Men, families and the various groups which make up the civil community are aware that they cannot achieve a truly human life by their own unaided efforts. They see the need for a wider community, within which each one makes his specific contribution every day toward an ever broader realization of the common good. For this purpose they set up a political community according to various forms. The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. Indeed, the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.1
For it is manifest that any cause is the more powerful inasmuch as it extends itself to more effects. Whence also the good, which has the notion of a final cause, is the more powerful inasmuch as it extends itself to more things. And therefore, if the same thing is the good of one man and of the whole city, it seems much better and more perfect to undertake—that is, to procure, to defend and to preserve—that which is the good of the whole city than that which is the good of one man. For it pertains to the love which ought to exist among men that a man seek and conserve the good even of only one man, but it is much better and more divine that this be shown to the whole people and to the cities.2
The good is what all men desire. If anyone desires an evil, it is only because it appears to him to be good. Goods can be divided into three categories: pleasant (a ham sandwich), useful (money), and honorable (friendship).
Because we find ourselves in the physical world, our knowledge begins with the senses. This leads us to desire first of all goods which please the senses such as food and water. These pleasant goods we also call sensible.
As we develop in understanding we come to desire not just the food, but also the means of obtaining the food, such as money. We expand our desire to useful goods.
As we develop to our highest potential, we begin to desire and obtain the honorable goods—knowledge, beauty, truth, love, etc.—and these in proportion to our progress in knowledge.
The Good is a Final Cause
The end or purpose for which a thing acts is called its final cause. All beings, as we said, act for the good. Thus, the good is a final cause. And since this final cause is desired by all things, we can say that it is the final cause. It is the cause of all causes. It is “the beginning and the end,” the Alpha and the Omega. The good, then, is God, and God is the absolute good for which all things act.
Sensible goods like the ham sandwich are called private because they can only be the good of one person at a time. They are, in a manner of speaking, limited and ordered to the user.
By their nature, private goods cannot be shared without being diminished. If you eat a particular sandwich, then it follows that I cannot also eat that sandwich.
To love a private good is not to love that particular good but to love the one whose good it is. To love a sandwich and give it away is to love the person to whom I have given it. To the extent that we love our own private goods, we love ourselves.
Goods are called common when they can be shared without being diminished. Friendship is a common good because I lose nothing when I share it with a comrade. In fact, it is obvious that a good such as friendship cannot exist in any other way than as a shared good. If it were not shared, it would not exist.
Here we must state emphatically that a true common good is not a collection of private goods. It is not a whole made by the sum of so many parts. It resists quantification and is thus a supra-individual good. It differs from the private good not in quantity, but in quality.
Common Good is Superior to Private Good
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a cause is greater as it extends its causality to more effects. If this is true, then the common good exceeds the private good:
For it is manifest that any cause is the more powerful inasmuch as it extends itself to more effects. Whence also the good, which has the notion of a final cause, is the more powerful inasmuch as it extends itself to more things. And therefore, if the same thing is the good of one man and of the whole city, it seems much better and more perfect to undertake—that is, to procure, to defend and to preserve—that which is the good of the whole city than that which is the good of one man. For it pertains to the love which ought to exist among men that a man seek and conserve the good even of only one man, but it is much better and more divine that this be shown to the whole people and to the cities.3
Preference for the Private Good is Disordered
When I prefer a private good to a common good, my love is disordered. Note that I have not said that a person may not love his private good—only that he may not subordinate a common good to it.
For example, we have all had the experience of losing an argument. In such a situation, we often continue to argue our case beyond the point at which we realize we are wrong. For the sake of a private good (our self-esteem) we are willing to sacrifice a common good (truth and knowledge). When we let go of the former to accept the latter, our love falls back into proper order. We are not required to stop loving ourselves, because self-love is not only healthy but is in fact a duty. On the contrary, we are simply required to keep our loves in their proper order by giving precedence to the truth.
We say that man is a person made in the image of God, and that from this he derives his dignity. But what does this really mean? It means, first of all, that man’s dignity is a matter of participation. He possesses dignity because he participates in a good that is clearly higher than himself. Because the extent to which he participates in higher goods exceeds that of all other earthly beings, we are right in considering him exceptional—that is to say more dignified than the rest.
For example, a stone exists, and so has some manner of dignity because it participates in existence; a plant lives, and so it has a higher dignity than the rock by participation in life; the beast exists, lives, and obtains to sentience, and so has the highest dignity yet. But then there is man, who exists, feels, and thinks. Man is rational, and in this capacity he is the apex of creation. Man is therefore the master of creation because he represents the highest degree of participation in God’s goodness.
An important point is that his dignity is found by reference to a higher being. Man’s dignity is therefore relational, discovered through reference to a higher being. Man is not the measure of himself, much less is he the “measure of all things.”
Personal Dignity is Rooted in the Common Good
Because dignity is obtained to the degree that a being participates in higher goods, and because man participates in goods of varying degrees, both private and common, it behooves us to ask which of these—private or common—is the root of that personal dignity which makes him master among earthly creatures?
