Common Good

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From the Wikipedia at

"The common good is a term that can refer to several different concepts. In the popular meaning, the common good describes a specific "good" that is shared and beneficial for all (or most) members of a given community. This is also how the common good is broadly defined in philosophy, ethics, and political science. This concept is increasing in popularity as moral vision for the progressive left in American politics."

Definition in Economics

In economics the term common good is used to refer to a competitive non-excludable good.

See the Wikipedia article at


Various Dimensions of the Concept of the Common Good

by François Houtart:

"The notion of Common Good has known lately a new interest. For some it is the renewal of an old idea and the opportunity of giving to conservative forces of society the appearance of a modern approach. For others it is a way of coming out of a stereotyped vocabulary used by revolutionary movements and to propose a more acceptable way of expression. It may also be related with a radical criticism of the concept of modernity transmitted by capitalism and not challenged by real socialism. In order to develop this late conception, it is important to indicate three levels of its semantic utilization: Common Goods, Common Good and Common Good of Humanity.

The struggle for Common Goods is related with the history of capitalism. In England, the “enclosure” of the common lands has been one of the main origins of the capitalist system. To reduce the “commons” and to transform them in private property was the beginning of a process of accumulation. Common lands were considered as wasted lands. Land reforms like the ones of China and Vietnam have restored this notion, with the socialization of land.

Today, neo-liberalism all over the world has reduced the social conquests of more than a century, among them the organization of public services, social security and popular education, creating new forms of poverty. Struggles to restrain such a trend and to reorganize areas of solidarity, have been developed among social movements: labour, peasants, women, indigenous peoples. In Latin America post-neoliberal governments have reestablished or increased programmes against poverty, better access to health and education, social insurances, development of formal labour, public investments.

One aspect of the action has been the claim for a universal allowance. However two main philosophies are at the base of such a proposal. The first one is individualistic: the right of any individual too chose to work or not to work and still to exist. It is sometimes backed by a modern capitalism, understanding that the reduction of poverty is an efficient way of increasing the base of the market and that too big social distances are dangerous for the social order. Hence the notion of equity developed by John Rawls. The second one has a social approach, based on solidarity and aiming at reducing the inequalities, in order to promote the capacities of all human beings to contribute to general well being. This perspective is not compatible with an economic system giving priority to the exchange value aimed at capital accumulation and acting in the short time. On the contrary, it is based on the priority of use value, which includes other aspects than the market profit and adopts a long term vision for the relations between human beings and nature (equilibrium of metabolism). The second dimension is the idea of Common Good. Developed already by Aristotle, it covers all what is necessary for the collective live of a society: norms of common living and social behaviours, inter-communication, public spaces, peace and security, harmony, all what transcends the purely individual interests.

Thomas of Aquino, influenced by the Greek philosopher, made of the concept of Common Good the base of the social ethics for Christians living at the turn of the medieval societies and at the early beginning of market’s urban economies. It became the backbone of the Social Doctrine of most of the Christian Churches, especially in the Catholic Church, with Leo XIII (neo-thomism). This appeared as a good answer to socialism and even more to marxism, while still condemning the injustices of the capitalist economy (“salvage capitalism” as qualified by John Paul II). Indeed the achievement of Common Good was envisaged on a moral base, thanks to the collaboration of all social groups.

Such a position allowed an analysis of the capitalist societies, not in terms of social classes structurally linked by contradictory interests, but in terms of social strata called to build together the society. It had the advantage of negating the notion of class struggle, as a tool of analysis and as a means of action and it confirmed the role of the Church as a moral instance. Politically it bought about Christian Democracy. In the present situation of crisis, the concept of Common Good has known a new life. It is used by the struggles to restore public services. It became part of the discourse of neo-keynesians rightly afraid of the consequences of the economic turmoil. Post-neoliberal Governments in Latin America use the word to justify their political practices. International organizations like UNCTAD speak about “global common good”. Surely there is nothing wrong in emphasizing this concept, and in a short time it may be useful to alleviate the fate of million of people. However it should not serve as an argument to reproduce the existing economic system, with some improvements.

This is why the notion of Common Good of Humanity (Birgit Daiber and François Houtart, A postcapitalist paradigm: the Common Good of Humanity, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Brussels, 2012) is proposed as a new paradigm (fundamental orientation) of the collective life of Humanity on the planet. It means the possibility of creating, reproducing and bettering life on earth. This is proposed not in an idealistic platonic view, neither in the tradition of utopian socialism, but in response to a system destructing the earth and having adopted a sacrificial economy able to eliminate entire social groups in name of progress. It is a radical critic of the kind of modernity transmitted by the logic of the market and not completely abandoned by the socialist experiences.

