Two Senses of the Common Good

The notion of the common good assumes some moral advantage to a polity, but its nature depends on a set of unexamined assumptions. It implies, for instance, that some government actions benefit the citizenry, but that judgment presumes either a shared set of values among persons or a meaning of “common” that excludes at least some citizens’ interests. Because they are binding on all citizens, laws may be presumed to express the universalist meaning of the term, but both the theory and the structure of democratic government now ascendant require that at best “the common good” furthers only the will of the majority. That is a problem for the minority. The problem for the majority is that nothing guarantees their will to be good.

When the word commonwealth was coined in the fifteenth century, it presumed a corporatist social structure, meaning that political identity was rooted in established social orders. The “commonweal” was taken to mean a just arrangement of these orders as established by tradition sanctioned by religious authority. While dynamic in reality, this arrangement in theory froze caste structures dating back a thousand years. Social orders existed to maintain social order; political issues of justice were resolved in the same manner as most questions of moral goodness: by appeal to religious authority. When that foundation proved unreliable in the early sixteenth century (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”), a gradual reorientation began that culminated in the seventeenth century relocation of political power from social order to individual, where it has firmly resided since. This was the political innovation that associated commonweal with democracy, arguing that “the people” are not only the source of political power but also the best determinants of its uses. Since the English Reformation of 1648, the term commonwealth has been synonymous with democracy. It is now axiomatic that the people have the right to establish the political structures and pursue the political goods they value. The rationale as well as the metric of these decisions is touted as whatever conduces to the common good.

I have previously examined the conception of this effort (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”) and view it as perhaps the most desperate of modernism’s attempts to find replacement warrants for goodness claims once established by religious authority (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). Considering its deficiencies, the social contract theory, which swung the locus of political power to the individual and proposed a justification for majority rule, has enjoyed a surprising and undeserved success, but one that entails some heavy baggage (see “Alienation of Civic Affection”). By enshrining the retention of liberty as a political ideal, it has guaranteed resentment against government as a usurpation of individual power and so has brewed a simmering distrust. But a social contract orientation also guarantees that every act of government in pursuit of what it sees as “the common good” will alienate some portion of the electorate who find their interests violated because the theory demands that individuals view their public pursuits as being inevitably in conflict (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”).

Born in the ruins of fanatical disunion, modern political theory appealed to the experience of its theorists. Claims to truth and goodness, once warranted by religious authority communicated through civil magistrates, had been blown to splinters by the Wars of the Reformation (1521-1688). It seemed indisputable in this moral melee that persons’ visions of the good must end in conflict for the simple reason that their warrants for these claims did. The hypothetical state of nature that formed the primordial muck from which these theorists lifted the theory of the modern state was clearly analogous to that monstrous historical anomaly known as Reformation Europe. Its lessons indicated that only the desire for order forced persons into states, largely against their will but finally in their self-interest. This reluctant association reflected an historical unwillingness to let go of the power of authority that had legitimized the old corporatist social orders. The theory saw civil government as a necessary expedient, a conventional agreement, and in the last analysis, a morally neutral agent by which persons pursue their conflicting versions of the good (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). Each retreat from the moral epicenter of religious authority was regarded as a concession to pragmatic needs, a fracturing of old and natural cohesion justified only by the dire conditions of the Reformation, that cataclysm considered proof of the mendacity of the old corporatist sense of commonweal. Where in this cavalcade of expediency is there room for justice? What in this fictionalized, desperate version of reluctant association should excite our admiration or stir our patriotism?

Indeed, contractarian theory contrasts dramatically with the rousing history it seeks to make sense of. The overthrow of tyranny and establishment of democracy stir the blood, but when viewed through the lens of the theory used to justify them, we find a disturbing moral anemia. For what political cause did the patriots march, fight, and die? Liberty! And what did social contract theory say they willingly surrendered to establish government? Liberty! Adherents of the social contract were thus forced by their theoretical foundations to view political history in terms their religious history had well prepared them for. Theirs was a lost political Eden in search of redemption and some kind of restoration. The theory promised a thin kind of resolution. The revolutionaries thought that too much of their precious and compromised freedom had been appropriated by the other party in the contract. Yet that explanation leads naturally to a question their theory could not answer and history never has: how much liberty is enough? Their theory responded that total liberty, the sort that characterized the state of nature, was clearly too much, and that the amount granted by traditional authority was clearly too little. So how much should the individuals who signed the contract in theory and shed the blood in actuality demand? In typical modernist fashion, they sought an answer using the only warrants modernism could supply: universal reason rooted in individual experience.

