The principle of the common good is prominent in Catholic social teaching and applicable to a wide range of social and ethical issues but is not often articulated in Baptist ethical thought and praxis.
The notion of the common good appears to have originated in classical Greek thought.
It was a transcultural idea and it is, therefore, not surprising to see it reflected to some degree in biblical teaching on justice.
In the Old Testament, the key terms are justice (Hebrew: “mishpat”) and righteousness (Hebrew: “tsedaqah”), often used together (see Isaiah 28:7; 32:16-17; Hosea 2:19-20).
Both terms possess a social dimension and convey a meaning close to the concerns of “social justice” as we might understand the term today.
The people of God are called to live in accordance with divine justice and to model it in their relations with others; it is on this basis that their works will be judged.
In English usage, “righteousness” is often associated with the notion of personal moral rectitude, while “justice” generally signifies a right social order, evidenced by the proper distribution of goods, relations between persons and retribution for evil. In biblical usage, however, such a distinction is not apparent.
A related Hebrew term is “shalom,” variously translated as “peace” or “wholeness,” conveying God’s intention for the whole human community and the created order.
This concern for justice and wholeness is reflected in the New Testament. Mary emphasized justice in her song (Luke 1:46-55). Jesus affirmed his mission as one of justice (Luke 4:14-21).
The New Testament letters, particularly James, convey a preferential concern for the weaker members of the community and address issues of conflict and injustice.
Paul enjoined the Christians at Corinth to work together “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
The common good is not a synonym for social justice, but the desire for justice and wholeness expressed in human community implies a commitment by the people of God to the common good.
One of the earliest extant references to the common good is in relation to Aristotle’s notion of the good life.
He recognized the tension between what we might call individual rights and community responsibility but took a communitarian view of the good in “Nichomachean Ethics.”
“Even if the good is the same for the individual and the city, the good of the city clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and to safeguard. The attainment of the good for one person alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for cities is nobler and more divine,” Aristotle wrote.
Leading Christian theologians, most notably Thomas Aquinas, affirmed the primacy of the common good over the particular goods of individuals and picked up on Aristotle’s allusion to a religious dimension.
For Aquinas, persons become virtuous as they promote the common good through a concern for social justice.
Similarly, the common good is expressed in the biblical commandment to love God with all of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, and the Society of Jesus he founded, strove to serve the greater glory of God, which he radically identified with the common good.
For Ignatius, the common good was served through the defense and propagation of the Christian faith, but also education of youths and illiterates, and compassionate support of prison and hospital inmates.
The distinctive contribution of Ignatius to the idea of the common good is his expansion of the vision to embrace all humankind rather than communities or groups with which one might naturally or ideologically identify.
The common good may be understood as the common goal of all who promote the justice of a politically organized community, and its achievement, at least in theory, delivers a common sense of fulfillment.
Or as the Second Vatican Council put it, the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”
With reference to the discussion of the biblical imperatives outlined above, the Vatican II document further states that “[t]he obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life.”
Of course, the existence of a very large community, or a plurality of visions for society, might subvert or eclipse the common good.
In addition, there are other potential barriers to a successful embrace of the common good in a modern society.
For example, there may be disagreement about the extent of commonality, or about what defines “the good.”
Moreover, the benefits provided by the common good are distributed indiscriminately, including to those who choose not to contribute to the goal.
Another barrier is the extreme individualism championed by many Western nations today.
As several scholars have noted, this makes it “difficult, perhaps impossible, to convince people that they should sacrifice some of their freedom, some of their personal goals and some of their self-interest for the sake of the common good.”
A further barrier is the problem of unequally shared burdens: In order to achieve and maintain the common good, some members of a community will necessarily bear much greater responsibility for the costs than others.
What, then, is the common good?
It is analogous to, though not synonymous with, the biblical teaching on justice and “shalom,” and the gospel imperative of neighbor-love.
It is a principle that seeks to protect a community against the excesses of despotism and individualism.
It describes the ideal social conditions for the flourishing and fulfillment of every member of a community.
It enables discussion of the kind of society that is desirable, how such a social reality might be realized, and what contribution one is willing to make to see it take root in the soil of a particular community.
Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This article is a revised excerpt from a column on the ethics of medical technology that first appeared on his blog, iDigress, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ozbap, @reaustralia and @rodsyd.