The answer follows from what has already been said. If the common good is higher than the private, then man’s dignity should be rooted in the common rather than the private order. To object to this point by saying that man’s dignity derives directly from God is really no objection at all, for God is the Supreme Common Good.
God is the Supreme Common Good
God, in his plenitude, is communicable to all beings at one and the same time without being diminished thereby. This is the definition of a common good. God is thus the supreme Common Good. Furthermore, we should recall that in order to have a common good we must share it. This is most true of God. If we wish to enjoy Him, we must share Him, and if we will not share Him, we may not have Him, for He cannot be reduced to the status of private good.
To quote Professor Ralph McInerny:
It is not the Catholic view that human persons relate to God one-to-one, so to speak, with God being my good in an exclusive sense. Indeed, to love God merely as to my good would be a defective love. It would be to turn God into my private good, as if there were commensurability between my finite will and infinite goodness. The only appropriate way to love God is as a good infinitely shareable. The rule of charity makes this clear. I must love my neighbor as, like myself, ordered to a common good.4
Liberalism and Social Disorder
At this point we may answer an objection that goes something like this: The common good of society has as its end the material well-being of man, while man has as his end eternal beatitude. Eternal beatitude is higher than material well-being, and so the private good is higher than the common.
This argument is false on a variety of levels. First we can say that eternal beatitude is not a private good—that just because each person is called to it does not mean that it is not common. Second, it misunderstands the end of human society, which is the same as the end of man. Both terminate in the vision of God. The common good and the private good are, therefore, ordered to the same lofty end.
If we are unable to imagine the private and the common sharing the same end, it is only because we have become inundated with secular liberalism which sought to reduce the purpose of society to exclusively worldly concerns while relegating eternal concerns to the private sphere. Only by assuming the presence of a disordered social life does the argument above hold true.
The Private Good is Realized in the Common Good
Having observed that God is the absolute common good, and that the end of the human person is perfection in God; and having observed that the common good is higher—more perfect—than the private good, we can say that the end of man depends for its fullest realization on participation in the common good. The common good does not nullify the private good but elevates it and brings it to a fruition which it could never have achieved in its own sphere.
As an example, consider a basketball team whose end is victory. This end is shared by all members of the team. It is in this way an end belonging to each one of them individually. But if any individual attempts to appropriate that end as a private good he will never achieve it. If victory is to be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed in common by all, because it is a common good.
All goods share an end. If they appear separate—as is the case with private and common—it is not because they are in opposition but because they belong to separate orders. They are two rungs on the same ladder leading to Heaven. Both are necessary, but one is higher.
Political Society is not the Common Good
At this point we might answer a second objection by Pope Pius XI: Society is for man and not vice versa!
True indeed, and this does seem to subordinate society to man. But let us look at the context of the statement:
In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa. This must not be understood in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual; but only in the sense that by means of an organic union with society and by mutual collaboration the attainment of earthly happiness is placed within the reach of all. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone.5
The conclusion is simply this: Political society is not the common good, but a necessary means of facilitating man’s participation in it. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to say that man is ordered to the common good, and yet at the same time declare that society is for man, and not man for society. Society is for man, that he may achieve a full participation in the common good.
Finally, we answer a third objection. Under the influence of economic liberalism, it has become common to say that individualism (preference for the private good) is not only permissible but is in fact beneficial, since the collective action of selfish individuals will, in the long run, benefit the society as a whole. Thus, man helps his fellows best when he attends only to himself. No conscious preference for the common good is necessary, and in fact it is harmful and short-circuits the system, which runs most productively on self-interest.
Now, even if we granted the accuracy of such a premise—that economies run best on self-interest—it would not vindicate such a system or render it good for man, whether privately or in common. This is because the love for the common good cannot occur accidentally or unintentionally as a bi-product of selfish efforts. The common good must be sought—and that is to say loved—for what it is:
Now one can love the good of a city in two ways: in one way to possess it, in another that it might be preserved. If someone loves the good of a city in order to have and own it, he is not a good political person, because in this way even a tyrant loves the good of a city, in order to dominate it, which is to love oneself more than the city. He wants this good for himself, not for the city…But to love that good according to itself, that it may remain and be shared out and that nothing be done against this good, this gives to a person the right relation to that society of the blessed. And this is love [caritas] which loves God for his sake and the neighbors, who are capable of blessedness, as oneself.6
To operate on the liberal premise, according to Aquinas, is to make of each man a tyrant.7
To summarize and close we can refer to Fr. Sebastian Walshe, from whose dissertation the author owes a great deal:
Dignity for the created person implies participation in an order more perfect than his own being. The human person ascends from being to the ultimate common good through the intermediate common goods of society and the natural order. Without a love for each of these orders and a right appreciation for these orders which is presupposed to this love the human person cannot attain to the ultimate good which is the whole source of his personal dignity. When a person treats these goods as a means to his private good, instead of as ends more lovable in themselves than his private good, the order of love is perverted. Man constructs an order of goods which is nothing more than a turning inward upon his own being for the sake of his own existence. In this order all things are ultimately ordained to the preservation of the body and bodily pleasure so that the goods of this perverted order become successively more contracted and imperfect. In the place of the ladder of Jacob the tower of Babel is raised.”8