They could seek no answer in human nature. John Locke’s theory of tabula rasa guaranteed that experience etched the shape of each person’s nature, and while this pillar of modernism (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”) might forcefully stimulate social change, it erred in arguing that reason itself must be the first product of experience, thereby introducing a pernicious but tenacious possibility that each person must value the world and the choices it offers differently from every other, that reasoning must not only interpret but also be formed in varied experience. Recent history had confirmed that those differences produced endless conflict among perceived goods. Lost in the brutality was some  commonality in human nature that found a basis in that similarity for a rationally ascertained set of common needs whose gratification must require a mirroring set of rights (see “Needs and Rights”).

But the early contract theorists were unanimous in their hostility to the concept of rights. In Leviathan Thomas Hobbes rejects the notion explicitly. “There is no finis ultimus nor summum bonum as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” John Locke, who in true modernist form twisted Hobbes’s contractarian version into something entirely different, seemed to contradict his own assertions of a human blank slate. He acknowledged in his Two Treatises on Civil Government that “the state of nature has a law to govern us which obliges every one: and reason…is that law.” While that reason might push persons to sacrifice a portion of their primordial freedom in his vision, that common tool in his judgment could build no bridge that might span differing experience and the differing moral standards it would produce.

We might wonder why they found the concept of common nature so objectionable. Primarily, they could find little evidence of it in the history of the preceding two centuries. Their lack of understanding of warrant may explain their position, for the religious warfare that animated their perception of intractable and perpetual conflict in truth and goodness claims had been caused by curious deficiencies unique to justifying religious authority (see “Religion and Truth”). We cannot blame but can still regret their transference of assumptions from religious warrants to secular ones (see  “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Their rejection of a common human nature and the needs/rights that might be sought as a foundation for justice left them with a problem: how would they determine the right amount of freedom to enshrine in a social contract? To those establishing new polities like the U.S. and revolutionary Europe, the question posed a pragmatic urgency.

And pragmatism became the means to answer it. Social contract theorists had already claimed the state to be a conventional and extemporaneous compromise to solve the problem of too much liberty. The appropriate line to draw to establish too little in their version of the state would also demand a pragmatic approach. Their view of human freedom pictured individuals pursuing private goods, yet laws must frame public ones. They saw the problem as a simple one of restraint. The state is a necessary convenience established to restrict each person’s range of circumstantial freedom just enough so that it does not impinge on another’s similar range. Now they acknowledged the difficulty of that effort, for they had already argued that individual differences might make for varying power differentials and since the desideratum of the “appropriate” range of freedom must be the ability to pursue whatever is valued, individuals are bound to burst each other’s bubbles of freedom as they go about pursuing their disparate ends. Indeed, theorists saw life after the contract to be simply a less violent version of life before it, with desire equating to goodness according to individual valuation. Law could make no appeal to a moral standard such as justice since all desires were seen as equally to be valued, so long as they preserved the freedom of others to follow their own pursuits. Government’s role in this libertarian vision must always be only restrictive and retributive and law a strictly positivist set of rules that might vary by culture, age, and jurisdiction as contractarians saw fit.

This is hardly the stuff of patriotic lore. The only way these limits could be set was by popular will, by majority rule. But the conventional nature of this theory ensured that those who saw their desires thwarted by the majoritarian shape of government would find little to claim their allegiance in defiance of their will. The theory allowed that any number less than half of a polity might be deprived of their versions of the good to guarantee the simple convenience of those who chased different values. Clearly, what was missing from this picture was what had bound communities together under the medieval, corporatist cultures. Some moral basis for the system would have to be found and then pitched as a firmer foundation for government’s perpetuation than simple conventionality and convenience.

This introduces a moral problem. Why should I accept as valid a desire you think good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”), and more to the point, why should I abandon my own desires so that you can pursue yours? Each law can be seen as the identification of a public good. But if I disagree with the majority’s desires, why should I accept that it is? My experience teaches me that what the law decrees as good is not. What could impel me to think something you want to be a “better good” than something I want see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”)? The only concession offered the minority in this position is the dubious claim that the sacrifice of their own desires might still yield a positive balance of their total interests, the constant implicit alternative being Hobbes’s threat of war of each against all. For the unfortunate minority (see German Jews or African-Americans in 1936) in this position, there’s not much patriotic fodder here, but that judgment also applies to the persistent majority who view the state as merely an exploitable convenience and the good they pursue an ever changing kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. Clearly, some moral heft needed to be added to this orgy of self-interest that a coarse pragmatism could not provide.

