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On the Common Good

My friend Andy Crouch, an admirable Christian thinker and writer, wants to recover a Christian commitment to the “common good”. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a key passage:

The common good can help us avoid two modern temptations—one on the left and one on the right. “Leftists tend to be concerned about ‘humanity’ as a collective,” Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith told me via e-mail. “If some heads have to roll to improve humanity’s lot, so be it. A commitment to the common good opposes that entirely. Each and every person has dignity — the good society is one which allows the thriving of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable.”

And yet, Smith pointed out, “the common good” challenges the libertarian stream of conservatism as well: “Individualists only want to see each individual live as they please, as long as they don’t obstruct the ability of other individuals to do the same. They don’t think anything is ‘common,’ except whatever minimal infrastructures are needed to create equal opportunity.”

Focusing on the common good has another positive effect, Smith noted: It can both draw Christians into engagement with the wider society and prevent that engagement from becoming “all about politics.” Essential to the common good, all the way back through Aquinas to Aristotle, has been the insight that the best forms of human flourishing happen in collectives that are smaller than, and whose origins are earlier than, the nation-state. Family above all, but also congregations, guilds, and clubs — these “private associations,” with all their particular loyalties, paradoxically turn out to be essential to public flourishing. If we commit ourselves to the common good, we must become more public in our thinking and choices, and at the same time not too public. The common good is sustained most deeply where people know each other’s names and faces—especially when it comes to the care of the vulnerable, who need more than policies to flourish.

I couldn’t agree more about the “private associations,” Burke’s “little platoons”; my chief political interests lie in strengthening those mediating structures between the individual and the state.

But I don’t see how invoking the language of the “common good” helps. Doesn’t every politician, and every supporter of every politician, think that his or her policies promote the common good? Wouldn’t the left-liberal or statist just say that the common good is best promoted by having a government that fairly regulates and distributes goods and services, so that we don’t have to rely on the unpredictable eccentricities and (sometimes) petty narrowness of the little platoons?

It seems to me that people of very different politics can quickly agree that they all seek the common good — but doesn’t that just leave us with all the same old disagreements about what that common good is? Now, if Andy’s argument is just meant as a reminder to Christians that they should care about the flourishing of the whole community rather than just the Church itself, I sort of get it — though even then I suspect that churches would be happy to describe all their activities, from preaching to street-corner evangelism to soup kitchens, in common-good language. I’d like to hear more from Andy, and others, about how, specifically, this vocabulary helps us. I suspect I’m missing something obvious.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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