Seeking the Common Good Isn’t About Good or the Common – It’s About the One.

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The Common Good. It is a phrase that people used to know and understand as a matter of universal knowledge. It was the basis for all arguments about justice for over two millennia. Indeed, any discussion about justice that is not founded in an understanding of the common good is an exercise in futility.

Yet, we are living in a time when most people’s eyes glaze over with incomprehension when the phrase “the common good” is mentioned. The common good is yet another of the traditional and classical ideas concerning human social order that has been tossed aside in our current relativistic culture as, “antiquated.” There are those who hear it and claim that it is an old and oppressive idea meant to stifle “freedom.” Because so many have bitten into the forbidden fruits of relativism and positivism these days we, more often than not, experience our society to be more like a rudderless boat being tossed about by a storm of competing demands rooted in identity politics. The common good has, seemingly, been swept away by the forces of selfish immediate gratification and materialism. Ironically, many wonder why there is so much chaos and dissent and outright hatred around us today. The fact is that the current culture has arrogantly turned away from the basic truth that we are all in this together. But, in reality, the only way the ship of state, or human society in general, can find and maintain any direction toward progress at all, is if it is guided by the “rudder” of the common good.

What is the common good? It is the totality of all social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach fulfillment more readily and more fully. It concerns the life of every person, not just the self-centered individual or group. We must be able to discern the difference between what “appears” to be good, and what is really good, not solely for ourselves, but for all the persons involved in any situation, and to consistently choose morally right means to achieve the good ends we desire. A driving principle of the common good is the reality that what is truly unjust toward me, is also truly unjust toward all other human persons. And vice versa; what is truly just for me is also truly just for all other human persons. The common good requires all of us to be willing to sacrifice our own immediate desires, temporarily or even permanently, in order to protect and promote the common good of all others, especially if the need for justice is clearly greater for the other than for ourselves.

The common good, therefore, presupposes respect for each and every person. Persons are not to be seen or treated as objects, or as subjective means to pursue selfish personal ends, or narrowly conceived political agendas. It requires us to respect the infinite dignity of every person, no matter their condition or position in the social order. It requires that we recognize individually and societally that all persons share an equal need for food, shelter, clothing, clean water, health, work, and education, and that these basic needs ought to be met by society, in order to achieve the fullest sense of justice toward all. Historically, the most effective political philosophy to make possible the idea of the common good has been democracy. But when a democracy replaces God with the self-centered demands of immediate gratification by individuals, groups, or mere political gain for one party or another, the result is the loss of order in all things. This is how the perverse and the abnormal come to be seen as “normal.” Welcome to chaos.

The idea of the common good is central to Christianity. Jesus Christ shows us that the idea of the common good is consistent with the wisdom of God. Jesus came, not for individuals, but for every human person, equally. There is no distinction between the infinite dignity of one human person and that of another in the mind of God. And Jesus has called on all who call themselves Christians to see and to treat all other human persons in the same way he did. This attitude and commitment is consistent with Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13: 34-35).

Christians, then, are called upon to be examples of this common good, this common love, for one another, in a world that has grown confused because it no longer recognizes or accepts our mutual connection and responsibility toward one another. We Christians are called by God to model the virtues of kindness, compassion, mercy and forgiveness in a world that grows more selfish every day. Jesus calls on us, even to the point of sacrifice if necessary, to help others see the God-given wisdom of the common good again through our good words and our good deeds toward others. We are to live the Gospel, not just believe it. This is the light of God’s wisdom and of human reason. Let us, then, be small lights of God’s grace and wisdom. With God’s grace, let us love one another in the manner that he loved us. That is our mission. That is our calling. Let us not fail in it.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.
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