The Common Good. What does it mean?

Some say that no Catholic can be a libertarian because libertarians reject the common good. The great throwaway complaint of Christian—often Catholic—opponents of libertarianism is that libertarians care nothing for the “common good.” When in need of a twitter-sized attack on liberty, they give us a quick, “because . . . the common good.” However much they may enjoy asserting “the common good,” the phrase does not mean what they think it means.

The “common good” has a simple explanation as well as a more nuanced one. The short version is contained within the phrase itself. The “good,” means those things and conditions that humans value. “Common,” means pertaining to all without exception. A similar word pair is used twice in the U.S. Constitution as it aims to promote the “general welfare.” Ironically, the “common good” and the “general welfare” are often invoked to support the forced redistribution of income to favored groups and individuals.

The common good: the longer version

A fuller exposition of the common good is set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church at ¶¶ 1906 et seq. The Catechsim calls the common good the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Three essential elements are given. These are:

1. Respect for and promotion of the fundamental rights of the person, especially in fostering “conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard . . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.”

2. Prosperity, or the development of the spiritual and temporal goods of society. The group should promote access to all that is necessary for living a truly human life.

3. The peace and security of the group and of its members.

Negative vs. positive rights

In defining the role of authority in providing for the common good, it helps to recall the distinction between negative rights—with which the common good is chiefly concerned—and positive rights. A “negative” right refers to an individual’s freedom to act or refrain from acting; the right to live peaceably without interference from others.

When other people are forced to provide for our property or security (or money or health care and the like), we enter the realm of “positive” rights. In contrast to the negative right to liberty, a positive right is a right to force others to act on our behalf.

The common good secures negative rights

First element:

From this we see that the common good is served when the negative rights are secured. Note the first element of the common good is “respect for, and promotion of, the fundamental rights of the person.” This refers to negative rights. A community meets this element by protecting citizens from encroachment of these human rights by others and—most importantly—by not violating those rights itself.

Third element:

The third element calls for “the peace and security of the group and of its members.” This is the libertarians’ non-aggression principle not to harm others or their property.

Second elementin contrast to the first and third:

“Prosperity, or the development of the spiritual and temporal goods of society.” The emphasis here shifts from the individual and toward “the social well-being and development of the group itself,” promoting prosperity in common so that each may have access to “what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”

While the other two elements of the common good require respect for individual rights, this element which promotes access to spiritual and temporal goods is directed to society in common. Respecting fundamental rights is achievable without violating anyone else’s rights. On the other hand, ensuring that everyone has their full allotment of spiritual and temporal goods—while desirable—is not even possible. As to spiritual goods, that idea is simply ridiculous. As to temporal, earthly goods, the group has no means to give such goods to individuals unless they first take them from the person who produced them. And this assumes that such temporal goods are produced at all.

From the above, we see that the common good is best promoted when fundamental rights and personal security are protected; that is, when a person is allowed to live life peaceably and without interference.

In the next post, we will consider those who argue: “Catholics cannot be libertarian because libertarians ignore sinful inequalities.”

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