such as wages for judges. This argument is flawed on two levels. First, it is not possible for a society to formulate a framework which is viably sensitized to the interest of all individuals to provide them adequate incentives. Secondly, in such a model, genuine care for the large good is absent. However, why is this genuine care required? Because, irrespective of how well-designed incentives are to lure individuals into fulfilling relational obligations, circumstances will inevitably arise when the dispensation of adequate incentives is not possible. There will be times when political morality mandates personal sacrifice, such as when Elliot Richardson, Attorney General of the United States, resigned due President Nixon’s order to dismiss the special prosecutor for the Watergate scandal. Though the resignation entailed a sacrifice of professional aspirations, Richardson bore the sacrifice to sustain the public good.


IV. Extension of the principle of common good beyond political morality

The relational obligations of people, furthermore, extend beyond political morality to other facets of social life, as shown by the examples of burden-sharing and resource pooling, with both reinforcing the idea of some common good.

The moral significance of burden-sharing is best understood by the exemplification of a privatized form of organizing national defence. In a market-based approach, where personal interests dominate, entrepreneurial setups will provide security only to people who have the adequate ability to pay, leaving others exposed to the dangers of combat. This violates the communal ideal that the burden, in some manner, must be shared by all. The presence of this ideal is showcased in the divergent responses of people to injuries faced by soldiers in warfare and those suffered by private individuals in personal fights. The moral status of a soldier’s injury is elevated to a public burden that the whole community must bear, e.g., through the provision of free healthcare to injured soldiers. This communal ideal, similarly, extends to other endeavours engaging in socially responsible actions, such as policing or teaching.

However, then the question arises if the society is based upon a market system, would private interests not trump and consequently saturate public life? The answer to this, as stated by Hegel, is that the domination of private interest in the market, and the resulting problems, such as rampant inequality, would create an impetus for market activity to be integrated into the broader political community, which, as argued above, views decisions from the standpoint of common good. This conception of the common good in the political community will induce it to manicure the integrated market system to provide for the broader community. Hence, even if individual citizens are involved in personal pursuits in a market, their actions on a larger scale are structured to maintain common interests and faculties.

The social fact of social linkages, which due to its ubiquity is often overlooked, further lend credence to the argument that the common good extends beyond political morality. This refers to when the well-being of one group is contingent on the well-being of others. Public health frameworks, often, are premised on this principle. The infectious nature of many diseases requires them to mandate vaccinations. While one may argue that those with privileges are able to de-link themselves to escape hazards, be it by moving to areas of low population density to avoid COVID-19 or by living in gated communities to escape violent crime. Such evasive measures, however, are not only costly in material terms but also on an emotional level, leading to a life of constant fear and reduced liberty. Society, therefore, come to appreciate the greater utility of collective addressal of problems, such as New York citizens benefitting from a broader investment in crime control, which led to huge dividends to all, as local economy and liberty bolstered.


V. Conclusion

No faculty is inherently part of the common good; rather, such orientation of a faculty is premised on its ability to realise the possibility of the common good. As Maritain suggests, the common good cannot be understood as monolithic concept nor as an objective pursuit of what is good for human nature – no specific content can be foisted upon people to stimulate its realisation. Hence, all other things, ranging from truth to art, have the potential to become “common goods”.

In conclusion, one must acknowledge our increasingly individuated approach, with separate existences giving rise to competing interests. In such a context, the common good is not a fact – but an attainable, though difficult, achievement.