Common Good Thinking
What is the Common Good?
The Common Good is an ancient idea that resonates across many cultural traditions, from Shalom to Aristotle. Our definition comes from Christian roots:
The Common Good is the shared life of a society in which everyone can flourish - as we act together in different ways that all contribute towards that goal, enabled by social conditions that mean every single person can participate. We create these conditions and pursue that goal by working together across our differences, each of us taking responsibility according to our calling and ability. Further:
- it is realised through human civil society institutions, those mediating structures between the individual and the state which build human and social capital, empower individuals and communities, and link the individual to society as a whole;
- it is generated as people participate freely: it is not a utopian ideal and cannot, by definition, be imposed - not by a state, a group, church or any agency. It isn’t about perfection: it is messier and more beautifully human than any utopian ideal could be;
- it is inspired by the gospel and holds the human person at its heart, challenging injustice, systems and ideologies which dehumanise, on both the left and the right - in this sense the Common Good properly understood is non partisan;
- it encourages social relationships and mutual obligations across our different backgrounds and opinions, requiring us to listen and encounter each other even when we dislike each other or disagree. It therefore runs counter to the culture of individualism;
- it is rooted in Scripture, a good example being from Jeremiah 29.7: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you... for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
So we talk about Common Good thinking and practice. Read on.
Common Good Thinking - the principles
Common Good Thinking - principles to put into practice, grouped under 5 simple headings:
1 The Common Good
2 The Human Person
3 Social Relationships
5 Everyone is included, no one is left behind
This is itself a principle to be applied along with the other principles below.
The Common Good is the shared life of a society in which everyone can flourish - as we act together in different ways that all contribute towards that goal, enabled by social conditions that mean every single person can participate. We create these conditions and pursue that goal by working together across our differences, each of us taking responsibility according to our calling and ability.
The 'good' is 'common' because it can only be created together in relationship, it cannot be achieved by individuals isolated from each other. Because the Common Good is something we do, we describe it as the practice of the Common Good. It always starts with conversation.
Specifically what the social conditions need to be depends upon each situation, location and the people involved. To 'build a Common Good', our experience has shown us that the principles below also need to be put into practice, and kept in balance.
Are we creating conditions in which every individual in the community can flourish?
Are we taking responsibility, individually and together?
Are people who had been overlooked now involved?
Do we recognise the gift of the other, respecting different backgrounds and diversity of opinion?
Do we have strong relationships and mutual trust?
Common Good Thinking highlights these important aspects of the human person:
Human Dignity: Every person is worthy of respect simply by virtue of being a human being.
Human Equality: All human beings are of equal worth in the eyes of God. [Not to be confused with equality of outcome].
Dignity of Work: Work is more than a way to make a living – it is good for our humanity, because through work we participate in God’s creative plan.
Respect for Life: People matter more than things: each human life has value, from the youngest to the oldest, from the weakest to the strongest.
Does the manner in which we treat people honour their dignity? (Human Dignity)
Is our common life together, in all its aspects (political, legal, social, educational, cultural, environmental) ordered towards the Common Good? (Human Dignity and Equality)
Do we accept that each person’s life has meaning, from conception to death? (Respect for life)
Do we treat everyone equally? (Human Equality)
3. Social Relationships
The Common Good is achieved in the context of relationship: the 'good' is 'common' because it cannot be achieved by isolated individuals.
There are five principles underpinning our relationships:
Reconciliation: We are called to build relationships where there is mistrust, suspicion or estrangement, especially when we encounter people with whom we disagree. A fractured society drives people apart and is a barrier to the Common Good. The process of reconciliation involves listening with respect to the views of others and recognising their humanity.
Participation: Everyone has a right, indeed a duty, to participate in and take responsibility for shaping the Common Good wherever they can be most effective. We are social beings and not designed to live as isolated individuals.
Subsidiarity: Responsibility is taken at the most appropriate level. Decisions should always be taken closest to where they will have their effect. A central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.
Solidarity: We are social beings designed to be interconnected by relationships of mutual concern and support. Solidarity is a determination to work for the good of all and of each individual - all are responsible for all.
Note: Solidarity and Subsidiarity must be applied together, in balance. Solidarity encourages mutual responsibility and joint action; but when applied without due attention to Subsidiarity, it can tend towards collectivism, statism, deskilling and disempowerment. Similarly Subsidiarity without solidarity can leave people on their own, unsupported, but when in balance with Solidarity, Subsidiarity empowers people and communities, and importantly, pushes against centralisation. There is a necessary and creative tension between these two principles that often needs to be negotiated.
