Politics is dominated by the narrow self-interest of special interests. What is worth pondering, perhaps, is where this has led us. Many states have been made terminally insolvent by promises made in past decades for short-term political gain. Citizens have been trained to think they have “rights” to get what they want from government. Ask any school principal about legal demands by parents.
The hardest problem is not coming up with a solution. Societies have clawed their way from far worse situations. The hard problem facing us is how to dislodge the politics of selfishness. Immoral cultural habits change only when they become dishonorable. What’s needed to break the downward spiral of narrow selfishness in politics–what Tocqueville might call “self-interest, wrongly understood”–is to embrace the language of honor and shame. Honor is powerful. It is shameful that we lack the public discipline to live within our means, and will leave our children obligated to pay twice the taxes we do.
(‘Where is Honor in America’ at
Instead of appealing to our better nature, they promise short-term self-interest of continued entitlements or lower taxes. Instead of leadership for a responsible society, they attack each other with partisan half-truths, oblivious to the critical need to change course. Changing leaders is not enough. Decades of accumulated law and bureaucracy have made it impossible for anyone to use common sense. New leaders come and immediately get stuck in the bureaucratic goo.
(‘Manifesto for a New Politics’, Philip K Howard at
The common good does not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good require the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens.
Different people have different ideas about what is worthwhile or what constitutes “the good life for human beings”, differences that have increased during the last few decades as the voices of more and more previously silenced groups, such as women and minorities, have been heard. Given these differences, some people urge, it will be impossible for us to agree on what particular kind of social systems, institutions, and environments we will all pitch in to support.
And even if we agreed upon what we all valued, we would certainly disagree about the relative values things have for us. In the face of such pluralism, efforts to bring about the common good can only lead to adopting or promoting the views of some, while excluding others, violating the principle of treating people equally. Moreover, such efforts would force everyone to support some specific notion of the common good, violating the freedom of those who do not share in that goal, and inevitably leading to paternalism (imposing one group’s preference on others), tyranny, and oppression.
Individuals can become “free riders” by taking the benefits the common good provides while refusing to do their part to support the common good. An adequate water supply, for example, is a common good from which all people benefit. But to maintain an adequate supply of water during a drought, people must conserve water, which entails sacrifices. Some individuals may be reluctant to do their share, however, since they know that so long as enough other people conserve, they can enjoy the benefits without reducing their own consumption. If enough people become free riders in this way, the common good which depends on their support will be destroyed.
Our culture views society as comprised of separate independent individuals who are free to pursue their own individual goals and interests without interference from others. In this individualistic culture it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to convince people that they should sacrifice some of their freedom, some of their personal goals, and some of their self-interest, for the sake of the “common good”. Our cultural traditions, in fact, reinforce the individual who thinks that she should not have to contribute to the community’s common good, but should be left free to pursue her own personal ends.
(Adapted from ‘The Common Good’, Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer, Issues in Ethics V5 N2 Spring 1992)
Some persons, however, must will the common good not just formally, but also materially. This means that they must will it not just as end, but as object. Their specific actions are actions that materially advance and maintain the common good. The most characteristic example here is, of course, the persons who make up the government or management of any community. It is the special responsibility of government to promote and maintain the common good of the society in a material way. Collecting taxes, paving streets, enforcing the law, and defending the country from external threats are all material aspects of the political common good that are typically the concern of government.
The vast majority of persons who will the common good formally, but not materially do, however, will other things materially: particular goods. Persons will their own good formally and materially and pursue it in a variety of ways. Moreover, particular persons will the goods of their families, civic associations, and workplaces.
The debate over the common good has existed since Plato wrote the Republic in the late 5th century BC. Common good can hold different meanings depending on one’s involvement. For example, if City Hall makes a decision that is good for its citizens, but not good for citizens of a neighboring city, is that the common good? And, what is good? It can be defined as “doing what is right or proper” (Webster’s 1990, pg. 255), but does everyone agree what actions achieve common good? Probably not (Powell and Clemens, 1998).
A debate about what is “good” is not a negative action. By having as many parties involved as possible can bring together many different perspectives to determine the overall best decisions for the “common.” The common good is promoted within every organization through its mission statement. A neighborhood association wishes to reduce crime to provide security for its residents. An environmentalist wishes to preserve the open spaces so there is clean air and a healthy ecosystem. The United Nations tries to resolve issues through diplomacy rather than the tyranny of war. The nonprofit sector is based on the idea that people can come together to form an organization in order to better their situation.
(Common Good by Michael Kraus at
People must assume responsibility for their actions, treat others with respect and decency, and serve their families and communities. Businesses need to assume responsibilities beyond securing the bottom line. They need to take into consideration their communities, workers, and surrounding environments as well as their shareholders when making decisions. Government needs to pursue policies that benefit all and require sacrifices from all. Government should not serve as the defender of narrow group or corporate agendas and should instead seek to protect public goods that promote the national interest.
(Adapted from “The Politics of Definition,” by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, CAP senior fellows at
Whenever someone proposes that something is done for the common good, the reality is that it benefits some people more than it benefits other people, and, given the relative nature of reproductive success, those who benefit less than average actually lose from it. If we assume that the development of world organizations and international agreements does proceed based on this shaky notion of “common good”, and then in each case we must ask who the winners are, and who are the losers? And why do the losers put up with it? A likely answer in many cases to this last question is that the losers will put up with it because they lack clout to do anything about it. Either they are too poor, or disorganized, or they may simply form too small a minority. Or they may just fail to realize that they are the losers. The “improvement” of the world by mutual agreement may actually be a constant “tyranny of the majority”, where perhaps 95% of the population agrees on a measure which ensures the eventual extinction of the remaining 5%.
Some people say that there are “no winners” in a nuclear war which destroys 95% of humanity. But success is always relative, and as long as a nuclear war does not render the Earth uninhabitable, the “winners” of a nuclear war consist of the survivors, who have what is left of the world all to themselves.
(There is (Almost) No Such Thing as the “Common Good’ at


2 thoughts on “COMMON GOOD

    • in a lot of cases i don’t think ‘they’ promise entitlements OR lower taxes. ‘they’ promise entitlements AND lower taxes. i don’t know where you live but look at Bush. he delivered lower taxes AND entitlements – think Medicare drug benefit.

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