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Together for the Common Good

Together for the Common Good

Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation(eds.) Nick Sagovsky and Peter McGrailSCM, 2015

The 2015 Green Party Manifesto was entitled “For the Common Good”. Among other pledges, it promised to “increase public spending to almost half of national income” and “to phase out public funding of schools run by religious organisations”, saying that while “schools may teach about religions,” they “should not encourage adherence to any particular religious beliefs”. Neither of these policies is regularly associated with the Common Good, as least as articulated in Catholic Social Thought.

This little example points to both the strength and the weakness of the Common Good in public discourse. One the one hand, it inspires. Whatever one might think of the Green Party’s extended letter to Santa Claus – sorry, Manifesto – it is stirring and stimulating stuff, full of big vision and big rhetoric. That they should choose to badge it with the Common Good is indicative of how inspiring that idea (and that phrase) is.

On the other, it is so vague that it allows people to apply it to ideas that are not so much diverse as diametrically opposed. The Common Good requires devolution of agency across society. The Common Good demands the increase in the size of the state to c. 50% of GDP. The Common Good is a trans-political practice, a conversation, an attitude, an outlook. The Common Good is amenable to the tools available in a party manifesto. The Common Good seeks to secure people’s integral development, which includes their spiritual development. The Common Good requires the eradication of church schools. A critic might point out that this is a somewhat egregious list, borne of the eccentric use of the term in the Green Party Manifesto, and it is. But the confusion nonetheless still goes deep.

Confusion isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, liberalism is hardly an uncontested term and that doesn’t stop people calling themselves liberals or using the term freely and without endless qualification in public debate. Indeed, you might argue that the more important a term becomes in public discourse, the more contested it is bound to be. We shouldn’t demand definitional precision as a prerequisite for public debate.

Providing you hold that in mind, you will find Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation a satisfying book. With its roots in a 2013 conference at Liverpool Hope University, the book assembles 13 intelligent and erudite thinkers, under Nick Sagovsky and Peter McGrail’s editorial supervision, to talk about the Common Good. Topics range from Aristotle and Burke to wealth and the post-religious zeitgeist. There are conceptual pieces, such as Andrew Bradstock on public reasoning and social justice, and Anna Rowlands on the language of the common good; ecclesiological ones, such as Malcolm Brown on the Church of England and Jonathan Chaplin on evangelicalism; scriptural ones such as Esther Reed on wealth; philosophical ones, such as Patrick Riordan on Aquinas. In as far as the volume fixes on any single topic it is the market, which is the subject of four contrasting essays that comprise the final section of the book, and is touched on frequently throughout. But it is certainly not about the common good and the market. Overall, there is not a single weak contribution and unlike most comparable collections, this one isn’t the proverbial curate’s egg.

Nor, however, if I may be allowed to extend and overstretch the eggy metaphor, is it a basket of similar shaped objects that may be held up and compared with one another in a profitable manner. Indeed, there are times when the reader can’t help but think there were a few “oh, we should also have a contribution about X” moments in the editorial progress. The result is that, ironically given the topic, the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts and while the reader comes away better informed on a whole range of topics, he (or at least this one) does not take home any clearer idea of the big vision.

Perhaps that is because the edges and contours of that vision are simply unclear. On the one hand, several contributors concur with Esther Reed’s sentiments that “the common good is not an idea of a thing whose substance may be defined but a set of responsibilities pertaining to a shared project of which all are a part.” On the other, Anna Rowlands writes well on what the Common Good might mean for immigration, Philip Booth on education, and Maurice Glasman on its resonance with the German economic model. None offer a Common Good manifesto but they do lift the veil on how the idea might cash out in policy terms.

Once again, we must take care not to raise the bar of precision too high. To return to the example above, liberalism comprises both ideas and policies, both of which are contested. There would be no problem in a volume of essays that moved between the two, swinging between what liberalism was and what it entailed, in the way this collection swings between conceptual and political incarnations of the Common Good. The problem is that there doesn’t even seem to be consensus on whether the Common Good is both idea and policy, attitude and programme.

This editors clearly sense this and address the criticism in their introduction by pointing out what they call “instances of the common good” but it is an eccentric list which tends to prove the problem:

“A robust banking system, the rule of law, stable weather patterns (to which we might add clean water), opportunities for good work, the universal health care provided by the National Health Service (not forgetting competent and trustworthy public health provision), education which includes training in critical thinking… [and] a market which enables people to buy and sell in a way that satisfies all parties.”

It’s a list that reminds me of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, Jorge Luis Borges’ fictitious Chinese taxonomy of animals in his essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which categorises living creatures according to whether they (a) belong to the emperor, are (b) embalmed, (c) trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) others, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, or (n) that from a long way off look like flies. Placing the NHS alongside stable weather patterns, or a robust banking alongside training in critical thinking seems to suggest a certain lack of clarity about what level the common good operates on: political or conceptual? To this reviewer’s mind it is and indeed must be both: not only a way of understanding the world and in particular human nature but a way of structuring the former to honour the latter.

The contributors are naturally keen to insist that it doesn’t simply slide into being the latter – a political manifesto that constricts the intellectual and spiritual blood that keeps it alive. They are right to do so. But this means that those questions of what the Common Good is and what it looks like continue to rumble along without satisfactorily edging towards an answer, however tentative and revisable it may be. The collection does indeed move us towards a national conversation and it does so well, but it also almost inadvertently shows how much more of that conversation there is to be had.

Nick Spencer

Image from under the Creative Commons Licence


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