In political philosophy, the common good is a term that refers to actions, resources, and political decisions that benefit the entire community.
As a philosophical concept, the common good is best understood as a key element in a comprehensive framework for practical reasoning among members of a political community (Hussain, 2018).
Examples of the common good include shared roads, free public education, public parks, police protection, and civil courts.
Note: The term “common good” may refer to different things depending on the context. Common goods, as they’re called by economists, are not the same as the common good, as it is understood by philosophers. This article will focus on the latter. It refers to what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a community. It may also refer to goods achieved through collective action and participation in politics and public service.
Common Goods Examples
Examples of the common good in a modern liberal democracy include:
- Public Roads: Roads serve as a critical infrastructure, facilitating transportation and commerce. They can connect communities, open new markets, and contribute to overall economic well-being. For instance, Route 66 played a significant role in American history, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles, helping to spur economic growth and development in the towns along its path.
- Public Parks: Parks provide an open area for the public to unwind, play sports, and connect with nature. They are areas that have been kept in trust for the enjoyment of individuals and families like the majestic Yellowstone National Park, which provides enjoyment for millions of visitors each year.
- Police Services: Police departments maintain peace and order, enforce laws, prevent crime, and protect citizens’ lives and properties. Case in point, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has decreased New York City’s crime rates due to their strategic enforcement practices.
- Civil Courts: Civil courts resolve legal disputes between individuals and organizations where no criminal laws have been broken. The landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, held in a US civil court, played a critical role in ending segregation in American public schools.
- Public Education: Government-funded schools provide education to all children, regardless of their parents’ income. Schools such as Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles are funded by the
- state and offer a premier education experience accessible to all students regardless of their financial standing.
- Museums: Museums preserve and display artifacts and specimens for public education and enjoyment. For example, The Louvre in Paris attracts millions of visitors each year who come to see its world-renowned collection of art and historic artefacts.
- Public Transit: Public transit systems provide reliable and affordable transportation options for all citizens. The London Underground, for instance, is a public service that connects the entirety of the London area and is used by millions of people every day.
- Civil Rights: Civil rights ensure equal social opportunities and protections for all people, regardless of race, religion, or sex. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States is a prime example of legislation designed to end discrimination and uphold these crucial rights.
- Rules of Private Ownership: These rules regulate the private ownership of property, specifying the rights, duties, and responsibilities of property owners. For instance, the deeds system in England clearly specifies the proprietorship over the plot and the buildings thereupon.
- Natural Resources: These are materials or substances occurring in nature that can be exploited for economic gain. The oil fields in Saudi Arabia represent an excellent example of a natural resource which has been leveraged to create significant economic prosperity.
- National Defense: This is the security and defense measures taken by a country to protect its citizens from foreign threats. The U.S. Department of Defense comprises a series of military and intelligence departments and agencies that work together to provide national security, as seen during events like Operation Desert Storm.
- A Strong Economy: A robust economy has a diverse mix of industries, low unemployment, and steady growth. The German economy, with its strong manufacturing sector and low unemployment rates, is a clear illustration of this.
- Public Health Policy: These are government regulations and laws aimed at promoting and protecting public health. Programs like the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. represent public health policies designed to extend health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans.
- Recycling Programs: These programs are efforts by local jurisdictions or municipalities to reduce waste and to promote the reuse of materials. For instance, San Francisco’s recycling program successfully diverts about 80% of its waste from landfills, one of the highest diversion rates in the country.
- Internet Access: This utility allows users global connectivity for communication, education, and commerce. The South Korean government’s initiative to provide high-speed internet nationwide is an excellent example of public investment into universal internet access.
- Zoos: Zoos offer the public opportunities for wildlife appreciation, as well as taking part in conservation and research efforts. The San Diego Zoo, renowned for its size and commitment to conservation, is a prime example.
- Libraries: Libraries provide public access to a vast amount of books, electronic resources, and other learning materials. The New York Public Library system, one of the largest public libraries in the United States, is an example of providing extensive resources and promoting literacy to the larger community.
- Postal Service: Postal services are responsible for the delivery of parcels and mail, contributing to a well-functioning communication system. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, delivers to every address in the United States, regardless of geographic location.
- Fire Departments: Fire departments protect life and property by responding rapidly to emergency situations. The Fire Department of New York City, one of the largest in the world, showcases how this vital service can be effectively managed.
- Clean Water Systems: These systems treat and distribute water for domestic and industrial usage. Singapore’s NEWater, for example, is a renowned system turning treated wastewater into high purity water.
