If you studied political science, as I did, you probably often heard professors say that the true object of politics is power and that believing it was the common good was pure naïveté. Something so abstract, so undefinable, and unobtainable could not be the ultimate guide of political action.
Of course, it is quite naïve to believe that power, self-interest, and self-preservation would serve as a better guide of political action as they are blind forces. Others are less cynical and say the common good is freedom or the aggregation of private goods and thus that the common good existed in a healthy marketplace of competitive private views.
That’s the standard view today but it is as empty as it is standard. In a fantastic article for The Spectator, Sohrab Ahmari challenged this view. The liberal order was supposed to stop trying to enshrine a particular political orthodoxy and would create a “liberal neutral ground (…) that could be contested by rival accounts of the good life.”
Therefore, in this neutral safe space, “The religious would be able to live happily beside the unbelievers, with all minorities protected. In this way, the advent of liberalism would — once and for all — put an end to the persecutions of the past.”
Of course, this is also quite naïve. But it sells good and seems easy to understand.
As I have said before, the worst mistake liberalism makes is anthropological. It does not understand man is a homo adorans, we are naturally inclined to worship something. If we take God away from the equation, we will still do it. Whether it is money, power, or some higher values, we will still give the highest praise to a sort of orthodoxy and will be our political telos (ultimate end). Man in society is not defined by its ability to enshrine neutrality: man in society is defined by choosing what is good.
And we cannot escape that decision by “enshrining individual autonomy and choice as the highest goods of human life,” as Ahmari says, because “that would eventually create the conditions for a kind of private tyranny, precisely what the common-good tradition of classical and Christian thought had always warned about and sought to restrain.” All politics pursue a telos, even if its telos is making us believe that politics should not have a telos beyond personal ends.
Why is the common good so rejected?
Where does this negative view of the common good come from? It is inscribed on the voluntarist nature of liberalism. In a recent talk at the University of Dallas, Chad Pecknold explained that: “modern liberalism is a kind of voluntarism (…) If you think that the will is sovereign then you might tend to think that the common good is something very foreign to us.” In this view, the good, and thus the common good, is something that we conform rather than something that we are conformed to. Thus, any foreign notion of the good is seen as an authoritarian imposition.
However, the problem lies in seeing it as foreign. It is not foreign if it responds to our own nature. And this is precisely the Catholic view: a polity is not a contract we are part of for the sake of our protection because without it we would be left off to our worst impulses as in the typical Hobbesian view. A polity is not a consequence of our fallen nature, but it is something good in itself and that responds to our very own nature.
St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the state is based on man’s own nature. Humans are no isolated individuals that can attain their own ends merely as individuals. Humans are, by nature political beings born to live in a community. This is not a secondary aspect of men arising from their sinfulness, but something that Aquinas sees as desired by God.
Yes, to be sure, one of the foundations of the state is man’s own selfishness and his tendency to become his own wolf, but Aquinas also recognizes that his social tendencies are as powerful as his egoism. Thus, this sort of illustrated egoism where the common good is a foreign imposition is alien to the Thomistic view: the cohesiveness of a society is not maintained by force but by pursuing common goals or, may I say, of the common good.
Hence, it is not rare to see how this cohesive force in society is exponentially lost in modern societies. There is no sense of common goals that society should pursue as a whole, but just apparent individual goods. However, the worshipping nature of man has led to the rise of a new progressive orthodoxy that tries to impose common goals by force and from above that does not serve as a cohesive element.
Can the common good be reduced to a single principle?
However, we can ask here: can this common good pursued by society be reduced to a single principle, or should we leave every political community to define its common good?
Common good causes some discomfort among conservatives because it sounds like the sort of geometrical politics that Edmund Burke despised. By geometrical I mean a top-down imposition that does not flow from the tradition of a polity but is forcefully imposed by the elites.
This issue was masterfully summarized in a discussion between Fr. Edmund Waldstein and Yoram Hazony from a Waldstein’s article that Hazony criticized. Hazony criticized reducing the domain of the common good to a single principle as he believed it is the same mistake liberals make when they reduce it to, say, freedom:
“When you try to reduce the political common good or national interest to just individual liberty you blind yourself to the other factors operative in the domain (…) A great example is the way that so many liberals are blinded to the dangers of free trade with a hostile power like China—because they believe private individuals should be free to trade with anyone they want (…) It doesn’t matter if you call your one ‘primary common good’ peace or order or anything else. You will recreate the same kind of political blindness.”
In the end, Hazony defends a sort of practical agnosticism: “the balance among the proper ends of government change with the circumstances facing the nation.”
Although this view might seem more realistic, I do not believe it is appropriate. First of all, because it indirectly denies that reason can discover things that are good in themselves, which is the type of moral nihilism that got us into postmodernity. And, second, because if all political communities are left off to define their own proper ends of government and political values, then we do not have any ultimate criteria by which we can criticize atrocities committed in them as long as they are not ‘geometrical’ impositions of a political elite.
Of course, “reducing” the common good to a single principle does not mean there is no leeway. Father Waldstein admits that “the traditions and customs of particular people cannot be ignored. One must work with the grain of what is best in particular traditions (…) While there is something universal about human virtue (…) there will be diverse concrete ways of realizing virtue in different places.” Hence, although the ultimate end does not change, its circumstances do diverge and are adaptable.
In the end, the problem stems from believing that the common good is a foreign imposition and not something that man desires in the depths of his own nature. That is why in a letter to Sir Roger Scruton, Father Waldstein says: “I think that the problem with contemporary paternalistic liberalism is not that it is paternalistic and educative, but rather that it has a false conception of the good, and thus leads its subjects toward their destruction.”
I believe that this is still an ongoing discussion. But I also believe that one only needs to scroll social media for about half an hour to realize that we need more cohesiveness and common ends to pursue, or society is bound to break. After all, doesn’t the preamble of the American Constitution declare as its first end the formation of “a more perfect Union”?