In philosophy, economics, and political science, the common good (also commonwealth, common weal or general welfare) refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community, or alternatively, what is achieved by citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the realm of politics and public service. The concept of the common good differs significantly among philosophical doctrines. Early conceptions of the common good were set out by Ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato. One understanding of the common good rooted in Aristotle's philosophy remains in common usage today, referring to what one contemporary scholar calls the "good proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members." The concept of common good developed through the work of political theorists, moral philosophers, and public economists, including Thomas Aquinas, Niccolò Machiavelli, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Madison, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and many other thinkers. In contemporary economic theory, a common good is any good which is rivalrous yet non-excludable, while the common good, by contrast, arises in the subfield of welfare economics and refers to the outcome of a social welfare function. Such a social welfare function, in turn, would be rooted in a moral theory of the good (such as utilitarianism). Social choice theory aims to understand processes by which the common good may or may not be realized in societies through the study of collective decision rules. And public choice theory applies microeconomic methodology to the study of political science in order to explain how private interests affect political activities and outcomes.
The term "common good" has been used in many disparate ways and escapes a single definition. Most philosophical conceptions of the common good fall into one of two families: substantive and procedural. According to substantive conceptions, the common good is that which is shared by and beneficial to all or most members of a given community: particular substantive conceptions will specify precisely what factors or values are beneficial and shared. According to procedural formulations, by contrast, the common good consists of the outcome that is achieved through collective participation in the formation of a shared will.
Under one name or another, the common good has been a recurring theme throughout the history of political philosophy. As one contemporary scholar observes, Aristotle used the idea of "the common interest" (to koinei sympheron, in Greek) as the basis for his distinction between "right" constitutions, which are in the common interest, and "wrong" constitutions, which are in the interest of rulers; Saint Thomas Aquinas held "the common good" (bonum commune, in Latin) to be the end of law and government; John Locke declared that "the peace, safety, and public good of the people" are the ends of political society, and further argued that "the well being of the people shall be the supreme law"; David Hume contended that "social conventions" are adopted and given moral support in virtue of the fact that they serve the "public" or "common" interest; James Madison wrote of the "public," "common," or "general" good as closely tied with justice and declared that justice is the end of government and civil society; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood "the common good" (le bien commun, in French) to be the object of a society's general will and the highest end pursued by government.
Though these thinkers differed significantly in their views of what the common good consists in, as well as over what the state should do to promote it, they nonetheless agreed that the common good is the end of government, that it is a good of all the citizens, and that no government should become the "perverted servant of special interests," whether these special interests be understood as Aristotle's "interest of the rulers," Locke's "private good," Hume's and Madison's "interested factions," or Rousseau's "particular wills."
Though the phrase "common good" does not appear in texts of Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher indicates repeatedly that a particular common goal exists in politics and society. For Plato, the best political order is the one which best promotes social harmony and an environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups, each benefiting from and adding to the common good. In The Republic, Plato's character Socrates contends that the greatest social good is the "cohesion and unity" that "result[s] from the common feelings of pleasure and pain which you get when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures."
Plato's student Aristotle, considered by many to be the father of the idea of a common good, uses the concept of "the common interest" (to koinei sympheron, in Greek) as the basis for his distinction between "right" constitutions, which are in the common interest, and "wrong" constitutions, which are in the interest of rulers. For Aristotle, the common good is constituted in the good of individuals. Individual good, in turn, consists in human flourishing—the fulfillment of the human's purpose—which is the right and natural thing for humans to do. On this teleological view, the good stems from objective facts about human life and purpose. Aristotle is clear that there is greater value in the common good than in the individual good, noting in his Nicomachean Ethics that "even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete; … though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states." When Aristotle discusses the types of political regime in his Politics, he speaks of monarchy (rule by one man for the common good), aristocracy (rule by a few for the common good), and polity (rule by the many for the common good). Yet by "common good" here, Aristotle means specifically the common good of the citizens, and not necessarily the good of non-citizen residents of the city, such as women, slaves, and manual laborers, who reside in the city for the good of the citizens.
