Individualism and the Common Good

philosopherby Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

One of the concepts which seems to present difficulties to individualists and libertarians is the concept of the “common good.” This may be due to the emphasis which individualists and libertarians place on individual rights and liberty and may also reflect a concern about the contemporary attention paid by liberals to the “rights” of society or the “good” of all.

A proper concept of what is meant by the common good is important to individualists and libertarians because the common good is actually the end and purpose of any civil law. Indeed, the notion of civil law makes no sense without it being directed toward the realization of the common good.

Let’s try to clear up some of the difficulties individualists and libertarians seem to have with the idea of the common good and let’s begin with two basic principles, accepted without question by individualists and libertarians, and virtually unchallenged even by liberals.

First of all, only individuals have “rights.” Society, as such, has no “rights” at all. The term “society” has no concrete existence; it is not an entity in the strict sense of that term. Society is, rather, an abstraction, a concept reflecting a relationship between two or more people.

Secondly, a society cannot be “free.” Although we do speak about living in a “free” society, what we really mean is that the individuals which constitute that society (or relationship) are “free.” Only individuals can possess liberty or freedom. Again, society is an abstraction and not a concrete entity.

There is obviously such a thing as a “private” good. This is the good of one person only; it is his good and no other’s good. For instance, your honesty or appreciation of art is a private good and can be possessed by no one other than you. Material possessions which are exclusively yours are also a private good. A common good, on the other hand, can be possessed by many persons simultaneously.

What causes the problem for individualists and libertarians when they concern themselves with the concept of the common good is that they confuse it with something called the “collective” good. Contemporary liberals suffer from the same problem. Many people think that individualists and libertarians have no concern for the common good and practically all liberals maintain they are the only ones who emphasize the common good. Such is not true. When the concept of the common good is properly defined and analyzed, true individualists are the ones who emphasize the common good and liberals are the ones who tend to oppose it, emphasizing instead the collective good.

The collective good, though possessed by all as a group, is not really participated in by the members of a group. It is actually divided up into several private goods when apportioned to the different individual members. Take, for instance, a family at breakfast. The breakfast is a collective good for the family and belongs to the whole family and not just to one individual. As the breakfast is eaten, it disappears as a collective good because it is divided up into parts for each individual in the family, becoming several private goods. Each member of the family eats only a portion of the breakfast and not the whole breakfast.

The distinguishing feature of a collective good is that as the number of participants increases, each participating individual actually possesses less of that good. Indeed, as each individual actually possesses the collective good, the good in no sense remains common, but becomes private.

Now let’s contrast this with a true common good. A common good is universal, diffusive of itself, and is a “distributive” common good. The common good is not a collection of singular goods. The common good is communicable to many. It is possessed as a whole by each individual without its becoming anyone’s private good. One person can possess a common good without this possession in any way diminishing another’s possessing it. Each individual possesses the whole common good, not merely a portion of it.

Let’s go back to our example of the family breakfast. The breakfast as a collective good becomes several private goods as the breakfast is consumed by the individual members of the family. The sociability of having breakfast together, however, is a common good. This common good can be shared wholly by each individual in the family without its becoming a private good for any individual family member.

The common good, of course, is by necessity an immaterial good. This is because only an immaterial good can be shared by many in such a way that there is no limitation in the sharing of it. Any number of individuals can share a common good and each individual can possess it completely. There is no diminishing of a common good as more and more individuals possess it. So what does this mean for individualists and libertarians in social and political terms?

Unless we choose to be hermits, we live with each other as individuals in social relationships. The basic social relationship is, of course, the family. One common good for the family is domestic tranquility. Each member of the family can share in this common good and share wholly in it without it being diminished one iota. When it comes to civil society, a political relationship an individual has with others, one common good is peace and order. This common good of peace and order belongs wholly to each individual citizen as long as he does not by choice or misconduct withdraw from participation in civil society.

The Declaration of Independence states quite clearly that all men are created equal and they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are common goods. Each and every individual citizen can possess these rights wholly without diminishing anyone else’s participation in the common good they represent. These rights are not a collective good.

This brings us back to the notion of law in civil society. The common good is the end and purpose of any civil law and civil laws are to be judged as moral or not, and proper or not, on the basis of whether or not they promote the common good. We can indeed define a civil law as a certain ordination of reason for the common good, promulgated by one who has the proper authority to do so. This latter phrase, “proper authority to do so,” is based on the idea that governments are instituted to secure the common good (protection of natural rights, for instance) and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Individualists and libertarians, therefore, need to stand up and declare themselves totally in favor of the common good. Individualists and libertarians must not allow the liberals to usurp the term common good and use it improperly for rhetorical reasons. What the liberals are really talking about is the collective good and that’s another matter entirely. For example, the present welfare-state mentality of the liberals has to do with collective goods and not the common good. Indeed, an examination of most social and political policies of the past sixty years would reveal that it is the collective good, and not the common good, which is the purpose of the programs legislated.

Our Founding Fathers apparently understood what is meant by the common good. It is unfortunately a sad commentary on contemporary liberalism that it does not. The notion of the common good and totalitarianism are incompatible. The liberals seem not to realize this simple fact. And that is why, for the past two generations, America has been led down the path to totalitarianism, forgetting its roots in liberty and the protection of individual rights, and thereby turning its back on the true and rational concept of the common good.


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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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