Common Good Thinking
What is the Common Good?
We all think we know what the Common Good means. The classic definition is “the Common Good is the set of conditions in which every individual in the community can flourish.”
But the Common Good is not a utopian ideal to be imposed by one enlightened group upon another. Rather, it is something we create - it’s how that set of conditions is created that is the crucial question – the conditions need to be built by us, working together across our differences. It requires unlikely partnerships. It is something we create in common across our different interests.
So we talk about the practice of the Common Good.
To build a Common Good requires people who may seriously disagree, and whose interests and circumstances are different, to listen to each other, tell each other the truth, encounter each other in relationship. It requires a balance of interests. It means forming positive relationships, and proactively collaborating with people who are different or with whom we disagree.
It can be explained simply as ‘it is in all our interests that all thrive.’
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the
Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
The Common Good resonates across many cultures, from Aristotle, Shalom, Ubuntu to the Global Ethic and other religious and non religious cultural traditions. Together for the Common Good draws from across the Judeo-Christian traditions and in particular, from the principles within Catholic Social Thought.
To make this more widely accessible, we talk about Common Good Thinking.
Anyone can apply the principles at home, in our neighbourhoods, workplaces, relationships and associations, as citizens, neighbours, shareholders, consumers, business owners, leaders, colleagues, savers, employers, clergy, parishioners, campaigners, investors, students, professionals, legislators, policy makers - we are limited only by our imagination. It is a non partisan route towards social justice, and is also a recipe for a healthy civil society.
In this way, we can re-humanise systems that have lost their soul, strengthen community and local institutions, create a fairer economy and work for a balance of interests between groups who are estranged. It offers an approach that is inclusive and human, that transcends tribal lines and encourages everyone to take responsibility from the grassroots to the boardroom. We emphasise that the Common Good needs to be built by us, together across our differences. The Common Good involves putting human dignity at the heart of economic, civic and cultural life.
The principles of Common Good Thinking
Together for the Common Good sets the principles under five simple headings. For more depth please scroll down for some suggestions for further reading.
This is itself a principle to be applied along with the other principles below.
The Common Good is the set of conditions in which every individual in the community can flourish. But the creation of those conditions is something we do, and need to do together, so it can also be seen as the practice of the Common Good. This involves everyone participating fully and taking responsibility according to their vocation and ability. The Common Good is not a utopian ideal to be imposed by one ‘enlightened’ group upon another: it involves building relationships between those with different views and experiences, and balancing their different interests. Simply put, ‘it is in all our interests that all thrive.’
Specifically what the common good conditions will look will like depends upon each situation, location and the people involved. It will need to be 'in a constant state of renegotiation.' This 'good' is 'common' because it can only be created together in relationship, it cannot be achieved by individuals isolated from each other. Because the common good is something we do, we describe it as the practice of the common good.
To create the conditions, or to 'build a common good', our experience has shown us that the principles below also need to be put into practice, and kept in balance. To build a common good requires relationship, so it starts with conversation.
Common Good Thinking highlights these important aspects of the human person:
Human Dignity: Every person is worthy of respect simply by virtue of being a human being.
Human Equality: All human beings are of equal worth in the eyes of God
Dignity of Work: Work is more than a way to make a living – it is good for our humanity, because through work we participate in God’s creative plan.
Respect for Life: People matter more than things: each human life has value, from the youngest to the oldest, from the weakest to the strongest.
- Does the manner in which we treat people honour their dignity? (Human Dignity)
- Is our common life together, in all its aspects (political, legal, social, educational, cultural, environmental) ordered towards the common good? (Human Dignity and Equality)
- Do we accept that each person’s life has meaning, from conception to death? (Respect for life)
- Do we treat everyone equally? (Human Equality)
- Do we cherish difference and allow everyone to contribute? (Human Dignity)
The Common Good is achieved in the context of relationship: the 'good' is 'common' because it cannot be achieved by isolated individuals.
There are five principles underpinning our relationships:
Reconciliation: is about building relationships where there is mistrust, suspicion or estrangement. It is important because a fractured society drives division and prevents positive change. The process of reconciliation involves listening with respect to the views of others and recognising their humanity, even if we disagree strongly. This requires a change of heart and the results are expressed in a determination to behave in new ways.
Subsidiarity: Responsibility is taken at the most appropriate level. Decisions should always be taken closest to where they will have their effect. A central authority should peform only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.