Enter utilitarianism, which became just what practitioners setting up democratic polities needed: a universalist moral system that elevated individual desires as supreme yet that also asked individuals to put aside that moral valuation in political matters when it was contradicted by the majority will. And this rational absurdity is one sense of “the common good,” a sense that might with more accuracy be termed “the majority ‘good.’” For in addition to imposing their will on the minority, we see no guarantee in this theoretical basis that what the majority chooses is actually good for them either.

In seeking to find virtue in expediency, social contract theoreticians chose a moral theory every bit as self-contradictory and delusional as their own. As a consequentialist moral system, Utilitarianism judges the moral content of a choice by its outcome, though no means exists to do more than predict immediate outcomes at the moment of choice. If the moral agent should gauge these correctly, she still could never predict the outcomes those outcomes might produce, for which the theory says she is still responsible. Initial versions of the philosophy urged her to choose on the basis of pleasures and pains. That certainly simplifies moral choosing for individuals, but its nursery school outlook ignores the complicated relationships adults have with their pleasures. They often defer pleasures to duties. They choose some forms of pleasures over others. (The inventor of the theory, Jeremy Bentham, famously claimed, “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.”) Alas, they also frequently derive pleasures from acts they ought not commit, though no means exist in the philosophy to say “ought” in this sense, at least for the individual (so much for objections to child molestation). Later iterations of the theory attempted the ridiculous task of objectively ranking pleasures, ending in the sort of incredible claim that, for instance, opera should provide a higher quality of pleasure than kickboxing and so therefore should be preferred. Here we see the snake eating its own tale, for such a statement appeals to a morality beyond pleasure to justify one based on it. Enlarge this specious individual morality in scale and you will find that persons must enter into conflict with others in their pursuit of what they term “pleasurable.” This last issue produced no end of trouble for a philosophy claiming to be a universalist moral system (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’”?), for of what use is morality if not to guide resolution of conflict? I’ve always found it impossible to think anyone who gave it ten minutes’ thought could embrace Utilitarianism as a personal moral code (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”).

So why not take such a deficient system and make it the moral basis for democracy? In abjectly failing to identify real goods worth choosing for the individual, why not enlarge the scope of the failure by also failing to identify goods worthy of pursuit by government, the collective voice of citizens? Like the social contract theorists they supported, Utilitarianism also rejected any notion of universal human needs that might conduce to a political theory of rights. Its founder, Jeremy Bentham, saw a threat there. If any conception of rights were to be embraced, we must assume them to be morally prior to law, which would make them immune to limitation by law. That immunity to his mind courted anarchy since he could not imagine a collaborative pursuit of universal goods. He does not say whether that threat evoked unease because it recalled to his mind Hobbes’ hypothetical war of each against all or Reformation Europe’s actual one. Whatever the sinister recollections’ source, he and the utilitarianism he constructed would condemn any conception of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts.” Instead, we should acknowledge the simple truth that people want all kinds of things and let the most wants win. Then call that choice good not because it is but because more people desire it than some other thing. Paint on multiple coats of nationalist cheerleading and patriotic mythologizing, and call it the modern democratic state. And whatever the majority of such a state considers worthy of effort at any one moment, call that thing “the common good.”

The last two centuries have seen battles built on an implicit acceptance of this definition, most notably that framed by Marx and Engels, who foresaw exploitation of some by others that only could be resolved when workers achieved sufficient numbers to impose their version of the good upon their former oppressors. At least some readers of communist propagandists read a deep nostalgia for feudal corporatism into Marxist theory, and so rejected a majoritarian mandate and the patience necessary to achieve it. Unfortunately, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao did not also reject the tabula rasa foundations of social contract theory as well. Their efforts continue to muddy the waters, breeding ferocious criticism of modern theories of political association while introducing even more contention into justifications for political order than before.

Nowhere is this attack more commonplace than on university campuses infused with postmodernism (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). These critics often condemn democracy for its self-delusional nature and for the grand narratives that prop it up on just these grounds. Without a prior moral theory to justify a positive political vision, postmodernists are forced to resort to relentless rational attacks on the irrationality of the modern state. The bête noire of these critics and indeed their sole warrant for criticism is hypocrisy, and they see plenty of that in the political claims I have examined here. While I certainly agree with them on the value of the principle of non-contradiction, their sole test for examining truth and goodness claims, I value others also. This is fortunate, for a truer sense of “the common good” demands them.

