The common good

The Common Good (August 16, 2005)

Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

The debate about whether to change our current form of government or to unseat a sitting president is an example of a false dilemma. We are tempted to think that we must choose one or the other when, actually, we can choose both or choose neither. The debate begs the question of why such acts should be necessary in the first place. The basic question is: what are we trying to achieve? For what end do we want to replace or retain the president? For what end do we want to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government? For what end is governance, anyway?

Though fundamental questions, these have rarely been asked because people are more comfortable talking about the “hows” of things rather than the “whys”. Einstein once said that, “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age.” His observation aptly captures our country’s situation today.

I think that the end of governance – its basic purpose -- is the promotion of the common good. In supporting this position, we obviously need an understanding of the term “common good” before governance decisions or systems can be evaluated.

There are at least two ways to think about the common good. The first and most popular way is to think of it as the sum total of individual goods. In this view, if more Filipinos can be allowed to obtain what they consider as good, whether this meets their material or social needs, we can say that the common good has been promoted. An important feature of this view is that the decision on what is “good” is left entirely to the individual and the common good is simply the sum of all individual goods. I like to call this the individualist view of the common good.

The individualist view supports the thinking that the common good is the same as the combined material goods of people. After all, if each individual is free to determine what is good, then he can decide to spend or trade his material goods as he sees fit. And if everyone has more material goods to be able to do this, then the common good is promoted and society, as a whole, becomes better off.

The individualist view also supports the thinking that what is bad for business as a whole – in terms of lost income, disruption in sales activity, etc. – harms the common good. Many who complain about the current political issues as being bad for business, for example, argue that we should just move on and let the constitutional processes take care of the issues. We should concentrate on going about each day so that our livelihoods are not disrupted. Again, the argument is concerned with not diminishing the material welfare of people since this is deemed to harm the common good.

The main problem with the individualist view is that it tends to reduce man’s needs to the level of materialism. It defines the common good by what people, as individuals, have. Going back to Einstein’s observation, many tend to forget that having something is only a means for something else and not an end in itself.

The inadequacy of the individualist view becomes clear when people compare our country with others and assume that countries which are materially wealthier have attained more of the common good. By analogy, posh villages with high-end security, well-maintained roads and immaculately manicured front lawns are considered better living communities than middle-class subdivisions. This is simplistic. Any perceptive observer will notice that many upper-class (or middle-class, for that matter) enclaves have no sense of community at all. That is, although residents of these gated areas often come home after the exhaustion of work to the restful privacy of their secure houses, their very preoccupation with having have taken their time away from becoming a real community.

In contrast to the individualist view, the common good can be defined a second way in terms of integral human development in a community setting. This view defines the common good by what people have together become. The human development view dates back to the classical Greek philosophers and has been refined by Catholic social teaching throughout the 20th century.

To Aristotle, the community is as important as the individual since “the whole is of necessity prior to the part”. He considered the State as the highest community of all which should aim to be a community, not only of law, but of fellowship. Catholic social teaching builds on the importance of community when it defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment”. In this view, being materially well-off may be a good thing, not for itself, but because it enables one to achieve other “more” good things, such as developing the mind through education, experiencing the beauty of culture through travel and the arts, growing emotionally through leisurely activities with the family, or participating in the resolution of political issues through discussion and the ballot.

I favor the human development view of the common good. In resolving governance issues and choosing governance systems, let us ask ourselves, “What will this make us become?” Will we grow in fellowship and in our ability to be fulfilled as human beings or will we be further divided into haves and have-nots who are merely sharing a common piece of land but not a shared destiny? It’s our choice.