We all know that a “citizen” has co-responsibility for the ruling of a political community. In order to rule well, one must be able to deliberate well about the good of the whole community. Only a bad citizen would try to organize the community in such a way as to benefit his own private interests at the expense of the good of the community as a whole. A “good citizen” surely would want to contribute to what is called “the common good.” The common good usually said to be the proper end of the political art.

What exactly is the common good, though? What precisely and concretely are we aiming at when we aim at the common good? I think such questions are very similar to the question “what is happiness?” On the surface the answers seem obvious, but when we go below the surface, we find a host of difficult questions.

In this blog entry I’d like to make a few distinctions that I think are valuable to thinking about the common good. I offer them in a sense out of duty – I think I as a philosopher ought to have something to say on the subject, especially since I live in a country where I am a citizen and have a responsibility in promoting the common good. But I offer these also with the hope that, should they be deficient, they might be refined, corrected or rejected by shaper minds.

I posit that there are three kinds of goods we call “common.”

  1. Some goods are called “common” because they are private goods that everyone needs. Everyone, for instance, needs food, clothing, shelter and medicine. I would be promoting the common good, then, if I were to arrange things in such a way that everyone might not be deprived of these necessities. The need for these goods is common, but the goods themselves are not; the goods themselves are held, used, and consumed privately.
  2. Some goods are commonly held and commonly used as means to privately held, diverse ends. An example would be a road. Many people share the use of the road. My use does not necessarily take away from anyone else’s use of the road (barring a traffic jam). But a road is good not as an end, but as a means to an end. So while we all use the road, we value it differently due to our using it for different ends. This kind of a common good is not a final end. (The sun is also a common good in this sense – diverse things depend upon it in diverse ways.)
  3. Some goods are ends or goals that integrate the diverse activities of a group. A good example is a choir. A tenor sings one line which, by itself, lacks completeness; an alto sings something different, and so on. Together, they choir members produce a good that no one of them could achieve alone. In this third kind of common good, then, the end itself is common, but the activities that achieve it are many and diverse. This common good gives coherence and meaning to the diverse activities. This kind of common good is a final end.

With these distinctions in mind, we might ask: what is the common good that political order aims (or should aim) at? Does it aim at a final end that integrates all of the diverse activities in the city? Or does it aim at the second kind of common – promoting and preserving the means by which individuals might pursue their own, private goods? The above distinctions don’t answer these questions, but they do help clarify what we mean when we use the term “common good.”

I’d like to offer one more point for consideration: I have run across accounts of the common good that claimed that the paradigm of promoting the common good is welcoming and being hospitable to the stranger. Now I think that generosity and hospitality are great goods and one who violates the code of hospitality departs from the path of human decency. But hospitality governs how we are to treat a stranger, someone who is emphatically not part of my community. I dare say, then, that one’s idea of the “common good” would be impoverished if one took hospitality as the paradigmatic virtue of one promoting the common good. A community of people together can and ought to aspire to an end more noble than merely to treat one another with the justice due a stranger.