Common good (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of shared interests.

There exists a desirable end for governmental or public policy which is good for the whole society.

This ‘common good’ can be discovered by informed and reasoned thought, and though it may overlap with the good of particular groups or individuals, is different from and greater than the interest of any one of them.

Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1982)


The term “common good” has been used in many disparate ways and escapes a single definition. Most philosophical conceptions of the common good fall into one of two families: substantive and procedural. According to substantive conceptions, the common good is that which is shared by and beneficial to all or most members of a given community: particular substantive conceptions will specify precisely what factors or values are beneficial and shared. According to procedural formulations, by contrast, the common good consists of the outcome that is achieved through collective participation in the formation of a shared will.

In the history of moral and political thought

Historical overview

Under one name or another, the common good has been a recurring theme throughout the history of political philosophy.[3] As one contemporary scholar observes, Aristotle used the idea of “the common interest” (to koinei sympheron, in Greek) as the basis for his distinction between “right” constitutions, which are in the common interest, and “wrong” constitutions, which are in the interest of rulers;[4] Saint Thomas Aquinas held “the common good” (bonum commune, in Latin) to be the goal of law and government;[5] John Locke declared that “the peace, safety, and public good of the people” are the goals of political society, and further argued that “the well being of the people shall be the supreme law”;[6] David Hume contended that “social conventions” are adopted and given moral support in virtue of the fact that they serve the “public” or “common” interest;[7] James Madison wrote of the “public,” “common,” or “general” good as closely tied with justice and declared that justice is the end of government and civil society;[8] and Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood “the common good” (le bien commun, in French) to be the object of a society’s general will and the highest end pursued by government.[9][10]

Though these thinkers differed significantly in their views of what the common good consists in, as well as over what the state should do to promote it, they nonetheless agreed that the common good is the end of government, that it is a good of all the citizens, and that no government should become the “perverted servant of special interests,”[10] whether these special interests be understood as Aristotle’s “interest of the rulers,” Locke’s “private good,” Hume’s and Madison’s “interested factions,” or Rousseau’s “particular wills.”[10]

Ancient Greeks

Though the phrase “common good” does not appear in texts of Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher indicates repeatedly that a particular common goal exists in politics and society.[11] For Plato, the best political order is the one which best promotes social harmony and an environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups, each benefiting from and adding to the common good. In The Republic, Plato’s character Socrates contends that the greatest social good is the “cohesion and unity” that “result[s] from the common feelings of pleasure and pain which you get when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures.”[12]

Plato’s student Aristotle, considered by many to be the father of the idea of a common good, uses the concept of “the common interest” (to koinei sympheron, in Greek) as the basis for his distinction between “right” constitutions, which are in the common interest, and “wrong” constitutions, which are in the interest of rulers.[13] For Aristotle, the common good is constituted in the good of individuals. Individual good, in turn, consists in human flourishing—the fulfillment of the human’s purpose—which is the right and natural thing for humans to do. On this teleological view, the good stems from objective facts about human life and purpose.[11] Aristotle is clear that there is greater value in the common good than in the individual good, noting in his Nicomachean Ethics that “even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete; … though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.”[14] When Aristotle discusses the types of political regime in his Politics, he speaks of monarchy (rule by one man for the common good), aristocracy (rule by a few for the common good), and polity (rule by the many for the common good).[15] Yet by “common good” here, Aristotle means specifically the common good of the citizens, and not necessarily the good of non-citizen residents of the city, such as women, slaves, and manual laborers, who reside in the city for the good of the citizens.[15]

According to one common contemporary usage, rooted in Aristotle’s philosophy, common good refers to “a good proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members.”[2]

