Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The person and the common good

Several took exception to my contention that there is no cause greater than a person; that a soldier, for example, does not give his life for a cause that is greater than he is. Four objections were raised. I will state them as I have understood them; please correct me if I have not caught the force of the arguments:

(1) If there is no cause greater than the individual person, then the result will be nihilism. If we can state the argument more formally: Proper order in society demands that individuals subordinate themselves to some cause or purpose that is greater than themselves.

(2) Colloquially understood, the statement "they have died for a cause greater than they are" means that immediate self-interest has been sacrificed for the sake of the common good. The common good is held to be greater than the self-interest of the individual. Note, however, that in this case the President's reference was to those who gave their lives for liberty. Might we therefore put the objection in this way: liberty is a common good that is of greater dignity than the life of an individual person.

(3) There is a cause greater than the individual person, which is the good of the many: the good of the many is a cause that is greater than the good of the individual person.

(4) The fourth objection might be stated thus: if there is no cause greater than the individual person, then there is no reason for sacrifice for the sake of another; the best that we can achieve is self-interest. Yet it would appear that people do sacrifice for the sake of others (e.g. soldiers in WWII). Therefore, we should say that there is a cause or purpose greater than the individual person.

Certainly, the tradition of the West (not just the Catholic tradition) asserts that there is a common good, and that the purpose of the political community is to advance the common good. Does this not mean, therefore, that the common good is a greater good than that of the individual person? I hold that it does not, and that the answer to each of the objections lies in what we understand by “common.”

If something is “common” it means that it applies first to all and then and therefore of necessity to each, and in essentially the same way. So, for example, to breathe is truly common to people: it applies to all of us insofar as we are human, and therefore and necessarily to each of us, and in the same way. (True, athletes will have trained themselves to breathe more effectively, but they nonetheless are participating in the same activity.) Similarly, everyone would acknowledge certain fundamental necessities for life -water, food, shelter and the like. These things are truly common.

There has also, in the past, been a broad consensus concerning goods that are not merely physical requirements for human life but that are also common. Rather than being necessary for sustaining our physical life, they are things that conduce to happiness, or to the flourishing of the person. So, every person requires an education, a measure of freedom, insofar as we have real agency in our relationships to others, recognition as a subject of relationship, and not merely an object, and so on. The particular manner in which these goods are expressed differs from person to person and from culture to culture, but the goods are common, in that they are first true of all and, necessarily therefore, of each.

What is the measure, then, of these common goods? Clearly, it is the human person. What constitutes something as “good?” Simply, that it is sought as conducive to the life or the happiness of the person. The person is the measure of the common good.

This assertion -which is founded upon reason, and was taught by the pagan philosophers of the ancient world– is confirmed and amplified in the Catholic tradition:

…There is a growing awareness of the sublime dignity of the human person, who stands above all things and whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable. …The social order and its development must constantly yield to the good of the person, since the order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around…. (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 26)

The common good for society is therefore described as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, 26.) The person is the measure of the social order, and there is no such thing as a cause that is greater than a person.

With this in mind, let us address each of the objections:

(1) Society is ordered to the common good, which is the good of the person. To say that this good is “common” means that, to the degree that one pursues one’s own good -- his or her own genuine fulfillment as a person -- one will simultaneously seek a society that is ordered to the good of all. What orders society is not some cause that is greater than the person, but the genuine good of the person.

(2) Certainly, one can pursue apparent (rather than genuine) goods to the detriment of others, and to seek what is truly good requires sacrificing such immediate self-interests for the sake of the common good. I think, however, that we must be careful about how we speak about this. Subordination of immediate self-gratification to the common good does not imply a cause greater than oneself, but the seeking of goods that are more proper to one’s own fulfillment. Freedom, for example, is either an attribute of a person (demonstrated, as Chesterton has it, by the mystical ability to get off a bus one stop early) or a social condition in which one is at liberty to pursue genuine personal fulfillment. No one should surrender one’s freedom, for to do so is contrary to one of the goods that we all hold in common. The soldier who dies in the cause of freedom is dying in the cause of the person, and should be honored for that reason.

(3) The good of the many cannot be greater than the good of each one, in that the good of the many is common, and is therefore the good also of each one.

(4) The common good, because common, is indeed the good of each one, and therefore might be correctly termed a matter of self interest: to pursue the common good is, perforce, to pursue one’s own good. However, such a pursuit does not obviate sacrifice for the sake of others, in fact quite the contrary. When a person or a regime (e.g. Hitler or Nazi Germany) acts to enslave whole peoples, the good of all is placed in peril. When my father fought overseas in WWII he was acting to protect the life and liberty of those he loved, and risked his life to do so, precisely because he had is heart set upon the common good.


  1. Father, I would agree with your assessment in general. However, I would like to critique your reply to the first objection.

    I believe that the principles that you have laid down are solid. In particular that it is the very purpose of the common good to serve the good of the individual person. However, it does not seem to me that the fundamental orientation of ones participation in the common good is at first through concern for ones own good and then secondarily for the common good. To discover why this is we should consider all three possibilities that utilize the same principle.

    First, there is the order of serving the common good prior to the individual good. This would be an extreme of altruism that seems, to me, to lack the necessary virtues of prudence and wisdom. Second, would be your suggestion of the primacy of the individual good over the sake of the common good. This seems better than the first, however, it does not seem to fully apply the necessity for communion through the intrinsic ontological necessity of inter-relationaliy. In this second way it could be interpreted that the individual is all that really matters while the common good is an accidental good. Rather it would seem that this is not the case since the common good is a necessary good for the individual to attain his highest good. Considered in the extreme the subordination of the common good to the individual good would result in a radical egoism. The third option is the middle way of a mutual subordination of the individual good to the common good. This would allow the realization of at least two different necessities for human flourishing - autonomy and community. It does not seem to me that the personal good nor the common good can be actually considered apart from one another in the concrete. Rather, it seems that the individual can only attain virtue in community and the community can only be virtuous if the individuals seek virtue. Hence, it seems to me that this would be a more adequate application of the principles that you have outlined given that the common good is, in the end, for the sake of the individual good; yet it also respects that the individual good cannot be sought fully without the common good.

