Detroit industry murals

This is a transcript of the RICS Harris lecture that I gave on 14 November 2017 on ‘The public interest and the common good’.

The public interest. The public advantage. The public good. The common good.

These are all phrases that seem indispensible, phrases which we all use, and of which we have an instinctive understanding, yet the meanings of which are all contested and seemingly impossible to define.

These phrases are often used interchangeably. Many philosophers and political thinkers would argue, however, that there are fundamental differences in their meanings. In the ‘common good’, ‘common’ implies commonality among all individuals that belong to a certain group, whereas in ‘public good’, ‘public’ usually refers to matters that are subject to collective action. In contrast to the term ‘good’, which often signifies moral ends that people ought to pursue, ‘interest’ is frequently associated with material benefits. And so on.

I am going to ignore most of these debates about the distinct meanings. What I want to concentrate on is a more fundamental issue that all these concepts attempt to grasp: the relationship between the individual and society, and of the way in which the good of individuals relates to that of a larger whole. I will use the phrase ‘the common good’ to refer to that broad sense of the good of the larger community or society.

Discussins of the common good, and of the relationship between the individual and society, has became central to much political discourse today – from populism and immigration to religious freedom and transgender rights. To try and understand why the issue is so problematic, I want to look at the historical change in the understanding of the common good, particularly between the ancient and the modern world, and also at the social and political changes of the past few decades that have shaped how we look at the issue. For reasons of time I will deal primarily with Western traditions, though there is an important, and in some ways similar, story to be told about the history of non-Western discussions.

Let me begin with Aristotle, often seen as the philosopher with whom serious thinking about the common good begins in the Western tradition. ‘Whenever the one, the few, or the many rule for the common benefit’, he wrote in his Politics, ‘these constitutions must be correct; but if they look to the private advantage, be it of the one or the few or the mass, they are deviations.’

Aristotle, like many, perhaps most, Ancient thinkers, and many thinkers within all three monotheistic faiths, held that human beings, like all objects in the cosmos, exist for a purpose, and that to be good was to act in a way that enabled them to fulfil their purpose. The function of a knife is to cut. A good knife is one that is sharp enough to do so. The function of humans, for Aristotle, was the exercise of reason. A good human being is one who acted virtuously in accordance with reason.

Every individual had a role within their community. The function of a polis, or city-state, was to allow humans to flourish. The common good was vested in the ability of individuals to flourish within their community – slaves to labour pliantly, rulers to rule justly, philosophers to teach with wisdom.

Aristotle may have been the first philosopher seriously to develop the argument about the common good. But his understanding of what it constituted was very different from that to which most would be drawn today. Aristotle argues that it does not matter what form of government exists, so long as it promotes the common good. Good or just governance could be with a single ruler (what Aristotle called ‘kingship’), by a small group of people (‘aristocracy’), and by the many (‘polity’). Any form of government that does not promote the common good is corrupt. Corresponding to the three types of just governments are, for Aristotle, three forms of corrupt governments, namely ‘tyranny [which] is monarchy for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy for the benefit of the men of means, and democracy for the benefit of the men without means’.

Today most people would agree that the justness of a government depends at least in part on the nature of that government. Few, for instance, would think that a dictatorship that promoted the common good was really a just government.

'Athens: the Acropolis', Sketch for Illustration to Byron circa 1830 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Aristotle’s attitude to governance and the common good, and the difference between his view and the contemporary view, reflects a deeper difference in the understanding of the relationship between the individual and society. For Aristotle, the primary good was the good of the community rather than the good of the individual. No citizen, he argues, ‘should think that he belongs just to himself’. Rather, ‘he must regard all citizens as belonging to the state, for each is a part of the state.’ Hence ‘while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.’

Aristotle’s was not, of course, the only view of the relationship between individual and the community in ancient Greece. There were a plurality of philosophies, and some conceptions of the ‘community’ – for example that of the Stoics – were significantly different. Nevertheless, the idea of the pre-eminence of the community, and of the sublimation of individual interests to community interests, was one of the foundation stones of Greek society. And not just of Greek society. It was an understanding expressed in different forms throughout the Ancient world and through the monotheistic faiths. For the Romans, ‘Res publica’ was a key notion meaning broadly that which is held in common by the people. Within the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas, a key figure in marrying Christian and Aristotelian thought, developed the most influential account of the common good. Following Aristotle, Aquinas argues that the pursuit of self-interest leads to a deviant form of rule: ‘A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler’.

