The “Common Good” Is Not the “Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”

The “Common Good” Is Not the “Greatest Good for the Greatest Number” April 24, 2020

Among those discussing the future of right-of-center politics in America, few concepts seem to be more fraught than the term common good.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Simply put, common good means simply that a healthy political order stands for some principle of value beyond merely maximizing its citizens’ individual autonomy. All functional political systems have some notion of the common good in play, whether or not they use that phrase. To cite the obvious example, mandatory statewide lockdowns—which have imposed severe restrictions on liberty in order to, in theory, preserve citizens’ physical health—reflect an overarching political commitment to the value of human life.

Crucially, the common good, as classically understood, is nothing to be afraid of. Stephanie Slade points out (correctly) that, according to the Catholic Catechism, the common good simply means “conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Commitment to this goal is also a principle of Lutheran theology: Martin Luther’s Large Catechism discusses “good government” at length, affirming the state’s duty to suppress “open wantonness,” to “punish evil-doers,” and to “establish and maintain order in all manner of trade and commerce, lest the poor be burdened and oppressed.”

But among some who talk about the common good, the term is used with some distinctly menacing overtones, as if “pursuing the common good” was rather like using the Death Star to destroy Alderaan. Adrian Vermeule’s notorious Atlantic essay on constitutionalism assures readers that “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate,” promises that “[s]ubjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods,” and celebrates the dawn of “a new confidence in authoritative rule for the common good.” Along similar lines, C.C. Pecknold curiously suggests that the common good cannot be identified with the private good, as if the common good were something that necessarily subsumes individual well-being (it would be more correct to say that the relation between common and private good is nonreflexive—the common good isthe private good, rightly understood, but the private good is not itself the common good). And Sohrab Ahmari demands a project of “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

You’d be forgiven for reacting to this talk of the common good with revulsion, because (as I see it), this tenorof “common-good thinking” is antithetical to the tradition of Western political thought from which it claims to emerge. Properly conceived, acknowledgement of a common good is a promise that it is possible, in the fullness of time, to transcend the conditions of human enmity and live fully in God’s light; politically, it is a commitment to be a society that does its best, within prudential limits, to secure the conditions of “ontological peace.” Militantly anti-individualist language obscures the fact that to live in that state of peace is to live as one was created, in their human individuality, to be.

So what, exactly, is being expressed by the threatening invocation of the common good?

What I think is happening here is a kind of equivocation. Where common good is employed (as in the above instances) to suggest the dissolution of individual concern into a great collective enterprise, common good is standing in for a rather more problematic term: the greater good of utilitarianism. And I think this temptation is attributable, at least in part, to the tendency of Catholic theology to think of meritrighteousness worthy of reward—in quantifiable terms.

A utilitarian state, of course, seeks “the greatest good for the greatest number” as measured along some evaluative axis or another. A good deal of classical economics implicitly relied on utilitarian premises, and moral philosophers in the vein of Peter Singer routinely attempt to reason about right and wrong by way of the quantification of pleasure and pain. As relevant to the present context, it strikes me that, in place of the giant utility- and dollar-maximizing enterprise that is the neoliberal state, certain defenders of the “common good” seem to conceive of their ideal polity as a giant merit-maximizing enterprise (where merit is understood in its full theological sense). Individual interests, such as they are, must always be sublimated to the overarching social goal: generating more merit, in the same way that a secular neoliberal society tries to generate more wealth.

To be sure, this is a startling analogy—but I don’t think it’s entirely unfounded. Some of the aforementioned “common-good defenders,” prior to their conversions to Catholicism, had an extensive track record of focusing on economic growth as a driving political concern. In a 2016 Commentary article, Ahmari pooh-poohed economic populism while mounting a defense of the liberal-democratic ideals he now rejects. (Even earlier, in 2012 he extolled Utah’s booming economic engine in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.) And Vermeule’s 2011 book The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic grounded its case for a vigorous executive, in part, in the executive’s power to respond effectively to economic crises and promote consistent growth. In both cases, the authors rely on broadly “quantificationist” criteria for the success or failure of a given political system: the greater good, which in turn is the motivator of moral decision-making, is something that can be thought of in numeric terms.

That is a hard tendency to shake. And so, at least in these high-profile cases, I can’t help but wondering if a broadly utilitarian approach to politics has simply—post-conversion—been transposed into a different key. This utilitarian undercurrent, I think, is what a number of Ahmari’s and Vermeule’s critics are reacting to, not the concept of a common good writ large.

Being Lutheran, I would reject the entire framing of Christian merit in this way—and I daresay even most Catholics would disavow a political vision that, whether consciously or unconsciously, sees society as little more than a massive “merit generator.” Suffice it to say that the point reveals the urgency of uncoupling any talk of the common good from any shadow of utilitarian value commitments: Jesus Christ was not a “utility maximizer” (why willingly suffer death at 33 rather than, say, 83?) and no politics bearing his name should slip toward the abyss of “instrumentalizing” God’s image-bearers. One could surely argue the point further, but I trust few Christians are really committed to “going full utilitarian.”

There’s also probably a broader point under the surface here, one that has to do with theological reasoning more generally. Where the aforementioned authors are concerned, “crypto-utilitarianism” isn’t the only case where their prior value commitments seem to show up again with new theological warrants. Ahmari’s early work involved sharp indictments of contemporary art, a theme plainly echoed in his repeated recent condemnations of “drag queen story hour,” and Vermeule’s pre-conversion scholarship—as James Chappel has detailed—centered on a quest to legitimate the federal administrative state, which Vermeule now routinely defends as essential to any promotion of the common good.

Now, those concerns and stances may be entirely valid in themselves. But there are few greater dangers in theology, to my mind, than the tendency (which all of us certainly have) to go looking for Christian warrants for positions we hold for non-theological reasons. (In the Large Catechism, Luther described this practice as an offense against the Second Commandment—that is, it is a way in which we take God’s name in vain.)

Notably, this sort of motivated reasoning is not a concern I have when I read the integralist scholarship over at The Josias or turn the pages of Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister’s new manual. I might disagree with certain of their presuppositions (in particular, their commitment to the singular authority of the Roman Church) but I can see the force of their arguments. At work in their analyses is a process of good-faith thinking “forward” from first principles, rather than “backward” from preexisting commitments. Regrettably, I’m not sure the same is true in the cases of Ahmari and Vermeule.

All of this leads, in turn, toward what strikes me as a fairly sound axiom. If there is no doctrine in your theology, political or otherwise, that “stretches” you further than you’d like to be stretched, your theology is something crafted in your own image. (For my part, if left to my own devices, the political society I would build would tend toward free speech absolutism, but that is a principle I cannot reasonably ground in my own tradition). If faith is, really and truly, the first principle from which our thought proceeds, it can never be properly retrofitted to merely legitimate our preexisting positions. That gets the whole thing backwards.

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