According to one common contemporary usage, rooted in Aristotle's philosophy, common good refers to "a good proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members."
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the common good was one of several important themes of political thought in Renaissance Florence, and the idea played a central role in the political theory of Niccolò Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues in a procedural vein that securing the common good depends upon the existence of virtuous citizens: indeed, Machiavelli developed the notion of virtù to denote the quality of promoting the common good through the act of citizenship, be it through military or political action. In later work, Machiavelli speaks of the bene commune (common good) or comune utilità (common utility), which refers to the general well-being of a community as a whole. In key passages of the Discourses on Livy, he indicates that "the common good (comune utilità) . . . is drawn from a free way of life (vivere libero)" but is not identical with it. Elsewhere in the Discourses, freedom, safety and dignity are explicitly stated to be elements of the common good and some form of property and family life are also implied. Furthermore, the common good brought by freedom includes wealth, economic prosperity, security, enjoyment and good life. It is important to note, however, that though Machiavelli speaks of an instrumental relationship between freedom and common good, the general well-being is not precisely identical with political freedom: elsewhere in the Discourses, Machiavelli argues that an impressive level of common good can be achieved by sufficiently good autocratic rulers. Nevertheless, he insists that bringing common benefit to everyone requires intrepid courage by leaders, and the most unique people in this respect are the founders of ancient republics and kingdoms (such as Moses, Lycurgus, Solon and Romulus) who governed themselves 'according to the laws ordered by them, placing the common utility (commune utilità) before their own advantage'.
In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, composed in the mid-18th century, Rousseau argues that society can function only to the extent that individuals have interests in common, and that the end goal of any state is the realization of the common good. He further posits that the common good can be identified and implemented only by heeding the general will of a political community, specifically as expressed by that community's sovereign. Rousseau maintains that the general will always tends toward the common good, though he concedes that democratic deliberations of individuals will not always express the general will. Furthermore, Rousseau distinguished between the general will and the will of all, stressing that while the latter is simply the sum total of each individual's desires, the former is the "one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being." Political authority, to Rousseau, should be understood as legitimate only if it exists according to the general will and toward the common good. The pursuit of the common good, then, enables the state to act as a moral community.
"Individual ambition serves the common good." —Adam Smith
The 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith famously argues in his Wealth of Nations what has become known as the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics: that the invisible hand of market competition automatically transforms individual self-interest into the common good. Smith's thesis is that in a "system of natural liberty," an economic system that allows individuals to pursue their own self-interest under conditions of free competition and common law, would result in a self-regulating and highly prosperous economy, generating the most welfare for the most number. Thus, he argues, eliminating restrictions on prices, labor, and trade will result in advancing the common good through "universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people," via lower prices, higher wages, better products, and so on.
John Rawls defines the common good as "certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's advantage". In his Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality, applied to the basic structure of a well-ordered society, which will specify exactly such general conditions. Starting with an artificial device he calls the original position, Rawls defends two particular principles of justice by arguing that these are the positions reasonable persons would choose were they to choose principles from behind a veil of ignorance. Such a "veil" is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage. According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly. In particular, Rawls claims that those in the original position would all adopt a maximin strategy which would maximize the prospects of the least well-off individual or group. In this sense, Rawls's understanding of the common good is intimately tied with the well-being of the least advantaged. Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two governing principles, which would then regulate the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. The First Principle of Justice states that ""First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others". The Second Principle of Justice provides that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged such that "(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle" (the difference principle); and "(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of 'fair equality of opportunity'".