Aquinas, however, was not only concerned with the flourishing of particular political societies, but also conceived of humans as part of a universal moral order. In contrast with ancient Greek and Roman theorists, he identified the common good with God. Consequently, Aquinas held that knowledge of the common good is available to Christian believers through revelation. ‘The good of the whole universe’, as he puts it, ‘is that which is apprehended by God, Who is the Maker and Governor of all things’.

What of non-Western traditions? The division often made between Western and non-Western thought is a fraught one, and many of supposed differences viewed too simplistically. It is often claimed, for instance, that Western thought far more individualist than non-Western traditions. Yet, the concept of the common good is far more developed and debated within the Greek, Roman and Christian traditions than in other traditions.

It is debatable, for instance, whether there exists a direct equivalent to ‘common good’ in the Chinese language, even though similar ideas can be found in Chinese philosophy, including in Confucian thought. This may be because the idea of the common good is so baked into Chinese traditions that philosophers have not explicitly explored its meaning. Yet that, too, would be a false assumption. In the West, there is a tendency to look upon Chinese philosophy purely through the lens of Confucianism, and of its concept of a harmonious society and of the obligations of individuals to family, society and state in establishing such harmony. But, just as there have been a plurality of Western philosophical and ethical traditions, so there have been in China, too.

Mohism, for instance, the philosophy developed by Mo Tzu, who lived in the latter half of the fifth century BCE, around a century after Confucius, was a far more radical viewpoint. Mo distinguished between two principles: that of ‘partiality’ and that of ‘universality’. Confucius held to the principle of partiality, thinking of ‘harmony’ purely in terms of one’s own community, and discounting the moral interests of other peoples or societies. Mo, however, cleaved to the principle of ‘universality’, insisting that the moral interests of strangers, and of other peoples and states, must concern us as much as those of our own. It was a remarkable argument made three centuries before similar ideas began to develop in the Greek and Christian traditions. Mo never used the concept of the common good; but in universalizing the good, he expanded the notion of the ‘common’ to which the good applied.

Mo Tzu 2

The Islamic world, it is often forgotten, developed a closer relationship to Aristotelian thought than did the Christian tradition, at least until Aquinas. It was through Islamic translations of, and commentaries on, Aristotle that Aquinas, and Christendom more generally, rediscovered the treasures of Greek thought.

The concept of maslaha – ‘wellbeing’ or ‘welfare’ – a legal notion developed in particular by the eleventh century theologian al-Ghazali, came to play a similar role to ‘common good’ in Greek and Christian thought. For al-Ghazali, maslaha was God’s general purpose in revealing the divine law, and its specific aims was the preservation of five essentials of human well-being: religion, life, intellect, offspring, and property. Many contemporary Islamic scholars, Tariq Ramadan and Abdal-Hakim Murad, for instance, explicitly use maslaha as a synonym for common good.

I do not have the time to explore these non-Western traditions further, but it is worth flagging up both the existence of these debates and the fact that the distinctions between Western and non-Western traditions, while important, are, perhaps, overplayed.

* * * *

The emergence of the modern world brought with it major changes that transformed the language of morality. In Europe, these changes took place from about the sixteenth century onwards.

One key change was the dissolution of traditional communities and traditional social relations. The coming of the market, the emergence of nascent capitalism, tore through feudal communities. Private property acquired new meaning, and increasingly took precedence over the common good. Common land, for instance – land that traditionally had been open to all for the common good – became enclosed and transformed into private property.

At the same time, social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society. As people rejected the idea of society as a given, so ought, what we ought to do, how things ought to be, became a political, rather than merely a moral, demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change. And the notion of the common good became contested. In the past, the notion of the common good seemed relatively evident. No longer.

A second key change was in the understanding of the individual, and of his or her relationship to the community or society. In the premodern world, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he or she lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community.

For Aristotle, the polis, or community, was a natural phenomenon. Just as it was in the nature of humans to be happy, so it was in the nature of humans to come together in groups capable of supporting and sustaining happiness. There was also something almost spiritual or sacred about the ‘polis’ to ancient Greeks, a sense that the modern translation as ‘city state’ does not capture. Polis described ‘home’ and embodied a sense of belonging. It embodied also the sense that only through membership of the polis was humanity raised above the level of barbarism. These connotations were maintained to a large degree in subsequent discussion in Ancient Rome and within Christian thought.