Renaissance Florence

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the common good was one of several important themes of political thought in Renaissance Florence. The thought goes back to Thomas Aquinas theory of common good being virulent in whole premodern Europe.[16] In a later work, Niccolo Machiavelli speaks of the bene commune (common good) or comune utilità (common utility), which refers to the general well-being of a community as a whole, however he mentions this term only 19 times throughout his works.[17] In key passages of the Discourses on Livy, he indicates that “the common good (comune utilità) . . . is drawn from a free way of life (vivere libero)” but is not identical with it.[17][18] Elsewhere in the Discourses, freedom, safety and dignity are explicitly stated to be elements of the common good and some form of property and family life are also implied.[17] Furthermore, the common good brought by freedom includes wealth, economic prosperity, security, enjoyment and good life.[17] It is important to note, however, that though Machiavelli speaks of an instrumental relationship between freedom and common good, the general well-being is not precisely identical with political freedom: elsewhere in the Discourses, Machiavelli argues that an impressive level of common good can be achieved by sufficiently autocratic rulers.[17] Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s common good can be viewed as acting for the good of the majority, even if that means to oppress others through the endeavor.[17][19] Machiavelli’s common good is viewed by some scholars as not as “common”, as he frequently states that the end of republics is to crush their neighbors.[20][21]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, composed in the mid-18th century, Rousseau argues that society can function only to the extent that individuals have interests in common, and that the end goal of any state is the realization of the common good. He further posits that the common good can be identified and implemented only by heeding the general will of a political community, specifically as expressed by that community’s sovereign. Rousseau maintains that the general will always tends toward the common good, though he concedes that democratic deliberations of individuals will not always express the general will. Furthermore, Rousseau distinguished between the general will and the will of all, stressing that while the latter is simply the sum total of each individual’s desires, the former is the “one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being.”[22] Political authority, to Rousseau, should be understood as legitimate only if it exists according to the general will and toward the common good. The pursuit of the common good, then, enables the state to act as a moral community.[1]

Adam Smith

“Individual ambition serves the common good.” —Adam Smith

The 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith famously argues in his Wealth of Nations what has become known as the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics: that the invisible hand of market competition automatically transforms individual self-interest into the common good.[23] Smith’s thesis is that in a “system of natural liberty,” an economic system that allows individuals to pursue their own self-interest under conditions of free competition and common law, would result in a self-regulating and highly prosperous economy, generating the most welfare for the most number.[23] Thus, he argues, eliminating restrictions on prices, labor, and trade will result in advancing the common good through “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people,” via lower prices, higher wages, better products, and so on.[23]

John Rawls’s Theory of Justice

John Rawls defines the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. In his Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality, applied to the basic structure of a well-ordered society, which will specify exactly such general conditions. Starting with an artificial device he calls the original position, Rawls defends two particular principles of justice by arguing that these are the positions reasonable persons would choose were they to choose principles from behind a veil of ignorance. Such a “veil” is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage. According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly. In particular, Rawls claims that those in the original position would all adopt a “maximin” strategy which would maximize the prospects of the least well-off individual or group. In this sense, Rawls’s understanding of the common good is intimately tied with the well-being of the least advantaged. Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two governing principles, which would then regulate the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. The First Principle of Justice states that “”First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others”.[24] The Second Principle of Justice provides that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged such that “(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle” (the difference principle); and “(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of ‘fair equality of opportunity'”.[25]

In non-Western moral and political thought

The idea of a common good plays a role in Confucian political philosophy, which on most interpretations stresses the importance of the subordinination of individual interests to group or collective interests,[26] or at the very least, the mutual dependence between the flourishing of the individual and the flourishing of the group.[27] In Islamic political thought, many modern thinkers have identified conceptions of the common good while endeavoring to ascertain the fundamental or universal principles underlying divine shari‘a law.[28] These fundamentals or universal principles have been largely identified with the “objectives” of the shari‘a (maqāṣid al-sharī‘a), including concepts of the common good or public interest (maṣlaḥa ‘āmma, in modern terminology).[28] A notion of the common good arises in contemporary Islamic discussions of the distinction between the fixed and the flexible (al-thābit wa-l-mutaghayyir), especially as it relates to modern Islamic conceptions of tolerance, equality, and citizenship: according to some, for instance, universal principles carry greater weight than specific injunctions of the Qur’an, and in case of conflict, can even supersede or suspend explicit textual injunctions (naṣṣ) if this serves the common good

2 thoughts on “Common good (20TH CENTURY)

  1. Dr Gőz Péter ügyvéd Debrecen says:

    Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

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