Monday, August 31, 2009

What is the Common Good?

By Hanno

There are at least three conceptions of the common good. The first is the view of J.J. Rousseau, who is heavily influenced by the Greeks. On his view, there is a general will, which is the will of the community. This will is analogous to the private will, the will of each individual. Just as we want what is good for us as individuals, so the community wants what is good for the community. Just as what is good for Hanno is not necessarily good for his leg (he may have to amputate is leg, for instance, to save the individual), so what is good for the community may not be good for each individual. just as we always want what is best for us, but we may not know what that entails, so the community always wants what is best for the community, but it may not know what that is, either.

This conception is neither socialist, nor capitalist, nor any other 'ist' until more assumptions/beliefs are added. For example, if you believe that the economy of a country requires Capitalism to develop, then Capitalism is part of the good of the community, and desired by the general will. But if you believe that the economy requires Socialist controls, then that is what you think is dictated by the general will. The conception of the common good is neutral, but the details never are.

Another way to conceive of the common good is simply common interest. Here the community as a whole is not an entity that has a good, or wills what is good. Rather, invididuals within the community recognize that they have the same interest. It may be good for you and good for me to keep land undeveloped. Thus, we have a common interest. This does not imply that you and I form a community, and hence it does not require that the good of the community may diverge from our own particular good. This sort of conception is liable to many difficulties, like the free rider problem, or any other where the good of the community clearly does diverge from each individual that makes up the community. Thus, it may be in our interest to make an army for the common defense, and it may be in our interest to include the draft to fill its ranks. But it will never be in our common interest for me to sacrifice myself towards that end, since it is not part of my individual interest to die.

The third conception is that of the Utilitarians. Here, the good of the community is defined by the greatest good to the greatest number of people. 'Good' can be defined in various ways, but usually, some sort of hedonism is assumed: good = pleasure. The defining characteristic of this view is that it is irrelevant how this is distributed in the community. The only thing that matters is the total aggregation of each individual's good. This then is used to justify certain economic systems which, no matter how unevenly, are said to maximize economic production.

When philosophers and politicians use the term, then, it is not clear which conception they are using, and hence what they are saying.


DeadMilkmenMike said...

What is good for the community would in turn be good for you. True, you might not want to lose your leg, but if you injured your leg saving an orphan from a burning building and you are held to "local celebrity" status, could it be argued that the loss of your leg.....does serve in your best interest?

(Being that your name was used, I assumed you were not referring to a marathon runner or a star athlete)

Hanno said...

Yes, it is possible to construct examples where the good of the community and the individual good coincide. But the interesting thing is that it is also possible to construct examples where they do not, and it is those examples which show that the common good and your own may separate.

Anonymous said...

That the common good and the good of the individual can and do go separate ways can be seen in republican politics. But at least they are smart enough to try to pass off their policies as for the common good. For example, if you allow me (the rich guy) to pay lower taxes then I will freely spend my money and keep you employed for minimum wage at the cars wash....


Steve Gimbel said...

Does the notion of a common good change with the nature of the common? Do philosophers need to distinguish between groups that have an intrinsic decision-making procedure and those that don't in this way? Can we say there is a difference between a group of people selling things and a corporation which has an existence independent of those humans who make it up?

Hanno said...

The common good may well be defined for some purpose, like an army, or a class, or a corporation. Then, of course, it is not common, but may well unify a group into one entity (Hobbes called this an artificial person), and the good of that group may well be distinct from the good of each member.

Time seems to be an interesting factor I was not thinking about: The common good as stretching not merely across different people, but different generations.

Rousseau himself does think along these lines, that the community is very much like a person, with a birth, development, eventual corruption and decay. And just as with ourselves, there is little that can be done about our eventual decline. But that may not be tied directly ti the common good, and may well be an offshoot of the analogy he uses to shape his view.