What Is the “Common Good”?

Social Ethics 101

The common good is one of the most important concepts in social ethics. Problematically, it has been understood as a predominantly Catholic concept through its use in Christian ethics. And I don’t think that has to be the case. The common good is something that Protestants absolutely should adopt and use as one of the primary horizons that we think about ethics within.

So, what is the common good? There are lots of different ways to define it, but I would define the common good as the set of conditions in society, or a state of affairs in society, where all of the various constituencies and elements of society are able to thrive. To say that the common good is of extreme importance is to recognize that it’s the job of political communities and political governments to work to secure the common good, which means we would say that it’s absolutely incumbent upon governing authorities to pass laws that benefit all people equally. It also means that whenever there are laws designed to do injury or do violence to someone, that that is entirely contrary to the common good. When we had Jim Crow laws in our country’s past, those were impediments to the common good. They actually were incompatible with the common good.

Social Conservatism for the Common Good

Andrew T. Walker

Edited by Andrew T. Walker, these thoughtful essays from Christian evangelical scholars examine the political philosophy and ethics of influential Catholic social conservative scholar Robert P. George.

When we have abortion laws in the United States, those types of laws are contrary to the common good because the common good, again, is that state of affairs where law and society are recognizing the need and legitimacy of various persons and institutions to thrive as they’re designed to thrive.

So let’s take the family for an example. We would say that the common good looks at the family and says that it is the job of the family to be this self-contained unit and to experience its own happiness, its own tranquility, its own felicity. And so that means that law is going to shape itself to where it is going, to look out for the interests of all of the individuals in that family, and not do any intentional harm to that family. So, when that family is able to experience the everyday blessings of family life with a married mother and father inside the household with their children, the children are cared for and provided for. We are saying that the common good of that family is being realized.

We’re looking for society to be well-ordered so that every single human being . . . is able to fulfill their calling.

Now, it also means that the common good is common—that other institutions of society can partake in the goods as well—without subtracting from the goods of others so that the common good of my family is not a detriment to the common good of the family in my neighborhood and that we’re all able to experience these things together because these are moral goods that exist as a moral reality within society. And moral goods aren’t quantifiable. They’re either being experienced or they’re not being experienced.

And so the job of the legislator who’s pursuing the common good is to say, Okay, is the law we’re about to put into place going to benefit individuals? Is this going to benefit families? And conversely, is it going to do any harm to individuals and to families?

The common good is such an important concept for Protestants to make use of because it helps us understand that when we are pursuing the welfare of the city as Jeremiah tells us to pursue, it’s that we’re not looking out for our self-interest alone. We’re looking for society to be well-ordered so that every single human being, every single family, and every single grassroots organization within civil society is able to fulfill their calling.

Andrew T. Walker is the author of Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George.

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