The idea of a common good plays a role in Confucian political philosophy, which on most interpretations stresses the importance of the subordinination of individual interests to group or collective interests, or at the very least, the mutual dependence between the flourishing of the individual and the flourishing of the group. In Islamic political thought, many modern thinkers have identified conceptions of the common good while endeavoring to ascertain the fundamental or universal principles underlying divine shari‘a law. These fundamentals or universal principles have been largely identified with the "objectives" of the shari‘a (maqāṣid al-sharī‘a), including concepts of the common good or public interest (maṣlaḥa ‘āmma, in modern terminology). A notion of the common good arises in contemporary Islamic discussions of the distinction between the fixed and the flexible (al-thābit wa-l-mutaghayyir), especially as it relates to modern Islamic conceptions of tolerance, equality, and citizenship: according to some, for instance, universal principles carry greater weight than specific injunctions of the Qur’an, and in case of conflict, can even supersede or suspend explicit textual injunctions (naṣṣ) if this serves the common good.
In economics, the terms “public good” and “common good” have technical definitions. A public good is a good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. A common good is simply non-excludable. A simple typology illustrates the differences between various kinds of goods:
food, clothing, cars, parking spaces
|Common-pool resources |
fish stocks, timber, coal
cinemas, private parks, satellite television
free-to-air television, air, national defense
The field of welfare economics studies social well-being. The approach begins with the specification of a social welfare function. The choice of a social welfare function is rooted in an ethical theory. A utilitarian social welfare function weights the well-being of each individual equally, while a Rawlsian social welfare function only considers the welfare of the least well-off individual.
Neoclassical economic theory provides two conflicting lenses for thinking about the genesis of the common good, two distinct sets of microfoundations. On one view, the common good arises due to social gains from cooperation. Such a view might appeal to the Prisoner’s dilemma to illustrate how cooperation can result in superior welfare outcomes. Moreover, a cooperative equilibrium is stable in an iterated Prisoner’s dilemma. Under these conditions, an individual does best by pursuing the course of action that is also optimal for society.
On the other hand, economic theory typically points to social gains from competition as a rationale for the use of markets. Thus, Smith described the “invisible hand,” whereby the mechanism of the market converts individuals’ self-interested activity into gains for society. This insight is formalized in the First Theorem of Welfare Economics. However, economic theory also points to market failures, including the underprovision of public goods by markets and the failure of self-interested individuals to internalize externalities. Because of these factors, purely self-interested behaviour often detracts from the common good.
Social choice theory studies collective decision rules. Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, an important result in social choice theory, states that no aggregative mechanism of collective choice (restricted to ordinal inputs) can consistently transform individual preferences into a collective preference-ordering, across the universal domain of possible preference profiles, while also satisfying a set of minimal normative criteria of rationality and fairness. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem further demonstrates that non-dictatorial voting systems are inevitably subject to strategic manipulation of outcomes.
William H. Riker articulates the standard public choice interpretation of social choice theory, arguing that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem “forces us to doubt that the content of 'social welfare' or the 'public interest' can ever be discovered by amalgamating individual value judgments. It even leads us to suspect that no such thing as the 'public interest' exists, aside from the subjective (and hence dubious) claims of self-proclaimed saviors.” Thus, Riker defends a “liberal” conception of democracy, which centers on the role of constitutional checks on government. Public choice theorists have tended to share this approach. Buchanan and Tullock pursued this program in developing the field of "constitutional political economy" in their book The Calculus of Consent.
More recent work in social choice theory, however, has demonstrated that Arrow's impossibility result can be obviated at little or no normative cost. Amartya Sen, for instance, argues that a range of social choice mechanisms emerge unscathed given certain reasonable restrictions on the domain of admissible preference profiles. In particular, requiring that preferences are single-peaked on a single dimension ensures a Condorcet winner. Moreover, many of Riker's empirical claims have been refuted.
Public choice theory (sometimes called "positive political theory") applies microeconomic methodology to the study of political science in order to explain how private interests inform political activities. Whereas welfare economics, in line with classical political economy, typically assumes a public-interest perspective on policymaking, public choice analysis adopts a private-interest perspective in order to identify how the objectives of policymakers affect policy outcomes. Public choice analysis thus diagnoses deviations from the common good resulting from activities such as rent-seeking. In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson argues that public goods will tend to be underprovided due to individuals' incentives to free-ride. Anthony Downs provided an application of this logic to the theory of voting, identifying the paradox of voting whereby rational individuals prefer to abstain from voting, because the marginal cost exceeds the private marginal benefit. Downs argues further that voters generally prefer to remain uninformed due to "rational ignorance."
