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The common good refers to activities or policies that benefit the community. It is concerned with the well-being of the group as opposed to simply the interests of a particular individual or subgroup. What this well-being actually involves, however, is not self-evident. There is no generally accepted method for identifying the common good. Nonetheless, scholars have offered a number of theoretical approaches, which can typically be categorized as either liberal or communitarian.
A fundamental distinction between these two theoretical orientations is how they conceptualize the relationship between the individual and community. The liberal perspective tends to understand the community in terms of its individual members. The whole is considered the sum of its parts. Consequently, the common good is based on the interests of the individual members. The communitarian view, in contrast, conceives of the community as having ontological priority over its individual constituents; that is, the community has an existence that goes beyond its membership. The whole, therefore, is seen as greater than the sum of its parts. In this case, the community provides the standard for determining the common good.
Liberal theories share the general notion that the common good should be based on individual preferences and interests, which are all weighed equally. Examples of liberal procedures include utilitarian, deontological, and deliberative. Utilitarianism generally associates the common good with maximizing social welfare. Its basic goal is to produce the greatest overall utility for the greatest number of individuals. Utility, however, may be defined differently depending on the version of utilitarian theory being considered. Deontological approaches connect the common good to the maintenance of individual rights. These rights are considered inalienable; they cannot be taken away. Deontological theories identify sets of opportunities and resources that should be enjoyed equally by all individuals. Deliberative methods attempt to identify the common good through democratic discourse. Ideally, individual members of the community deliberate together and reach a consensus about what the common good entails. The outcomes of public deliberation are considered legitimate if the procedure meets certain requirements such as fairness, rationality, and reciprocity.
Communitarian theories assume communities have distinct ways of life shaped by custom and tradition. The common good, in this situation, involves advancing and maintaining the community’s particular way of life. It identifies communal ends that are to be collectively embraced and pursued. Individual interests and preferences are seen as subordinate to the common good, which reflects the transcendent good of the community. Communitarian theories do not necessarily neglect the desires and needs of individuals; members, however, are expected to prioritize and share in their community’s way of life. The common good, therefore, requires that individuals put aside their personal concerns in favor of communal goals.
In practice, liberal and communitarian attempts to achieve the common good reflect their respective emphases on the individual and community. The liberal approach often advocates the extension of social welfare for individuals and the protection of individual rights. The communitarian approach typically uses public institutions to inculcate civic virtues, facilitate social solidarity, and take care of the public welfare. The former advances the interests of individuals, while the latter promotes the well-being of the community.
- Kymlicka, Will. 1990. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. 1992. Liberals and Communitarians. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
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