Do we allow decisions to be made at the most appropriate level? Are people involved in the decisions that affect them? eg. local environment, culture, management of resources. (Subsidiarity)
Do we allow everyone concerned to be a part of the conversation? (Participation)
Do we respect one another’s difference? (Human Dignity, Reconciliation)
Do we recognise that that meaningful interaction leads to a richer, transformative conversation? (Reconciliation and Participation)
Do we understand that diversity of background and opinion leads to smarter decisions? (Reconciliation, Participation, Human Dignity)
Are we learning alongside one another? (Solidarity, Participation, Reconciliation)
Do we accept that conflict is an inevitable part of sincere disagreement? (Reconciliation)
Are facilities, processes, environment designed for people and participation? (Participation, Solidarity)
Do we allow objections to surface? (Participation)
Are we willing to give as well as take? (Reconciliation)
The Earth was here before us and was given to us - our common home. It is God's dominion, but entrusted to us, and it is our shared responsibility to be good stewards of everything we have received – nature, one another, resources, gifts and talents.
Caring for nature is integral to human flourishing and God’s great creative plan, so it is a key element in building the Common Good.
We are physical beings living in a world of finite resources which must be looked after for the good of all. We are accountable for this to God, as well as to our own and to future generations.
Do we understand our responsibility and relationship to our fellow human beings and the physical world around us?
Are we deciding with future generations in mind?
Are we good stewards of our gifts and talents, money and time?
Are we caring well for our world, locally and globally, making the most of our finite resources?
Are resources being deployed in a way that supports the flourishing of family and community life around the world?
There is to be a preferential option for those who are poor or vulnerable, so we say “Come and join in…we need you!” For a healthy society, this principle must be at the centre of our decision-making because it recognises that If the strong are separated from the weak, the strong become impoverished, since being fully human means living together, sharing a common life.
Do our decisions put the interests of the vulnerable, poor and excluded first?
Are we making sure that everyone has the skills and support they need to participate?
What the Common Good will look like is up to you and your community to work out together. It should be in a constant state of renegotiation.
The Common Good emphasises the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, such as the family, the church, other religious institutions, unions, businesses, voluntary associations, schools, fraternal groups, clubs and guilds. These are the mediating structures, not part of the state or international big business, which build human and social capital, empower individuals and communities, and link the individual to society as a whole.
Reciprocity ('returning a kindness' or 'exchange of gifts') underpinning membership of these groups often leads to trust, which in turn strengthens solidarity. Intermediate institutions (sometimes called local, mediating or civil society institutions) are vital because they strengthen and preserve human civil society against the forces of the "market" and the "administrative state" which have a tendency to dehumanise.
Taking responsibility and putting the principles into practice
Anyone can apply the principles at home, in our neighbourhoods, workplaces, relationships and associations, as citizens, neighbours, shareholders, consumers, business owners, leaders, colleagues, savers, employers, clergy, parishioners, campaigners, investors, students, professionals, legislators, policy makers - we are limited only by our imagination. It is a non partisan route towards social justice, and is also a recipe for a healthy civil society.
In this way, we can re-humanise systems that have lost their soul, strengthen community and local institutions, create a fairer economy and work for a balance of interests between groups who are estranged. It offers an approach that is inclusive and human, that transcends tribal lines and encourages everyone to take responsibility from the grassroots to the boardroom.
We emphasise that the Common Good needs to be built by us, together across our differences. The Common Good involves putting human dignity at the heart of economic, civic and cultural life.
The above is a living document, last updated in March 2018, and comes out of T4CG’s research and ongoing learning. The principles are drawn from across the Christian traditions and in particular from Catholic social thought (CST), a large body of thinking in the Catholic tradition that draws from learned experience (from a broad range of sources and traditions, not just Catholic) from 1891 to the present day. CST is rooted in the Gospel, and is intended as a ‘gift to all people of goodwill’. It is essentially a set of guidelines for good judgement, to help people discern for themselves how to put the social values of the Gospel into practice. Our research has helped us ‘translate’ some of the terminology to resonate with other perspectives – other Christian denominations, other faith traditions and secular viewpoints. We are open to learning from others and would be very grateful if you could email any comments or suggestions for this document’s development to firstname.lastname@example.org