Explainer: the common good and why it matters more than ever


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Although the term ‘civilisation’ has less currency today than it once did (Armstrong, 2009), most people see themselves as living in a civilisation (Saul, 2009). As observed by the political philosopher John Ralston Saul, this understanding tends to be centred on a sense of shared destiny: on shared interests, collective purpose, and a common future. Seemingly abstract, the idea of shared destiny is actually quite familiar. Colloquially, we know this as the common good or its synonyms: the public or greater good.

Currently, especially among citizens of English-speaking nations where the authority of the individual is most ascendant, it is unfashionable to think and talk about people as having shared interests or a common future (Bauman, 2000; Giddens, 1991). A corollary of this is that it is hard to imagine and unfashionable to think and talk seriously about the common good. This difficulty has only increased with the escalating ideological division and tribalism of recent years.

Although the power of the idea of the common good subsided in recent decades, this has not always been the case and may not remain so for much longer. There is a pervasive sense that something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today (Judt, 2010). This discontent is reflected in a variety of places, not least in the collapse of public trust in leaders and institutions to act with integrity and serve the public interest  If there is to be a reawakening of concern for our shared interests, collective purpose, and our common future, this will require deep reengagement with, and active imagining of, the idea of the common good.

An idea with a long pedigree

The idea of the common good has a long yet punctuated history, replete with diverging meanings. Plato (1975), for example, imagined an ideal state in which private goods and nuclear families would be relinquished for the sake of the greater good of a harmonious society. Aristotle (1984, 2013) defined it in terms of communally shared happiness. Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians such as Augustine (1983) and Aquinas (1981) examined the common good, as have thinkers from other great faiths (see, e.g., Dwivedi, 2000; Lama, 1988).

More sustained engagement with the concept occurred in the 17th century with the rise of social contract theory (Hobbes, 1924; Rousseau, 1913), which held that people ought to forfeit their absolute freedom to live as they wish for the greater good of the security of shared life in a community. Subsequently, 18th– and 19th century thinkers, such as the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham (1983) and John Stuart Mill (2002), argued that the right course of action is that which creates the greatest “utility” for society.

In the 20th century, the common good received renewed impetus with John Rawls’ (1971) work on justice as fairness. And in the 21st century, intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky (2013), Hans Sluga (2014) and Slavoj Žižek (2013) are readdressing the concept in a variety of affirmative and critical ways. Despite all the ink that has been spilt on the topic, the precise meaning of the common good remains elusive. Indeed, as observed by Sluga (2014), the diverse conceptions of the ‘good’—such as justice, happiness, utility, liberty, security, prosperity—and the variety of tribal, local, national and global communities for which the ‘good’ is sought militates against the identification of a single, determinate good.

Beyond anthropocentric conceptions of the ‘good’

Perhaps the most serious limitation of most historical ideas about the common good is that they are silent on the good as it relates to nonhuman species and the natural world (Manolopoulos, 2016). Indeed, the terms ‘common’ and ‘public’ good are tacitly or overtly anthropocentric: they restrict the scope of the ‘good’ to humans, the biological status of which is, of course, no guarantee of inclusion in the moral circle, as dehumanization research amply attests (see, e.g., Haslam & Loughnan, 2014).

However, in the context of concerns about the end of a safe operating space for humanity (Rockström et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2015), there is a growing view that human societies must drastically change to preserve the ecological systems that undergird societies (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 2000). This growing awareness of the vulnerability of these natural systems to human disturbance has heightened concern for those systems. At minimum, construing these systems as the basis upon which all else of value depends (Daly, 1973) admits them into the scope of the good. Construed in this way, and consistent with the complexity of the concept, the common good is better understood as an umbrella term for several interlocking concepts, conditions and systems that underpin flourishing (Sluga, 2014; Wilson, 2016).

Navigating into the future, together

In the context of concerns about the end of a safe operating space for humanity, there is an emerging global view that human societies must radically change to preserve the natural systems that ultimately undergird human flourishing. Despite the existential threats posed by crossing key planetary boundaries, a salutary effect of these challenges is the gradual widening of the concepts of the good to include the interests of nonhumans and natural systems. In principle, this bodes well for the restoration of concern for the well-being of the whole.

However, these developments mean little if our concepts of the common good and our individual and collective actions are not inclusive of these psychologically distant, other-regarding interests. To the extent that we are more concerned with our own interests in the here and now, the emergence of widespread concern for the common good, to say nothing of the greater planetary good, seems vanishingly unlikely in the near term. In the context of our prevailing tribalism and escalating challenges to achieving a good life for all within planetary boundaries (O’Neill, Fanning, Lamb et al., 2018), the concept of the common good and leadership in its service matters more than ever.


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