Inadequate Conceptions of the Common Good

Last Sunday, I wrote began writing about the common good, a good in which each member of the community shares, each in his own way, and which unites the members of the community. The common good is truly the good of the person who partakes in it as well as being the good of the whole community.

I wrote about the common good of a sports team and the common good of the family, then introduced the question of the common good of a nation. That is what we are looking for.

At the conclusion I wrote: “We could say that a sign of the realization of the common good is found when there is a widespread sense of pride in belonging. The more Americans feel good about being American the more we can be sure that there is a real common good in which they are sharing. The more they feel downtrodden or humiliated precisely because they are American, the more we can be sure that the common good has not been attained. The more people feel like they truly belong, the more there is a common good in which they are sharing; the more people feel alienated and marginalized, the more evident that the common good is suffering.

One caveat is in order: if the feeling good about being American, if the sense of belonging, is rooted in an illusion or a lie, then they have attained only to a deceptive and illusory common good.”

The caveat is very much in order, because it could reveal to us two historical realities that have been falsely regarded as the common good of the United States.

The first would be national power. Americans have often felt good about being the most powerful nation in the world. Yet, that would often be a good achieved at the expense of others. So, we like to feel that it has been a power in defense of others, in favor of freedom, in favor of democracy, or the like. There is certainly some truth to the reality, but also the reality has been more ambiguous.

The United States has not just exported democracy and liberty, but has exported abortion, contraception, pornography, and weapons of war.

The second, certainly connected to the first, is economic prosperity. Americans have felt good about belonging to a nation that has produced the most prosperous economy in the world, bringing the greatest material prosperity to the greatest number.

Unfortunately, this is most inadequate as a ‘common good’, one that has given rise to great internal conflict and turmoil. Always there have been people, sometimes large numbers, who have been left out of that prosperity. It also reflects back on the good of national power, because the ugly fact is that our economic power has often involved the economic exploitation of weaker nations.

There is also a third candidate for a common good that makes Americans feel good about themselves: Our constitutional democracy; the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. It is also the root of the particular American sense of moral superiority.

Yet in previous essays I have already touched implicitly on the weakness of this view of the common good. The basic rights that characterize our democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, need to be limited, but none of our constitutional democratic government provides a limiting principle. As I noted, originally the limiting principle came from the culture of a generic Protestant Christianity; more recently that has been replaced by a secular, relativistic culture whose supreme value seems to be absolute equality. The secular relativistic culture has roots that go back to the embrace of the ‘myth of progress’ and the drive to ‘conquer nature’, that was present also at the time of the American founding.

Now characteristic of Protestantism is the importance of the personal conscience standing immediately before God (which is true so far as it goes) that is beholden to no human authority (not quite so true). This harmonizes well with American democracy conceived as a political system in which all are political equals because they are equals before God and which serves the ability of each on to serve God according to his conscience. At least that was the position of the American man as head of the family.

That leads us to the real hidden secret of much of the success of the American republic: while the primacy of personal conscience was supreme, at the same time there was a ‘de facto’ moral consensus, rooted in the same generic Protestantism, rooted even in the Ten Commandments.

So, if we consider the traditional role of the American father of the family and of the morality of the Ten Commandments in American life, the real key to American prosperity has been a healthy family life rooted in fidelity to the commandments. That has been the real strength of the nation. The success of the democratic system has been in making that possible.

At the same time, the individualism inherent in the Protestant American notion of conscience, together with the absence of any moral principle written into the very framework of the republic, has also been the undoing of the same.

Still, the common moral life sets us on the right track to grasp what the common good of a nation should be.



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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