In the early modern period, and particularly through the Enlightenment, this sense of community began to fade but a new concept began to acquire an almost sacred quality: that of inalienable individual rights. As the United States Declaration of Independence puts it, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…’

Rights were seen as inalienable because they were deemed not to be dependent upon the laws or customs of any particular community or government but natural and universal and not to be repealed or restrained by human laws.

There is a long history to the development of the concept of natural rights and of natural law. Elements of the idea can be found in Greek thought, are referred to in Roman philosophy, and become developed within Christian thought, particularly by Aquinas. But it was out of the Enlightenment that the idea of individual rights took flight, and the notion of rights became a central feature of modern liberal societies.

david jeu de paume

From the beginnings of the modern period, there existed a new kind  tension between the individual and the community. Inevitably this tension has shaped the debate around the common good. Much of this debate has taken the form of a debate about liberalism and its critics, and it is on this that I will focus.

With the rise of the individual came also the emergence of liberalism as a philosophy. Liberalism is a vast and complex political outlook embodying many, often contradictory strands. What I will say will inevitably sound to many as ignoring the richness and complexity of this debate. That is unavoidable in a short talk, but I hope that not too much nuance is lost .

At the heart of liberalism stands the individual. Liberals broadly see society as an aggregate of morally autonomous individuals who come together freely to form societies and consent to government. As John Locke, often seen as the seminal liberal philosopher, put it in his 1690 work Two Treatises on Government ‘that which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society.’

This is the notion of the ‘social contract’, whose modern form originates in the work of the seventeenth century English philosopher (and contemporary of Locke’s) Thomas Hobbes. What early liberals took from Hobbes (later liberals developed different arguments) was the idea of the individual as existing prior to society, conceptually if not historically, and of society as the product of voluntary, rational agreement between its members. In this liberal view, the individual arrives on the stage with his psychological dispositions fully formed, and with his moral ends and social aims already given.

Critics of liberalism have long pointed out that it makes no sense to think of the individual as existing prior to society, either historically or conceptually. Humans are not individuals who become social. They are social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with other.

Once society comes to be seen as an aggregation of individuals, the question of what constitutes the common good also becomes problematic. For, from a liberal conception, what is it that defines the common good in that society apart from that everyone should have certain inalienable rights and that every individual should be free to express his or her preferences in a variety of ways?

These, of course, are not minimal gains. Equal rights is a key foundation stone of the modern world, one that has transformed the lives of millions, and one that few of liberalism’s even severest critics would gainsay. And the ability for individuals to be free to express their preferences, and to live according to them, would be accepted, to some degree at least, by most such critics. It is out of these two concepts that that of religious freedom emerges, and the belief that the state should not interfere in what consenting adults consent to in private.  But, many critics argue, it leads also to a coarseness in social interaction, to a sense of insecurity and to a loss of social meaning. It leads, too, to fractious debates such as over same-sex marriage or immigration. For, the critics argue, an aggregate of individuals does nota society make. Nor does an aggregate of individual desires and needs and preferences constitute the basis for defining the common good.

Such issues seem to have been exacerbated in recent decades by the plural character of contemporary societies. The notion of the common good implies also the existence of a community with shared moral values. In a plural society that comprises a ‘community of communities’, as the influential Parekh report on multiculturalism wrote of Britain, the notion of shared moral values appears to have less force. As the Jesuit priest and moral theologian David Hollenbach asks rhetorically in his book The Common Good and Christian Ethics, ‘Where there is no shared vision of the good life does it make sense to speak of a community at all?’.

The irony, though, is that this has always been the case. Societies have always been plural, though contemporary conceptions of pluralism are significantly different to those in the past. And the community from which is defined the common good has never encompassed the whole of a society’s plurality.

Slaves mining silver

When Aristotle wrote of the common good, he meant specifically the common good of those defined as citizens; the good of non-citizen – women, slaves, manual labourers, for instance – mattered little except in relation to the good of the citizens. Workers and farmers could not be citizens because a working life ‘is not noble, and it militates against virtue.’ The masses do not respond to rational ‘argument and fine ideals’ but to ‘fear’ and to ‘compulsion and punishment’.

