The phrase “the common good” and its importance in our history has always impressed me. I’ve been wondering about the history of the idea — where it comes from, what it means, and the impact it has. The concept goes back a long way.
Aristotle wrote about forming governments to achieve security, justice, and other benefits for all people in a community. He saw the common good as a basic principle of ethical thought. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas saw the common good as conforming human society with God’s plan.
Enlightenment philosophers examined the meaning of the common good, and their ideas influenced America’s founders, who embraced the term as they established a new nation. They believed a strong constitution and republican form of government could protect the common good from the abuses of rulers and the threats of factionalism.
In foreign policy, the concept of the common good often strengthens the national interest. If the nation is strong and respected, the thinking goes, it can better protect the welfare and common good of its citizens. We enter alliances with other countries to avoid conflict and safeguard the common good of ourselves and our allies: for example, the NATO alliance for mutual defense and America’s 75-year peaceful relationship with Japan. We try to concern ourselves with the common good of people around the world, which is threatened by climate change, nuclear-weapons proliferation, and other risks.
Some argue that our sense of the common good has been shrinking. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, author of a 2019 book titled “The Common Good,” said America has been stuck for five decades in a cycle of individualism. He argued that Americans born in the first half of the 20th century lived through experiences that created a sense of mutual dependence, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Those experiences forged a social contract in which individuals looked out for others. Many embraced Robert F. Kennedy’s idea that there was “something fundamentally noble” in public service.
But the civil-rights movement made clear that our conception of the common good didn’t extend to all Americans. For many, the Vietnam War and Watergate fueled a rejection of the concept of the common good and a deep distrust of government. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
In Reich’s view, business leaders once took responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees, but a new generation of CEOs saw their duty as maximizing shareholder value. For decades, wages stagnated for average workers while earnings skyrocketed for those at the top. In politics, we have experienced extreme polarization, scorched-earth campaign tactics, and demonization of opponents. Many claim we live in social-media bubbles, communicating only with people with whom we agree. The common good has had no meaning for them.
But events keep reminding us of what we do have in common. The 9/11 attacks shook Americans and showed our vulnerability. We looked for ways to strengthen the common good with a renewed emphasis on securing ourselves with more surveillance and screening.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed tensions between our rugged individualism and our concern for the common good, as the virus has killed nearly 600,000 Americans. We learned to wear face coverings in public, postponed gatherings with loved ones, and queued up for vaccinations. We did these things to protect ourselves and others for the common good.
[I believe] President Joe Biden promotes a view of the common good that improves access to education, health care, and economic opportunity. His Republican critics respond with the view that the common good thrives in an environment of lower taxes and less regulation. Although their approaches differ, it’s positive that both sides are showing their basic commitment to promoting the common good.
Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.