The Catholic Church’s understanding of “the common good”, is set out in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). However, the concept of the common good has a long history and is not exclusively Christian. The idea, if not the exact term, is found in many works of political philosophy, including Aristotle’s Politics, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It was an important idea for those who formulated the American constitution. More recently, John Rawls writes about it in his Theory of Justice, and it can be found in contemporary Islamic discussion about universal values.
It is not surprising that there is no agreed definition of “the common good”, and considerable divergence over whether or not the State should promote it.
A contemporary definition is that the common good is that which can be achieved only by citizens acting collectively, and is something that the State should actively promote. This places them on the political Left. There is no sympathy, for instance, with Smith’s view that the invisible hand of market competition will ensure that, as each individual pursues his or her own economic self-interest, the end result will be greater prosperity for all.
Australian citizens were once committed to this understanding of the common good, but have let it slip. The post-war governments of Left and Right forged a political consensus on the basis of it, and this resulted in the creation and then maintenance of the welfare state.
That consensus has been eroded with the development of economic rationalism, which is also known as neo-liberalism, where the part played by the market, not the State, was emphasised. We live now at a critical juncture in time when we either renew faith in that post-war vision or continue to rely on the market to meet people’s needs, despite the growing evidence of market failures.
While thinking about the role of ‘civil society’ organisations we should note that William Temple emphasised the importance of “minor communities” — the voluntary and community sector — and not simply the State. If these minor communities are not sustained and promoted, we risk creating passive individuals, not active citizens; hence the value of civil society. The well-being of society of the future needs active citizens; this is fundamental as politics in the liberalised market economy increasingly becomes an exercise in creating institutional structures for the pursuit of sectional self-interest. We need to make a re-commitment to living for the common good.