Understanding the Common Good
Together for the Common Good Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail SCM, pb, £25.00 (Or £22.50 from the CEN Shop) “Jesus’ suffering spurs Christians to serve the common good,” Archbishop Justin Welby told readers of the
Evening Standard on Good Friday. Suddenly everyone is talking about the ‘common good’ but what does this concept rooted in Catholic Social Thinking really mean? Anyone who wants to find the answer could do no better than read this collection of essays by Christians of all persuasions, as well as a Jew and a Muslim. It is edited by a Catholic and an Anglican and carries a foreword by Baroness Neuberger.
It is important to distinguish the common good from the utilitarian commitment to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. Both Clifford Longley and Tehmina Kazi quote Vatican II’s statement that the common good is the ‘sum total of conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’.
As Longley points out, ‘fulfilment’ is understood in the Catholic social tradition as ‘integral human development’ that includes every aspect of a person’s life. It is crucial to see that commitment to the common good means not seeing people purely as individuals but as members of communities who flourish when the whole community flourishes.
As Longley argues, the common good makes the polarisation between selfish and altruistic choices redundant. We benefit from the growth and development of other people.
It is not hard to see the kind of questions that are provoked by talk of the common good. One major issue in modernWestern societies is the existence of pluralism. How can we come to a shared view of the common good in societies where people are committed to a range of moral and religious beliefs? Patrick Riordan tackles this issue in a chapter discussing the relevance of Aristotle for the politics for the common good today.
He recognises the differences between the polis as Aristotle envisaged it and the modern democratic state but argues this does not mean all Aristotle has to say is now irrelevant. States that accept the rule of law, constitutional constraints on power and the need for rules about transparency and accountability have come to some agreement on the common good.
He follows Alasdair MacIntyre in arguing that our talk of rights has no objective philosophical grounding but functions as a way to express commitment to shared goods.
Some people have seen the potential for a clash between the common good and the principle of subsidiarity. Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who is both a practising Catholic and a defender of the free market, draws attention to a passage in a previous work where Clifford Longley argues that subsidiarity is less important in Catholic Social Teaching than solidarity but in his contribution to this book Longley says “subsidiarity is an equal and countervailing force to solidarity, pushing against centralisation and collectivism” but he also argues that properly understood subsidiarity is at odds with neoliberal ideology.
There are important practical consequences to this debate not all covered in this book. It has been argued that the welfare state developed in Germany and Northern Europe because of Lutheran belief in the two kingdoms which made churches more ready to concede areas of power and activity to the state than was the case in Catholic countries.
In Ireland, for example, large areas of education and health and social care were left to the Catholic Church until quite recently.
In some ways contradicting this argument, Lord Glasman argues that the post-war settlement in Germany in which the workforce take part in corporate governance and regional banks are restricted in the area where they can lend was shaped by Catholic social teaching.
Archbishop Welby’s advocacy of the common good is an example of the way the concept has caught on among evangelicals and Anglicans. Jonathan Chaplin looks at evangelical social teaching and argues that there was a retreat from social activism in the first half of the 20th century but that evangelicals rediscovered their social conscience in the 1960s.
He offers a typology of five ways in which evangelicals have sought to justify social activism and argues that they reveal ‘common good enthusiasms’ of a divergent nature. One important feature of evangelicalism he highlights is its readiness to adopt a ‘counter cultural’ stance, perhaps less common in established churches or among Catholics who see grace perfecting nature.
Malcolm Brown’s chapter on the Church of England and the common good offers a penetrating summary account of Anglican social teaching since Temple. He sees a tension between a view that understands the state as guarantor of the common good and one that emphasises the contribution of local voluntary groups. Tawney was more open to the need to go back to a preConstantinian Church than Temple was.
Bravely, Brown puts his finger on the current emphasis on freedom of individual choice seen in such issues as assisted suicide as a problem for attempts to elicit a shared understanding of the common good.