Conservatives are once again debating the nature of the political common good. This is salutary, for no political community should ignore the actual common good, nor avoid the concept of the common good. The common good plays an essential role for thinkers as profound as Aristotle and Aquinas, and for the Western tradition ever since. For Aristotle, whether or not a regime governs for the common good is the decisive factor in determining whether a regime is just or not. For Aquinas, the very definition of law—“an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated”—requires reference to the common good. Given the centrality of the common good, we might want to gain clarity about it.

Every community has a common good: a good that perfects that community as a community, giving its members reason(s) to cooperate in a variety of ways, a good that all of the members participate in and benefit from as common, not private. You can think of the common good of a family, those ends that make the family flourish not as a mere collection of individuals but precisely as a family and as members of a family. Likewise there’s a common good of a school, a sports team, a religious community, a book club, a business, and every other human community. Human beings form communities in order to pursue certain common ends—the common good of that particular community. We form families to pursue domestic bliss, the generativity of spousal love, and generations of interpersonal connections. We form schools to pursue knowledge, businesses to serve customers while earning profits, churches to worship God and attain holiness.

So why do we form political communities? What is the end or good (you can use the terms interchangeably) that perfects the political community just as such? For some “state of nature,” “social contract” thinkers, the political common good is merely about protecting the freedom to do what you want as long as it is consistent with a like freedom for others. The idea is that in a state of nature our liberty is insecure, so we form government to protect our liberty. Now, it is certainly true that government serves the common good of a political community by protecting the honorable liberties of its members, but why think that in a so-called state of nature only our liberty is insecure? So, too, is our flourishing in a vast range of its dimensions. Outside of a political community, both our rights and our goods, our liberty and our flourishing, are insecure. So if we form a social contract, why would it be only to protect human rights and not human goods? The social-contract theorists have never had a persuasive response. So even on their own terms, the social-contract theorists fail to justify a political concern focused solely on liberty rights.

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