Note about Intermediate institutions: Subsidiarity emphasises the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, unions, voluntary associations, fraternal groups, clubs and guilds; those mediating structures not rooted in the market or the state which build human and social capital, empower individuals and communities, and link the individual to society as a whole. Reciprocity ('returning a kindness' or 'exchange of gifts') underpinning membership of these groups often leads to trust, which in turn strengthens solidarity. Intermediate institutions are important because they help to strengthen and preserve civil society against the crudely opposed forces of the "market" and the "administrative state".
Solidarity: We are designed to live in community with others and to thrive we should be interconnected by relationships of mutual concern and support. Solidarity is a determination to work for the good of all and of each individual because we are all are responsible for all.
Note: solidarity and subsidiarity must be applied together, in balance. Solidarity encourages mutual responsibility and joint action; but when applied without due attention to subsidiarity, it can tend towards collectivism, statism, deskilling and disempowerment. Similarly subsidiarity without solidarity can leave people on their own, unsupported, but when in balance with solidarity, subsidiarity empowers people and communities, and importantly, pushes against centralisation. There is a necessary and creative tension between these two principles that often needs to be negotiated.
Participation: Everyone has a right, indeed a duty, to participate in and take responsibility for shaping the Common Good wherever they can be most effective.
Association: We are our true selves when we relate well to others, not when we are isolated individuals. Society is at its strongest when diversity is found as a cause of the liveliness rather than as a cause of division.
- Do we allow decisions to be made at the most appropriate level? Are people involved in the decisions that affect them? eg. local environment, culture, management of resources. (Subsidiarity)
- Do we allow everyone concerned to be a part of the conversation? (Participation)
- Do we respect one another’s difference? (Association)
- Do we recognise that that meaningful interaction leads to a richer, transformative conversation? (Reconciliation and Association)
- Do we understand that more diversity leads to smarter decisions? (Reconciliation, Participation)
- Are we learning alongside one another? (Solidarity, Association)
- Do we accept that conflict is an inevitable part of sincere disagreement? (Reconciliation)
- Are facilities, processes, environment designed for people and participation? (Participation)
- Do we allow objections to surface? (Participation)
- Are we willing to give as well as take? (Solidarity and Subsidiarity)
The Earth was here before us and was given to us - our common home. It is God's dominion, but it is our shared responsibility to be good stewards of everything we have been entrusted with – nature, our fellow human beings, resources, gifts and talents, money and time.
Caring for nature is integral to human flourishing and God’s great creative plan, so it is a key element in building the Common Good.
We are physical beings living in a world of finite resources which must be looked after for the good of all. We are accountable for this to God, as well as to our own and to future generations.
- Do we understand our responsibility and relationship to our fellow human beings and the physical world around us?
- Are we deciding with future generations in mind?
- Are we good stewards of our gifts and talents, money and time?
- Are we caring well for our world, locally and globally, making the most of our finite resources?
- Are resources being deployed in a way that supports the flourishing of family and community life around the world?
Common Good Thinking emphasises that for everyone to be included and no one left behind there needs to be a preferential option for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. For a healthy society, this principle must be at the centre of our decision-making because it recognises that if the strong are separated from the weak, the strong become impoverished, since being fully human means living together sharing a common life.
- Do our decisions put the interests of the vulnerable, poor and excluded first?
- Are we making sure that everyone has the skills and support they need to participate?
What the common good will look like is up to you and your community to work out together. It should be in a constant state of renegotiation, it needs to be regularly reviewed - it changes as we change.
Question: Are we creating conditions where every individual in the community can flourish?
Edward P De Berri and James E Hug, Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret, (New York, 2003)
Eds Peter McGrail and Nicholas Sagovsky: Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation
Malcolm Brown (ed), Anglican Social Theology (London, 2014)
DISCLAIMER: The above is a living document, last updated on 12 December 2016, and comes out of T4CG’s research and ongoing learning. The principles are drawn from across the Christian traditions and in particular from Catholic social thought (CST), a large body of thinking in the Catholic tradition that draws from learned experience (from a broad range of sources and traditions, not just Catholic) from 1891 to the present day. CST is rooted in the Gospel, and is intended as a ‘gift to all people of goodwill’. It is essentially a set of guidelines for good judgement, to help people discern for themselves how to put the social values of the Gospel into practice. Our research has helped us ‘translate’ some of the terminology to resonate with other perspectives – other Christian denominations, other faith traditions and secular viewpoints. We are open to learning from others and would be very grateful if you could email any comments or suggestions for this document’s development to firstname.lastname@example.org