In philosophy, economics, and political science, the common good (also commonwealth, general welfare, or public benefit) 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 Maynard Keynes, John Rawls, and many other thinkers.
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.
- In the history of moral and political thought
Historical overview Ancient Greeks
Renaissance Florence Adam Smith
- Historical overview
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 goal of law and government; John Locke declared that “the peace, safety, and public good of the people” are the goals of political society, and further argued that “the well being of the people shall be the supreme law
- Ancient Greeks
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.”
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.”
- Renaissance Florence
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the common good was one of several important themes of political thought in Renaissance Florence. The thought goes back to Thomas Aquinas theory of common good being virulent in whole premodern
Europe. In a later work, Niccolo 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, however he mentions this term only 19 times throughout his works. 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. Adam Smith Edit
“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’s Theory of Justice.
- 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. 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’”.
- non-Western moral and political though
- 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).
- In the mid-20th century, the elites displayed a motivation for the Common Goods that was intended for health, and decisions were based on the elite rather than the public, since there was no public interest in the issue.
- After the 1950s, the government increasingly began to see the concept of addressing mutual issues for the benefit of the citizens, but it has yet to be completely adopted and will be much more compatible with appropriate expenditure in political-economic theory.
- 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:
- Excludable Non-excludable
- Rivalrous Private goods
- food, clothing, cars, parking spaces Common-pool resources
- fish stocks, timber, coal
- Non-rivalrous Club goods
- 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.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.
- 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.