Public choice scholarship can have more constructive applications. For instance, Elinor Ostrom's study of schemes for the regulation of common property resources resulted in the discovery of mechanisms for overcoming the tragedy of the commons.
In deliberative democracy, the common good is taken to be a regulative ideal. In other words, participants in democratic deliberation aim at the realization of the common good. This feature distinguishes deliberative democracy from aggregative conceptions of democracy, which focus solely on the aggregation of preferences. In contrast to aggregative conceptions, deliberative democracy emphasizes the processes by which agents justify political claims on the basis of judgments about the common good. Epistemic democracy, a leading contemporary approach to deliberative democracy, advances a cognitivist account of the common good.
One of the earliest references in Christian literature to the concept of the common good is found in the Epistle of Barnabas: "Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already [fully] justified, but gather instead to seek together the common good."
The concept is strongly present in Augustine of Hippo's magnum opus City of God. Book XIX of this, the main locus of Augustine's normative political thought, is focused on the question, 'Is the good life social?' In other words, 'Is human wellbeing found in the good of the whole society, the common good?' Chapters 5-17 of Book XIX address this question. Augustine's emphatic answer is yes (see start of chap. 5).
Against that background, the common good became a central concept in the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching, beginning with the foundational document, Rerum novarum, a papal encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, issued in 1891. This addressed the crisis of the conditions of industrial workers in Europe and argued for a position different from both laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. In this letter, Pope Leo guarantees the right to private property while insisting on the role of collective bargaining to establish a living wage.
Contemporary Catholic social teaching on the common good is summarised in the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, chapter 4, part II. Quoting the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et spes (1965), this says, "According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates 'the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily'" (#164, quoting Gaudium et spes, #26; italics original).
The Compendium later gives statements that communicate what can be seen as a partly different sense of the concept - as not only "social conditions" that enable persons to reach fulfilment, but as the end of goal of human life. "[T]he common good [is] the good of all people and of the whole person… The human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists "with" others and "for" others" (#165; italics original). "The goal of life in society is in fact the historically attainable common good" (#168).
The Roman Catholic International Theological Commission drew attention to these two partly different understandings of the common good in its 2009 publication, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law. It referred to them as "two levels" of the common good.
Another relevant document is Veritatis Splendor, a papal encyclical by Pope John Paul II, issued in 1993 to combat the relaxation of moral norms and the political corruption (see Paragraph 98) that affects millions of persons. In this letter, Pope John Paul describes the characteristics and virtues that political leadership should require, which are truthfullness, honesty, fairness, temperance and solidarity (as described in paragraph 98 to 100), given that truth extends from honesty, good faith, and sincerity in general, to agreement with fact or reality in particular.
In contemporary American politics, language of the common good (or public wealth) is sometimes adopted by political actors on the progressive left to describe their values. Jonathan Dolhenty argues that one should distinguish in American politics between the common good, which may "be shared wholly by each individual in the family without its becoming a private good for any individual family member", and the collective good, which, "though possessed by all as a group, is not really participated in by the members of a group. It is actually divided up into several private goods when apportioned to the different individual members." First described by Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect magazine and John Halpin at the Center for American Progress, the American political understanding of the common good has grown in recent times. The liberal magazine The Nation and the Rockridge Institute, among others, have identified the common good as a salient political message for progressive candidates. In addition, non-partisan advocacy groups like Common Good are championing political reform efforts to support the common good.
Given the central concern for sustainable development in an increasingly interdependent world, education and knowledge should thus be considered global common goods. This means that the creation of knowledge, its control, acquisition, validation, and use, are common to all people as a collective social endeavour.