As much as I disagree with the conclusions of postmodernists (see “One Postmodern Sentence”), I both recognize and applaud a pillar of their historical analysis: the peculiarity of experience taints the universality of reason. They regard this objection as fatal to what they term “the project of modernism.” I disagree, mainly because we have no faculty other than reason to make sense of experience, though I acknowledge the damage that contextualizing reason in experience does to the reliability of our truth and goodness claims. Allow me to apply this generalization to the topic at hand.

It seems clear that modern political theory rejects any theory of natural rights in favor of a utilitarian sense of the social contract. That produces the conclusion that “the common good” must always reference purely majoritarian interests elevating individuals’ wants as representative government’s guiding principle, that government being merely an artificial compromise necessary to maintain social order. Yet threaded through this fairly bleak conclusion we see a few strands of gold. Something more admirable lies under this surface. We see it in the reverence we reserve for the Founding Fathers and the sacrifices they embraced to establish “a more perfect union.” Our patriotism is founded not on some filial piety for “the Fatherland” but on documents that fuzzily reference murky rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Most obviously, we revere justice, not the contractarian version wherein aggregates of individuals get to define it however they wish but as some seeming Platonic good that polities aspire to. It is this noble vision of “the state” that a universalist sense of “the common good” engages. In this sense, it refers to those needs that each person in a polity shares with all others, needs rooted in a common nature that conduce to common human rights (see “Needs and Rights“). In this view, states have always existed as the means to procure those rights (see “Natural and Political Rights”) and may be judged according to the degree that they do so. That effort, the state’s single purpose, may be summarized as the pursuit of justice, defined as “to each her due.” Our common good truly is common, rooted in the teleological pursuit our species-specific natures require, one part of which is the universal human need for government to satisfy needs only it can meet (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). And that also makes the government’s task of meeting common needs truly good.

If this sense of government function is adequate to explain and justify its existence and define its proper roles and limits, it is worthwhile asking why early modern theorists found it necessary to invent another, brutalist theory that functions so unsatisfactorily to do what a natural rights justification does so well. On the topic at hand, for instance, why encourage this sleight of hand about the nature of the common good that elevates its meaning while compromising its practice? That effort may be seen as representative of the entire theoretical justification of the modern state: noble in some ideal sense, sordid in practical application. Why not embrace a clear-eyed theory of natural rights as sufficient warrant? Why did early modernist theorists find it necessary to invent an inferior theoretical warrant for the state?

That question’s epistemological roots dig deeply into historical circumstances anchored in the horrors of the Reformation. All modernist warrants for truth and goodness claims are built on the ad hoc replacements that theorists constructed in those nightmarish two centuries. Fanatical religious warfare took down the pillars of authority that had supported political claims for millennia. Theorists cobbled together the warrants of universal reason and experience over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and then applied them as well as they could to the political systems they were trying to rebuild that lay in ruins at their feet. It was necessary to have government first in these desperate circumstances while at the same time inventing it anew. If individuals were to be the new source of political power, their own reason and experience would have to be respected and defended against traditional sources of privilege that continued to try to patch up the social structures that had brought Europe into ruin. It was abundantly obvious after centuries of internecine war that persons’ values differed. It was equally clear that the old corporatist and feudal structures had always used “natural law” interchangeably with “God’s will” to justify continuing oppression and the bloody depredations of the Reformation. Of course, the essence of that unremitting horror was that only conflicting dogmatic assertions of God’s will existed in the fragmentation of Christian authority, and each interpreter was more than willing to shed blood to champion his own version. The notion of “natural law” is tainted even today with religious overtones, as is any theory tapping the teleological foundation that drives our knowledge of its nature. (That association, though traditional, grows increasingly irrelevant as we discover more about the biological bases of human behavior; it seems that “function” does not necessitate “purpose” in a creationist sense.) In their Cartesian desire to find common ground, political theorists scorched these traditionalist sources of social order entirely. Their hostility to any notion of universal and common needs and the rights they generate, in my judgment, stemmed from their respect for individual reason as the director of political action and their hostility to existing social structures based on discredited religious authority. To put it another way, they were victims of a perverse set of experiences that overly influenced their reasoning about the nature and purpose of government. Had they been spared the horrors of the Reformation, they would never have come up with a political justification so poorly fitted to the common good. But in that case they would have had no need to, and there might be no modern state to justify.

The effort to warrant political power by appealing to the common good has remained contentious from its beginnings, largely because the underlying theories that appeal to it can find no means to pursue it in practice. So we continue with a nod and a wink to reference it without actually pursuing it, throwing yet another log on the smoldering fires of resentment that burn through our political life.