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The Common Good and the Open Society

  • Louis Dupré


The term common good has been used in so many ways that it would be difficult to find any political thinker, however individualistically oriented, who has not, in one form or another embraced it. The classical definition, formulated in the Middle Ages on the basis of Aristotelian principles, referred to a good proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members. As such the common good is at once communal and individual. Still, it does not coincide with the sum total of particular goods and exceeds the goals of inter-individual transactions. Once the idea of community lost its ontological ultimacy (mainly under the impact of nominalist thought), a struggle originated between the traditional conception of the community as an end in itself and that of its function to protect the private interests of its members. Eventually the latter theory prevailed and, after it became reinforced by resistance movements against repressive national government policies, it led to a doctrine of individual rights as independent of society. The intellectual and moral pluralism of recent times has made theorists reluctant to attribute any specific content to the notion of a common good. At a time when national communities face an increasing integration with one another in a world of dwindling resources, such a privatization seems inappropriate. The article argues for a restoration of an idea of the common good which incorporates individual rights without separating them from their social context.



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This essay also appeared in Catholicism and Liberalism, ed. David Hollenbach and Bruce Douglass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

1. Consiglia De Matteis, Maria, La teologia politica communale di Remigio de'Girolami (Bologna: Patron, 1977), cxxiii. All references to this edition of the text of De bono communi.

2. Ibid., p. 42, also p. 15.

3. Ibid., p. 30.

4. Ibid., p. 39.

5. Teselle, Eugene, “The Civic Vision in Augustine's City of God,” Thought 62 (1987): 268–80.Hollenbach, David, “The Common Good Revisited,” Theological Studies 20 (1989): 7094.

6. De Koninck, Charles: De la primauté du bien commun, contre les personnalistes (Quebec: Laval University Press, 1943), p. 8.

7. On the controversy and the necessary distinctions, see Froelich, Gregory, “The Equivocal Status of Bonum CommuneNew Scholasticism 63, no. 1 (1989): 3857.

8. Maritain, Jacques, The Person and the Common Good (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), pp. 1819.

9. Summa contra Gentiles, III, 17.

10. In I Pol. lect. 1.

11. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 90, 2.

12. De regitnine principum I, 14. I owe this reference as well as the next qualification to a set of lecture notes, “Stoic and Christian Sources of Mediaeval Social Doctrine” by I. T. Eschmann, O.P., which, to the best of my knowledge, was never published.

13. Summa contra Gentiles, III, 80.

14. Maritain, , Person and the Common Good, p. 7.

15. ST, I-II, q. 21, 4, ad 3.

16. Finnis, John, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 220–21.

17. Finnis, , Natural Law and Natural Rights, p. 154.

18. Fortin, Ernest, “The New Rights Theory and the Natural Law,” Review of Politics 44 (1982): 590612. Similar objections might be leveled against Maritain's theory of natural rights conceived as prior to any social incorporation. See Crosson, Frederick, “Maritain on Natural Rights,” Review of Metaphysics 36, no. 144 (1983): 895912.

19. On all the complexities of this process one may consult De Muralt, André, “La structure de la philosophie politique moderne d'Occam a Rousseau” in Souveminetéet pouvoir. Cahiers de la Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie 2 (Genève, Lausanne, Neuchatel, 1978): 384. I have greatly profited from this penetrating essay.

20. See the introduction by Mcgrade, A. S. to Hooker, Richard, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1975), pp. 1140.

21. “Alio modo consideranda est hominum multitudo, quatenus speciali voluntate seu communi consensu in unum corpus politicum congregantur uno societatis vinculo, et ut mutuo se juvent in ordine ad unum finem politicum, quomodo efficiunt unum corpus mysticum, quod moraliter dici potest per se unum” (De legibus III, chap. 2, no. 4). See also Gierke, Otto, Natural Law and the Theory of Society. 1500 to 1800, trans. Barker, Ernest (1934) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 243, especially Barker's footnote.

22. Defensio fidei VI, chap. 4, # 1 ff. I follow André de Muralt's interpretation in D'Occam à Rousseau, pp. 60–65.

23. See Allen, J. W., History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960; orig. London, 1928), p. 282.

24. As John Finnis does in Natural Law and Natural Rights.

25. Fortin, Ernest, “The New Rights Theory and the Natural Law,” p. 595.

26. See Halevy, Elie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, trans. Morris, Mary (Clifton, NJ: Augustus Kelley Publ., 1972), p. 138.

27. Paine, Thomas, The Rights of Man (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1973), p. 434.

28. Elliot, Jonathan, ed., Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1907). Quoted by Novak, Michael, Free Persons and the Common Good (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1989), p. 50.

29. On the “commercialism” of the Founders, see Pangle, Thomas L., “The Constitution's Human VisionPublic Interest 86 (Winter 1987), 8588.

30. Novak, , Free Persons and the Common Good, pp. 4647. One may, of course, question whether the modern use of the term “liberal” in America still corresponds to the insights of the Founders. The period beginning with Jackson and culminating in the First World War places a dominant emphasis on economic values whereby, in my judgment, America in practice rejoins the British tradition. Novak himself stresses the economic aspect of the American revolution, calling it “a new type of economic system” (p. 46) to a degree that weakens his position on the political significance and the need for self-sacrificing civic virtue so prominent in the early documents.

31. Murray, John Courtney, We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), p. 38.

32. Toqueville, Alexis De, Democracy in America, trans. Lawrence, George (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 237.

33. Maclntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 336.

34. Is this agreement still present in those whom Nicholas Capaldi calls new-style liberals who ground their principles in a teleological theory of participation? Or has the term “liberal” ceased to function as a useful category, since it has come to embrace virtually opposite principles? Capaldi, Nicholas, Out of Order: Affirmative Action and the Crisis of Doctrinaire Liberalism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 5.

35. Fukuyama, Francis, “The End of History?National Interest 16 (Summer, 1989): 3.

36. Douglass, Bruce, “Liberalism as a Threat to Democracy,” in The Ethical Dimension of Political Life, ed. Canavan, Francis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983), p. 29.

37. Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 34.

38. Mcbride, William L., Social Theory at the Crossroads (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1980), p. 99.

39. Dupré, Louis, Marx's Social Critique of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 210–15; 281–85.

40. Dupré, Louis, Transcendent Selfhood (New York: Crossroad, 1976), p. 17.

41. Finnis, , Natural Law and Natural Rights, p. 154.

42. Ibid., p. 211.

43. See Clifford Kossel, S.J., “Global Community and Individuality,” Communio VIII/1 (1981): 3750.

44. Sherover, Charles, “The Temporality of the Common Good,” Review of Metaphysics 37―3, no. 147 (1984): 492.

45. Kossel, Clifford, “Global Community,” p. 44.


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