Understanding and promoting the ‘common good’

Pursuit of the “common good” is one of my favorite expressions about the purposes of civic engagement. It’s a term that has a history dating back to Thomas Aquinas and has been resurrected more and more of late.

Andy Crouch, in an article on the Christianity Today web site, has unpacked the term some. In brief, he goes back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarun, issued in 1891, and then couples that with some contemporary explanation and the perspective of Gabe Lyons. Crouch has done the church a service, but one of his points can be questioned.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the points:

Pope Leo XIII defined the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

Crouch points out two significant ideas in that definition. First. the common good is “measured by fulfillment or flourishing—by human beings becoming all they are meant to be.” Second, the common good is “about persons, both groups and individuals—not just about ‘humanity’ but about humans, and not just about individuals but about persons in relationship with one another in small groups.”

“The common good can help us avoid two modern temptations—one on the left and one on the right. ‘Leftists tend to be concerned about “humanity” as a collective,’ Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith told me [Crouch] via e-mail. ‘If some heads have to roll to improve humanity’s lot, so be it. A commitment to the common good opposes that entirely. Each and every person has dignity—the good society is one which allows the thriving of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable.’

“And yet, Smith pointed out, ‘the common good’ challenges the libertarian stream of conservatism as well: ‘Individualists only want to see each individual live as they please, as long as they don’t obstruct the ability of other individuals to do the same. They don’t think anything is “common,” except whatever minimal infrastructures are needed to create equal opportunity.’

“Focusing on the common good has another positive effect, Smith noted: It can both draw Christians into engagement with the wider society and prevent that engagement from becoming ‘all about politics.’ Essential to the common good, all the way back through Aquinas to Aristotle, has been the insight that the best forms of human flourishing happen in collectives that are smaller than, and whose origins are earlier than, the nation-state. Family above all, but also congregations, guilds, and clubs—these ‘private associations,’ with all their particular loyalties, paradoxically turn out to be essential to public flourishing. If we commit ourselves to the common good, we must become more public in our thinking and choices, and at the same time not too public. The common good is sustained most deeply where people know each other’s names and faces—especially when it comes to the care of the vulnerable, who need more than policies to flourish.”

There is a great deal of wisdom in those paragraphs. The only way Crouch seems to go astray is that he does not also have an appropriate appreciation for the role of the larger institutions of culture, most notably the government. It’s interesting that Pope Leo XIII did not make the small-large distinction Crouch sets forth.

There is a role for government in promoting the common good. Crouch does not deny that reality, but he surely underplays its importance. Government action has been required to prevent child labor and abuse, racial discrimination, and air and water pollution, just to name a few. Government has been required to promote oil exploration and home building (through tax breaks), and to oppose Nazi Germany and terrorism, to name a few.

It is not a matter of either/or in regard to the importance of “groups” of people; it is a matter of both/and. And the echoes of ethicist T.B. Maston are heard again.

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