    I do not suggest that there is an ontological equivalence. It is sure that the individual person is ontologically prior to the community. However, this argument is not concerned with the ontological priority but rather it is concerned with the disposition of the individual viz a vis the community. As a result it would seem to me that we cannot simply say that by fulfilling the subjective goods of the individual that the common good is preserved nor can we say that by serving the common good the subjective individual good is fulfilled. Rather, it is through an orientation that serves both at the same time in each relative sphere that the good of both the individual and the community is achieved.

  2. Pretty dense rhetoric, like an upper division college philosophy lecture but I guess that's what you do.

    Seems pretty simple though and solid.

    Let's apply it to a current hot button situation, Sr. Margaret McBride and the abortion she approved while on call administrator at the Catholic medical center in Phoenix, late last year.

    One can understand the decisions of each of the major players, the young pregnant woman in acute and life threatening pulmonary edema/hypertention, her doctor, Sister and Bishop Olmsted as the situation evolved to have been to the greatest benefit to those making them. Given each of their interests, none of them could have made different decisions and the scenarios that followed could not have played out other than they did.

    Therefore, the end result or results, since there are a lot of different things going on, necessarily had to be for the greatest common good.

    I agree but it's dangerous ground we stray upon by determining that.

  3. To Bro. Gabriel:

    I hope that I did not suggest, as you understood it, that one's individual good takes primacy over the common good. I don't think that this is the case at all. Rather, the question that I was addressing is whether there is a cause greater than a person. I hold that there is not in that we are discussing the common good --which is an ordering of society around the flourishing of the human person. In that sense, the pursuit of the common good --insofar as it is, indeed, common-- cannot contradict, finally, the pursuit of what is best for oneself.

    The question of the precise manner in which the individual person relates to others in pursuit of the common good is a further step, and one which you have addressed. That is a discussion to which I would like to return, but having first laid a little more groundwork


  4. Reddog wrote:

    One can understand the decisions of each of the major players.... Given each of their interests, none of them could have made different decisions and the scenarios that followed could not have played out other than they did. Therefore, the end result or results, since there are a lot of different things going on, necessarily had to be for the greatest common good.

    I don't believe that this follows. Any one of us is capable of mis-identifying what is good. "Good" is not just a subjective judgment, and it does not always result from having blameless motives. Forgetting the Phoenix case for the moment (as it is very complex), every day there are mothers who choose abortion because they don't see a way to financially provide for a child, and there are governors who allow criminals to be executed, and there are soldiers who decide where to drop bombs, and there are drivers who decide which traffic rules to break. Even when these people are honestly and sincerely trying to make the right decision, many of them do indeed end up choosing something that is not good.

    Or, to phrase this more precisely, they make a choice that obtains a lesser good while rejecting a greater good. The mother who murders her daughter's rival in a cheerleading contest is choosing a good thing (the short-term satisfaction that she and her daughter will feel when she wins) but in a way that rejects a tremendously greater good.

    Therefore, I disagree with your conclusion that such choices necessarily achieve "the greatest common good".

    I also disagree that "none of them could have made different decisions". Every human person has freedom.

  5. Thank for your articles Father. I am enjoying this and the dialogue very much. David Clayton

  6. Thank you for the clarification Father. I would agree, then, that concerning the Common Good there is no higher cause than a person - as you have pointed out.

  7. Please forgive my very late arrival to this conversation. Recently I heard the Dominican adage "seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish" so here are my two cents, perhaps to spur Fr. onward. A big part of our predicament it seems to me is our acceptance, sometimes unawares, of so much modern pseudo antinomy, as in "individual versus society." Ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle conceived of individual and society as necessary correlative, as one pair. This is not to deny that instances can arise of say persecution of individuals by the state apparatus, of course, or plenty of other asymetrical relations of power.

    Undoubtedly there are such things as are sometimes called "common advantages" for example when two or more parties undertake a transaction as in the market of buying and selling, or when two or more states negociate a treaty or agreement in light of the subjective advantage of each contracting party. So this term may even extend to social contracts, even tacit ones. For instance, uniform weights and measures benefit us all. Clearly, such common advantages are calculated starting from the self-interest of the one calculating, and most of us do this all the time.

    The common good however parts not from the calculated self-interest of each atomistic individual, but is grounded much more deeply, in nature, for example what it is to be a person, or a community. The common good cannot be either "mine" or "thine", nor is it even accurate to say "ours" as we might speak of the common stock of a corporation. As Br. Gabriel pointed out each one of us participates in the common good. We might further distinguish what is sometimes called a "common need", say for air or water as Fr. pointed out. These are obvious needs that each of us need utilize in order to survive at all. Common goods in so far as they are distinguishable from the needs are goods we require for our happiness and thriving as persons. In the long run, the health of a society and of a person will depend more on the realization of the common goods than on the securing of the common needs that after all take on the character of absolute requisites for mere physical living, not living well. Most of our needs are animal needs, that we have in common with all the other animals. Our goods are precisely human and aim at something even more noble than merely human.

    I thought the most striking thing Fr. has said so far, is his reminder that there is no distance at all between word and the thing it names (in his first post). When our president refers to a good greater than the person, we might take pause and mull it over.