All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 2000

The Common Good Demystified

Does the Common Good Require Coercive Redistribution?

Edward Younkins is professor of accountancy and business administration at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling, West Virginia.

The idea of the common good has been one of the most vague and most difficult concepts to clarify in the history of man. For many, the common good has primacy over persons and thus takes precedence over self-interest. Some even reify the abstract common good, acting as if it had an existence of its own. When the common good of society is looked on as something separate from and superior to the individual good of its members, there is a tendency for the common good to be interpreted as the good of the majority. In politics, economics, and culture, the term is frequently used when the speaker is encouraging others to make sacrifices. It is often evoked with reference to the poor and concern with equality and the distribution of wealth.

The expression is also often used by those who wish to impose their wills on others. Advocates of socialist schemes tell us that we must join in because all human beings have a moral obligation to serve the common good rather than their own desires. We are told that government must provide for the common good since individuals cannot be trusted to voluntarily sacrifice for it. Exhibiting a disrespect for persons, political authorities frequently dictate the course of action to be undertaken to achieve the common good and set standards to gauge the extent of its realization.

Along with professors of philosophy, political science, and economics, I regularly participate in a senior seminar for the political and economic philosophy majors at my university. At one session, several faculty members and students engaged in a debate in which references were vaguely and frequently made to the common good. One student bravely asked a political philosophy professor to define what he meant. Stunned by the stu dent’s question, the professor exclaimed, “If you don’t know what the common good is, then you haven’t learned a damn thing during the last four years!” Sensing that no answer was forthcoming, I decided to jump in.

To discover what constitutes the common good, I said, it is necessary to determine what makes man what he is.

Man’s distinctive nature is exhibited in his rational thinking, the process of abstraction and conceptualization, that is necessary for his survival and self-actualization. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies, and inte grates the input received from the senses. His rational faculty sets him apart from all other living species. To live as a human being, man must think, act, and create the conditions that his life requires to survive and prosper.

Freedom, a fundamental personal and social good, is another natural requirement of man’s existence. Each person has the ability to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to those thoughts. Men are rational beings with free wills, who have the ability to form their own purposes, aims, and intentions. If a man is to maintain his life and fulfill his potential, he must understand what’s required for human survival and flourishing, face a multitude of choices and actions, and act in accordance with his rational conclusions. The right to liberty (and to life) is the right to engage in that process. Freedom is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for survival, moral well-being, and happiness.

The object of the right to liberty is to allow people to live life as they choose, as long as they do not aggress against the freedom of others. Individuals are free to act when they are free from coercion by other individuals, groups of people, or the government.

Whatever is alleged to be the common good must be good for everyone. Liberty fulfills this requirement, since self-directedness is good for every person. The common good rests not in what men do when they are free, but rather in the fact that they are free. It consists in treating each person as an end and never solely as a means. This simply means respecting the autonomy of each individual.

Freedom and self-directedness can be possessed by all persons simultaneously. Their commonness lies in their indivisible and nondiminishing availability to all members of the human community. Each person can possess those intangible goods without lessening another person’s possession of them. Any number of people can experience them and each person can possess them in total.

In contrast, when socialists (of whatever variant) speak of the common good, they are often actually referring to what are really material goods divided up among various individuals. Today’s welfare-state liberals use the term common good for rhetorical purposes when they advocate programs that distribute resources.

The Common Good Is Protected Individual Liberty

Each person has the right to protect himself against all forms of external aggression initiated by private individuals or by the state. The proper role of government is to protect the freedom that allows individuals to pursue happiness or the good that each defines for himself. Government ensures the common good when its functions are restricted to protecting the natural right to liberty and maintaining peace and order. The necessity of self-direction provides a rationale for a political and legal order that will not require the autonomy of any individual to be sacrificed. Limited government only guarantees man the freedom to seek his own happiness as long as he does not trample the equivalent rights of others. A libertarian institutional framework is concerned with a person’s outward conduct rather than with his virtuousness. A proper social system should not force a particular good on a man, nor should it force him to seek the good. It should only maintain the conditions that leave him free to seek it.

As I concluded my explanation, several students were nodding in agreement while the other professors sat in silence. Perhaps they were in awe of my uncommonly clear derivation of the common good. Or they might have been thinking, “Younkins, you’ve been teaching college for over half your life and you still haven’t learned a damn thing!”

  • Professor Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy & Business Administration and
    Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the founder of Wheeling Jesuit University's undergraduate major in Political and Economic Philosophy. He is also the founding director of the university's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Science in Accountancy (M.S.A.) programs.