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A ‘politics of the common good’ is gaining traction: but what does it mean?

A ‘politics of the common good’ is gaining traction: but what does it mean?

In the second in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin gets behind a familiar phrase and asks what does the politics of the ‘common good’ actually mean? 26/04/2021

In my previous blog I argued that if we are to breathe new life into our fragile and faltering democracies we will need to be more welcoming of compelling visions of the common good, including openly faith–based ones. Neither a utilitarian, consumerist politics of mere ‘interest’ nor a populist exploitation of tribal emotions will restore health to our enfeebled democratic forums. Nor will they recover the honest, respectful and reasoned practices of civility that have been subjected to such corrosive assaults in recent years. 

Calling for a ‘politics of the common good’ is hardly novel. Indeed, sceptics might retort that the ground is already littered with platitudinous and sanctimonious invocations of the term, framed so abstractly that they fail to engage the cogwheels of any actual policy debates. Democratic discourse and policymaking certainly needs lucid and relevant articulations of the idea.[1] Its advocates need to commit to the hard graft of defining this vital term so that it might actually inform the substance of democratic debates. 

The common good is widely invoked by Christian social organisations, not least the ecumenical movement Together for the Common Good, which commends an array of specific social and political projects pursuant to the idea.[2] Closer to parliamentary politics, notions of the common good have also been animating diverse streams of thinking in several political parties. While the term itself doesn’t feature prominently in the Green Party’s 2019 manifesto, an ecological vision of a common good of humans–within–nature permeates its thinking.[3] The idea is explicitly invoked in the political visions of both ‘Blue Labour’[4] and ‘Red Tory’[5] movements; such ideas were, briefly, if unproductively, influential among Theresa May’s circle of advisers.[6] An idea of the common good, if not the word itself, is at work in Tory MP Danny Kruger’s new initiative, The New Social Covenant Unit.[7]

A politics of the common good must be part of the new inspiration our democracy needs. But it won’t gain traction without the perspiration required to flesh out what it specifically demands of political institutions. Given the diverse interpretations to which it can, evidently, lend itself, this is no easy task. Here are some throat–clearing reflections to that end.[8] 

The common good was famously defined in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (1966) as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’.[9] 

The observant will notice that specific policy proposals do not leap fully formed from that definition. ‘Social conditions facilitating human fulfilment’ could potentially include anything from education systems to robust civic virtues, to sound banking practices, to stable families, to humane ancient customs, to clean air, to university accreditation rules, to a minimum wage, to the rule of law. 

But formal, generic definitions of the common good like this are not intended as standalone ideas from which specific programmes can simply be deduced. In the Christian tradition at least, the meaning of the common good depends entirely on a family of interlocking ideas characterising a flourishing human society as created, sustained and being redeemed by God: dignity, human rights, solidarity, subsidiarity, participation, justice, freedom, and more. It also presupposes substantive (if evolving) accounts of social institutions necessary to human flourishing, such as marriage, family, friendship, neighbourhood, business, labour and charitable associations, among others. 

As these notions have come to be fleshed out in Christian social thought they point, not to a single blueprint for an ideal society, but at least to a limited range of legitimate possible societies. Equally, they rule out some forms of society as inherently dehumanising – such as one that would replace human work with technology, or with what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’[10]; disempowering – such as one prioritising consumption over production and participation, or one cramping family or voluntary associations under an overweening bureaucratic state; or oppressive – such as a natural hierarchy with assigned social status or caste, or any form of authoritarianism. ‘The common good’ can’t provide cover for just any ideological scheme.

In specifying its meaning, three considerations are important. First, the common good does not have its own independent claims that can be placed in competition with those of ‘particular goods’ – our possessions, life projects, families or associations. Rather, it is the aspiration towards a just coordination of particular goods. Where claims to particular goods, such as property rights, undermine just coordination – as when the rules governing market exchanges are stacked in favour of powerful corporate elites – the imperatives of the common good take precedence. This allows for a wide range of valid claims to be factored into policy debates, in contrast to political visions skewed towards just a narrow set (such as those of urban cosmopolitans or ‘red wall’ inhabitants). 

Second, every human being possesses not only claims on the common good but – as bearer of the imago deicapacities to promote it.[11] It is a radically empowering notion. People do this, in the first instance, not by taking up political tasks but by contributing to human flourishing in ordinary life: living virtuous individual lives, raising well–adjusted children, nurturing supportive neighbourhoods, caring for the environment, consuming for need not excess, using productive resources efficiently or practising just employment relationships. Our atomised, individualistic culture urgently needs to recapture this sense of the common good as everyone’s responsibility, and consequently of democratic politics not first as a means to self–interest but as an arena in which all citizens find honour and recognition. 

Third, the state is not responsible for promoting every aspect of the common good but only those aspects essential to the integrity of public space. ‘Public space’ is the space between the many particular agents (individuals, associations, networks) making up society. It is a dense arena of reciprocal communication and exchange among such agents, one which is open to all and not owned by anyone – not even the state. It is an arena of great opportunity and enrichment, but also of serious threat, requiring an authorised agency to promote and protect what can be called the political common good. That is the special task of the state. Working out the conditions of just public space for diverse sectors of law and policy is a central task of a politics of the common good. 

A political vision of the common good inspired by Christian faith need not be coy about drawing on its full suite of insights and sources in commending it in pluralistic debates. But any such vision must be prepared to get down and dirty in specifying its concrete pay–off for such debates. I’ll offer some examples in subsequent blogs. 

Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM in April.


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[1] Among Christian sources, see Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail, eds, Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation (SCM, 2015); Nicholas Townsend,  ‘Government and social infrastructure’, in Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin, eds, God and Government (SPCK 2009), ch. 5; Anna Rowlands, ‘The Politics of the Common Good: What does Catholic Social Teaching have to offer to electoral politics?’, The Manchester Newman Lecture 2015,  https://www.newman.org.uk/files/upload/Common%20Good%20Anna%20Rowlands.pdf; Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Communicating the Good: The Politics and Ethics of the Common Good’,  https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/leading-thinkers/the-politics-and-ethics-of-the-common-good

[2] https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/

[3] https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Elections/Green%20Party%20Manifesto%202019.pdf

[4] Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, eds, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (I. B. Tauris, 2015).

[5] Phillip Blond, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It (Faber and Faber, 2010) and the work of the think–tank ResPublica, https://www.respublica.org.uk/

[6] Jason Cowley, ‘Whatever happened to Theresa May’s politics of the “common good”?’, New Statesman 11 October 2017, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/10/whatever-happened-theresa-may-s-politics-common-good?page=1

[7] https://newsocialcovenant.co.uk/

[8] For a fuller account, see my Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM, 2021), ch. 1.

[9] http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

[10] David Graber, Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It (Penguin 2018).

[11] Thus Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) defines ‘solidarity’ as ‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all‘, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei-socialis.html, §38. See also Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (2020), http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology, he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of several Theos reports, and of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021).

Posted 26 April 2021

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