These ideas shaped concepts of the common good in medieval Europe, Slaves and serfs, peasants and commoners, Jews and Muslims, were never part of the community from which the good was defined.

In early modern England, Catholics were seen as outside the moral community. Locke demanded religious tolerance, but not for Catholics. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society’, he insisted, ‘are to be tolerated.’

Jews were even more excluded from the moral community. From the creation of the first Ghetto, in Venice, 500 years ago, to Martin Luther’s fulminations against Jewry, to the Dreyfus affair in France, to Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, designed principally to stem the flow into the country of East European Jews, to the Holocaust, a central strand in European historical consciousness was the portrayal of Jews as the elemental ‘Other’.

Today, we imagine that Europe, until the coming of mass immigration, was racially and ethnically homogenous. But that is not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the mid-nineteenth century, London was seen as racially divided, but not because of the presence of foreigners. It was rather the working class and the poor that were regarded as the racial Other.

A vignette of working-class life in Bethnal Green, a working class area of east London, that appeared in an 1864 edition of The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, was typical of Victorian middle-class attitudes. ‘The Bethnal Green poor’, the article explained, constituted ‘a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’ ‘Distinctions and separations, like those of English classes’, the article concluded, ‘which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.’

And as the racial Other, they were not part of the moral community for which the common good was defined.

The common good, in other words, was always the common good of the few, not of the many. Against this background, liberal ideas about universal, individual rights have played an important role in expanding the notion of the community to which the good should pertain. Here lies the paradox: liberal individualism has helped both undermine the idea of community, and hence of the common good, and expand our conception of the moral community which defines the common good.

There has always been a large strain of hypocrisy and double standards in liberal philosophy, from Locke’s intolerance of Catholics, to the US Founding Fathers’ declaration of inalienable rights while being slaveholders, and counting African Americans as 3/5ths human, to the contemporary hostility to Muslims expressed by many liberals. Nevertheless, the principles embodied in the concepts of equality and of universal rights has been indispensible in the drive towards creating a true, inclusive moral community.

So where do we go from here? Do we simply accept that the notion of the common good is inchoate and indefinable? Or else, in the attempt to make the common good more definable, must we redefine the moral community in a more exclusive way? Both these approaches find a hearing today. Some argue that in a plural society there is no possibility of defining the common good except in a minimal sense. Others try to define common values by creating concepts of community rooted in exclusive visions of nation, ethnicity or faith.

My view is to reject both approach. Our starting point should be the acknowledgement that values in any society are always contested. And it is, paradoxically, only through such contestation that we can begin to define the values to which we, collectively, wish to adhere.

Remember that 200 years ago the question of slavery was contested far more fiercely than questions of same-sex marriage or immigration are today. But it was out of that contestation that a common view about slavery developed, at the heart of which lay the acceptance that no concept of the good could include the existence of slavery, developed. This was not just a contestation in the sense of an intellectual debate. It was also a contestation in the sense of the creation of social movements that could challenge both ideas and practices of slavery, from the great Haitian revolution of the late eighteenth century – the first and only successful slave revolt in history – to the anti-slavery movements in Britain.

Haitian Revolution

One of the key shifts over the past three decades has been disenchantment with the idea of social transformation, and the decline of organizations for collective social change. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful at the same time as society has become more fragmented. The weakening of labour organizations, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the erosion of civil society, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the Church, that traditionally helped socialize individuals – all have helped create a more socially, fragmented society.

People have begun, as a result, to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity – the question of who is in my moral community – has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’.

The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.

Through these changes the idea of values as emerging through debate and contestation has faded. Instead all too often we live in our own little boxes, or echo chambers, unwilling to listen to others or to scrutinise our own beliefs, refusing to be open to accommodate others or to change ourselves. ‘The very idea of politics as an act of deliberation, by which people with inevitably different desires and starting positions must work something out, must find their way to a destination that none may have imagined before’, the historian Daniel T Roger suggests, has become ‘devalued.’

The problem we face today is more basic than that of defining the common good. It is that of being willing to talk to each other, to take each others’ views seriously, and to engage with them; it is also that of being open to changing ourselves, and  acknowledging that only through this process can we begin to define the values that we truly wish to hold in common. Without addressing these issues, the possibility of discussing the values we may wish to strive for, or of constructing a moral community,  vanishes.