- Social Security: This program provides monetary benefits for the elderly, disabled, and surviving families of deceased workers. The U.S. Social Security Administration is a key example of a program providing this essential safety net for those in need.
- Emergency Medical Services: These services provide immediate care for illnesses and injuries, along with transportation to medical facilities. London’s Air Ambulance Charity provides a rapid response to serious trauma emergencies in London and is a key aspect of the city’s emergency medical infrastructure.
- Food Safety Regulations: These laws protect consumers against foodborne illnesses by setting standards for food production and handling. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is an example of an agency that enforces these critical regulations.
- Public Broadcasting: Public broadcasting disseminates information and entertainment to the public through television, radio, and other media tools. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), offers news, education, and entertainment programming to millions of viewers worldwide.
- Consumer Protection Laws: These laws are designed to prevent businesses from engaging in fraud or unfair practices, to protect individuals from scams. An example of this is the Fair Trade Commission in the U.S., which deals with issues that touch the economic life of every American.
Different philosophers have distinct understandings of what the common good is.
The concept has evolved through the work of numerous thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Niccolò Machiavelli, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Madison, Adam Smith, G. W. F. Hegel, John Rawls, and many more.
The first conception of the common good was set out by the ancient Greeks. Aristotle’s understanding of the common good, for example, is still widely used today. It refers to something that is good for the community as a whole and can only be achieved if the members of the community cooperate with one another. It can be shared and enjoyed by each member of that community (Dupré, 1993).
Modern Conceptions of the Common Good
The common good tends to refer to a person or group’s understanding of what actions are best for achieving maximum good for a group of people.
These shared interests can be material, cultural or institutional.
According to Rawls (1999), the common good is made up of the facilities and interests that the members of a political community consider relevant. These facilities and interests are the mutual center of political deliberation. Similarly, Finnis (2011) uses the term to refer to a set of facilities and a set of interests.
When citizens make political decisions about legislation, public policy, or social questions, they use the conception of the common good outlined above.
They discuss which facilities can claim prominence, how the citizens should expand, contract, or maintain existing facilities, and what new facilities they must create.
However, different groups define it in different ways. For example:
- Individualistic Societies: The common good is often defined by the West as the conditions through which all individuals can achieve maximal personal happiness.
- Collectivist Societies: Collectivist societies, on the other hand, see the common good as the conditions through which the community as a whole thrives and maintains its integrity, with emphasis on the sacrifice and subservience of individuals to the collective. They tend to be more coercive to minimize the free rider effect (Jaede, 2017).
Common Good Characteristics
According to Hussain (2018), most conceptions of the common good share certain essential characteristics. These include:
- A shared pattern of practical reasoning: the common good is not only about taking the right actions but also about having the right attitude and motivation. A way of thinking and acting that represents the right level of care and concern among the members of the community. To adhere to the conception, the actions and thoughts of the members must align with this pattern.
- A set of common facilities: Most ideas about the common good involve certain facilities that citizens have a responsibility to maintain because they serve shared interests. These can be things found in nature or things created by humans (e.g., hospitals, schools, etc.). The most important facilities are social institutions and practices.
- A privileged class of common interests: citizens are thought to have an obligation to create and maintain facilities because these serve the relevant shared interests. These interests are common because every citizen has these interests to a similar degree. Examples include: the interest in taking part in a certain way of life (Aristotle, Politics), the interest in bodily security and property (Locke, 1821; Rousseau, 1762), the interest in a system of equal basic rights (Rawls, 1999), and many more.
- A solidaristic concern: Most ideas about the common good involve a way of thinking and acting that aligns with the idea of solidarity. Solidarity is a kind of mutual support and cooperation that is often necessary in social relationships. For example, when a friend needs a place to stay, friendship means offering him a place to sleep. Friendship requires us to think about our friends’ needs as if they were our own.
- A non-aggregative concern: Most conceptions of the common good do not treat the satisfaction of individual interests as commensurable.
The term “common good” or “the common good” has no universally-agreed-upon definition. It refers to different things in economics, political science, and philosophy (specifically ethical dilemmas). This article focused on the common good as a philosophical concept. As is evident from the discussion above, this concept is a flexible one even within philosophy.
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Dupré, L. (1993). The Common Good and the Open Society. The Review of Politics, 55(4), 687–712. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670500018052
Finnis, J. (2011). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford University Press.
Hussain, W. (2018). The Common Good. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/common-good/
Jaede, M. (2017). The concept of the common good. Working Paper Series of the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) of the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, UK, 2017).
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Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Belknap Press.
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