Concretely, it means to transform the four ”fundamentals” of any society: relations with nature; production of the material base of all life, physical, cultural, spiritual; collective social and political organization and culture. For the first one the transformation means to pass from the exploitation of nature as a natural resource (merchandize) to the respect of nature as the source of life. For the second one: to privilege use value rather than exchange value, with all the consequences on the concept of property. The third one implies the generalization of democratic practices in all social relations and all institutions and finally interculturality means to put an end to the hegemony of Western culture for the reading of the reality and the construction of the social ethics. Elements of this new paradigm, post-capitalist, are already present all over the world, in many social movements and popular initiatives. Theoretical developments are also produced. So, it is not a “utopian vision” in the pejorative sense of the word. But an aim is necessary to organize the convergences of action. It is a long term process which will ask the adoption of transitions, facing the strength of an economic system ready to destroy the world before disappearing. It means also that the structural concept of class struggle is not antiquated (fiscal heavens and bank secrecy are some of its instruments). Social protests, resistances, building of new experiences are sources of real hope.

The concept of Common Good of Humanity is not in opposition to the notions of Common Goods or of Common Good. It helps to give an orientation to the concrete actions of both of them and therefore it adds a meaning and a coherence for a fundamental transformation." (common good mailing list, march 2014)


Pierpaolo Donati on the Common Good as a Relational Good

Donati writes from within the tradition of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church:

"If the good is a common object, it is because the individuals who share it also have certain relations among them. If it is a good (in a moral sense), this is because people relate in a certain way to such an object and also to one another.

In short: a good is a common good because only together can it be recognized and acted upon (generated and regenerated) as such, by all those who have a concern about it. At the same time, it must be produced and enjoyed together by all those who have a stake in it. For this reason, the good resides within the relations that connect the subjects. Ultimately, it is from such relations that the common good is generated. The single fruits that every single subject may obtain derive from each being in such a relationship.

The relational definition of the common good highlights those fundamental qualities that are obscured by proprietary definitions, previously mentioned .

We realize that the common good has its own inalienable nature, resting upon the relations existing among those sharing it, because it preserves the foundations of the social bond. But the sharing must be, and is, indeed, voluntary. It has not, and cannot have, a character reliant upon force. Precisely because the common good has a relational character, it resides in the mutual actions of those who contribute to generating and regenerating it.

Should the social link break, there would be a collapse of the qualities of the people sharing it, since human qualities depend on the link itself. Only if we see the common good as a relational good, can we understand its inner connection with the human person.

That is exactly what is stated by the Catholic social doctrine.

As a matter of fact, the social doctrine of the Church proposes a concept of the common good that is quite different from economic and political versions of it. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC n. 1905-1912) and in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CDS n. 164-170) a vision of the common good is outlined, according to which:

(a) the common good is the social link joining people together, on which both the material and non-material goods of individuals depend (as the CDS n. 165 states: «The human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with”others and “for” others. This truth does not simply require that he live with others at various levels of social life, but that he seek unceasingly – in actual practice and not merely at the level of ideas – the good, that is, the meaning and truth, found in existing forms of social life. No expression of social life – from the family to intermediate social groups, associations, enterprises of an economic nature, cities, regions, States, up to the community of peoples and nations – can escape the issue of its own common good, in that this is a constitutive element of its significance and the authentic reason for its very existence».

(b) the common good does not consist either in a state of things, or in a sum of single goods, or in a prearranged reality, but it is «the whole conditions of social life that allow groups, as well as the single members, to completely and quickly reach their own perfection » (Gaudium et Spes, 26); in particular, it consists in the conditions and exercise of natural liberties, which are essential for the full development of the human potential of people (e.g. the right to act according to the promptings of one's conscience, the right to the freedom of religion, etc.);

(c) in brief: the common good represents the social and community dimension of the moral good; the common good is the moral good of any social or community relations («The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good.»: CDS n. 164).

Therefore, the social doctrine of the Church is critical towards materialist, positivist and utilitarian objectifications (reifications) of the common good. Its picture of the common good openly clashes with the ‘proprietary and utilitarian’ picture given by the ideas prevailing today. It appeals to reasons based on the fundamental sociability of human beings.

