Keeping "the good" in the common good
by Ken Myers
“[T]he possibility of genuine community depends on the existence of goods that have a reality that transcends their relativity to individuals, or in other words are able to be possessed by many at once. A common good is more than a sum of individual goods; even though it is a good for individuals, it is good for them precisely as universal. . . . If I pursue a good, not (merely) because I like it or want it or need it or find it useful, but simply because it is good, in that act I transcend myself in my individuality and so open to others in an intrinsic way: we can actually be with each other only on the basis of a good that transcends us both. . . .
“The common good is not necessarily a different thing from an individual good, but rather what we might describe as a more profound way of representing any good, whatever it might be. The key question is whether we take something as good in itself, as true, or we functionalize it or otherwise relativize it to something particular. To illustrate this point, let us consider some concrete examples. Education could be understood in different ways, and whether it counts as a common good — i.e., whether it serves genuinely to found community — depends on the precise way in which it is understood. If we promote it as a common good in the strict sense, it means that there is something intrinsically good about an educated human being; that education means the flourishing of humanity, which means that it allows the truth of humanity to be actualized; and that this truth has no need for anything beyond itself to justify itself as worthy of pursuit. If, by contrast, we think of education as training for some profession, as a means of acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to live a successful life, and so forth, then even if we seek to make education available to as many human beings as possible, we are not in fact promoting it as a common good. To deny it this character, of course, does not imply that education so conceived is therefore an evil, but it does mean that we need to think of it differently if we are to have a community. . . .
“Given our cultural climate, we almost cannot help but reduce the common good to some collectivist form. To take a final, provocative example, we might consider the arguments typically offered against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. The state’s ‘compelling interest’ is explained in terms of the material harm to individuals, in this case, above all the children. This is a consequentialist argument. It may be true, and its truth may be crucially important, but it is not, strictly speaking, an argument about the common good, at least as it is generally framed. To become such, the argument would have to reject same-sex marriage in the first place because it betrays the truth of human sexuality, regardless of the implications of that truth. If one were to object that an argument of this sort does not carry weight, one is conceding that truth is less significant to human beings than material well-being. If one were to add that such an argument simply cannot be made in our society, one is actually saying that we do not have a society: a society, understood as a human community, can be founded only on the common good, and if a ‘society’ restricts appeal at best to a collection of individual goods, it is denying the one thing that makes it possible. . . .
“In a word, one cannot promote community without promoting goodness in its highest sense, and this means not only promoting what are called ‘values’ but a deepening of understanding, or rather, the ordering of the soul to the truth of the good.”
—from D. C. Schindler, “Enriching the Good: Toward a Development of a Relational Anthropology,” Communio 37 (Winter 2010)