The images are, from top down: Detail from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals; JMW Turner’s ‘Athens: The Acropolis’ (sketch for an illustration for Byron) from the Tate Britain; Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Le Serment du Jeu de paume’; Athenian slaves in a silver mine (photo via Wikipedia); 1845 French engraving of the Battle of Vertières during the Haitian Revolution (engraver unknown).


  1. Sarka

    Interesting but often desperately thin… E.g. as so often today, “othering” concepts are chucked about enthusiastically and with no more than a single allegedly typical lone quotation (the 1864 liberal commentator).

    “And as the racial Other [the poor, the working class] were not part of the moral community for which the common good was defined.”
    By the mid-19th century, the results of uncontrolled urbanisation/industrialisation included the burning “social question”, of mass poverty and “no-go areas”, and if Kenan wants to pursue his argument about racial analogy I suppose he could bring up the Oxford Movement – the bright young clerics who went to some of the worst urban districts to try to “rechristianise” as well as socially help the poor. Yet that sort of thing also undermines his point. Evangelical Christians as well as Anglo-Catholics very definitely regarded the poor as “part of the moral community for which the common good was defined”. Victorian England was a place of terrible inequality and of course anxiety as well as pride in modernisation, and on the secular as well as religious side a whole range of reactions to e.g. the break up of older community models especially in the rural areas. ~ A few trite deployments of “racial othering” notions can do no justice to all the fissures as well as the solidarities of English/British society in the early modern era and 19th century.

    And of course these “thin” abstract characterisations signally fail to address the obvious issue of “to what degree?”
    Sure, politics, social politics, religious politics etc etc…were always areas of (sigh!) “contestation”, some degree of “plurality” blah di blah…to be honest, every schoolgirl still knows that, and those who today wonder whether very ostentatiously “diversitarian” societies of the modern kind can provide enough of the glue – not utterly similar attitudes but common frames of reference, vocabulary, some common sentiments – necessary to keep a liberal self-governing democracy/polity going, are rarely uninformed enough to believe that there were never any strains, rifts and multiple voices in earlier times.

    The obvious problem is that humans need continuity as well as change, and there is something strangely empty about asking people to find new solidarities based only on “change” and a sort of semi-cultic willingness in individuals to “being open to changing ourselves”…My jaws seem to snap on nothingness. And I wonder – Kenan, what in your own case do you feel you ought to be willing to change…

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Thank Kenan.

    With regard to the last paragraph, insofar as this “talking” and the serious engagement with and consideration of others’ views takes place within and across existing communities and worldviews, the respective societies in which these communities and worldviews exist have themselves arisen out of basic moral values and prior constructions of the common good that made for social cooperation and governance. It appears to this reader that the problems are thus not “more basic” but more urgent, owing to the latest iteration of capitalist globalization and its corresponding of forms of (hyper- or ‘indiscriminate’) technology: from communication to transportation to agriculture …. Thus the post-classical Liberal project of “public reason” as in the work of Rawls, Habermas, Nussbaum, Sen, and Gaus, among others, involves progressive expansion of concentric circles of participation and deliberation in some sense beyond nation-states and forms of collective identity in which a “free” moral order may emerge that is well short of the various ideals of same, one in which we eventually converge on a moral equilibrium (with a revised set of duties, obligations, rights, virtues, values, and principles) which, as Gaus reminds us, should not be understood in terms of moral complacency. In a neo-liberal capitalist world it seems both the opportunities and spaces for such talking are distorted when not shrinking as a result of social media, authoritarian trends in ostensibly democratic societies, and the myriad political and cultural effects of increasing inegalitarianism. Thus the project of public reason itself can seem (in a non-pejorative sense) utopian and thus quite elusive. This sounds gloomy, no doubt, so I hope we can find concrete demonstrations and vital examples that illustrate not only why such public reasoning is absolutely necessary, but what forms it might take, how and where it might be conducted, including reflections on its probabilities and possibilities for affecting the status quo, for moving (perhaps to some extent by displacing) the powers-that-be. We need to complement such “talking” with forms of political praxis that can create, nurture, and protect our metaphorical salons.

  3. FHanley

    Great discussion. And I wonder how religious points of view can stay in the conversation on the common good when that conversation has become so polarised.

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