From this sociability, it draws conclusions that mean the common good cannot be confused with concepts whose similarity is only apparent, such as concepts of the collective good, of aggregate good, the good of the totality, vested interests, general interest and so forth. With that, the social doctrine preserves a potential for critique and for the advancement of human emancipation that modern and postmodern thought seem to have lost or relegated to the fringe of society.

A development of the social doctrine is required that takes into account globalized society's great differentiation into spheres, which are more and more distinct and articulated among themselves, both at an infra-state and at a supra-state level. The common good becomes a responsibility not only of individuals and of the State, but also – in a completely new way – of the intermediate social bodies (‘civil societarian networks’) now playing a fundamental role in mediating the processes by which the common good is created. These are no longer solely bottom-up (realization of the common good though movements that come from below) and top-down (the creation of the common good by the State and then spreading downwards to the grassroots), but are also horizontal and lateral processes that depend neither upon the State nor upon the Market.

Summing up what has been said so far, the common good is not the result or the sum of the individuals' actions, because it is a reality exceeding individuals and their products. On the other hand, it is not an "already given whole", possessing inner properties and powers, making it indivisible and not commodifiable. It has an ontological status by virtue of its fruits because, without the common good, those fruits could not exist. But people can always make it divisible and commodifiable. When they do so, they destroy the common good and consequently the community ceases to exist.

The common good belongs to that reality which is relational in character («Life in its true sense … is a relationship», affirms Benedict XVI in the encyclical Spe Salvi, n. 27)."

Source: For the Proceedings of THE PONTIFICAL ACADEMY OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, XIV Plenary Session, 2-6 May 2008. Prospects (working paper): Discovering the Relational Character of the Common Good. Pierpaolo Donati, University of Bologna and PASS

The point of view of the Binary Economics movement

"The common good is that network of institutions and social systems that gives form and structure to society, within which the individual may exercise his rights to the fullest degree possible consistent with the demands of justice and the needs of his fellow human beings. It establishes the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of human initiatives and the good of every member of society. The common good also describes the social and cultural environment that governs human interactions. The common good aims toward the dignity and development of each human person, as well as the well-being, just ordering and development of society. The common good may further be defined as "the sum total of social conditions, laws and institutions that allow people, either as individuals or as groups, to reach their fulfillment more fully and effectively."

The late social philosopher Rev. William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. described the direct relationship that each individual has with the common good: "When it is realized that the Common Good consists of that whole vast complex of institutions, from the simplest 'natural medium' of a child's life, to the United Nations itself, then a very comforting fact emerges: Each of these institutions from the lowest and most fleeting 'natural medium' to the highest and most enduring organization of nations is the Common Good at that particular level. Therefore everyone, from the smallest and weakest child to the most powerful ruler in the world, can have direct care of the Common Good at his level." (

What is the Common Good

Excerpt from a 2012 interview conducted by Almantas Samalavicius.

John Cobb:

"AS: The notion of the "common good" is vague all over eastern Europe – the region that chased the free market economy as a kind of salvation after half-century of the culture of scarcity. Participating in number of discussions on the future of higher education in my country, I was shocked to learn what a limited understanding of common good exists among academics, who are supposed to be gatekeepers to the territory of knowledge and ideas. How do you interpret the common good and its relevance for contemporary society?

JC: The term "the common good" has played its largest role in Roman Catholic ethics. This means that Catholics might well claim a special right to define it. It was not part of my own vocabulary. Accordingly, I can claim no credit for our book having given it some fresh attention in the USA. We wrote the book with the title "economics for community" in mind. But our publisher proposed "The Common Good" instead, and we accepted.

The idea of the common good depends on an understanding of community. If we approach matters individualistically, as standard economic theory does, then the good of a group of people is simply the addition of the good of individuals. But we believe that each persona is largely constituted by her or his relations with other members of their social group, and by the way the group as a whole is structured and relates to other societies. Individuals are much better off if some of the societies to which they inevitably belong are communities in which all feel some responsibility for all. The good of the community involves a pattern of relationships among its members and a concern on their part for how the community as a whole is doing. The wellbeing of the community directly improves the wellbeing of its members.

Much of one's identity comes from the communities of which one is a part. I am a member of the Christian community. I am also an American. And I am a citizen of Claremont, California. My feeling about myself is affected by my sense of pride or embarrassment with respect to these communities. A criticism of American imperialism is felt my many Americans as an attack upon them personally. They are likely to feel good about themselves when the United States has been successful in some venture. None of this reality is well understood by those who think individualistically. Once we do understand how important our communities are to our very identity, we can distinguish the common good from our individual goods. We can then say that economics should serve the common good." (