Go to top
skip to main content

Thoughts on the Common Good

The common good has been a major concern of moral and political philosophy since ancient times, and politics of common good was often set against corrupt government and narrow self-interest. Pre-modern thinkers associated the common good with higher purposes and a virtuous life which can only be realised in an ideal political community. Nonetheless, modern theorists put greater emphasis on the political conditions under which individuals could pursue ther own personal ends. Various thinkers apprehended the common good in terms of justice, ,material welfare or utility maximisation. Collectivist visions of society which also developed in the modern era demanded extreme sacrifices from individuals in the name of commongood. 

In political theory competing conceptions of common good have been highlighted following the liberal-communitarian debates in the 1980s. Following the publications of John Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice”, communitarian critics such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer questioned different aspects of liberal political theory. The common good has also been addressed by theorists of deliberative democracy such as Joshua Cohen, civic republicans such as Philip Petit, and some neo-Aristotelian thinkers such as M.Sandel and A.Macintyre.

In political practice talking of common good became and important again for the Western societies as a reaction to what many perceived as the excessive individualism of the Reagan and Thatcher era. An example of this trend within Britain is the political rhetoric of New Labour and British Conservatives later advanced similar ideas under the banner of the “Big Society”. These examples indicate that the language of the common good is not politically neutral, but has certain ideological connotations within modern discourse. Calls for the politics of common good may imply oppositions to different aspects of  contemporary politics of common good  such as the liberal concern with with justice nand human rights, a secular political order, materialism or the individualism of modern societies. Theorists who pay closer attention to that concept frequently note that it’s vague, imprecise and open to manipulation. 

The concept of common good has played a significant role throughout the hisroty of Western political thought and can be dated back to ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle in particular is widely considered as a foundational thinker on this subject. While Plato had also a notion of the common good, Aristotel was the first to make the common good a central concept of his political theory. Greek philosopher stated in his “Politics” that the city-state is a particular type of community, and that like all communities, it’s established for the sake of some good. He points out that the good of the city-state is the the most authoritative good which encompasses all other goods. Aristotle argued that the purpose of the political communities is to secure not merely the conditions of living but those of living well. All through “Politics”, he utilized various types to refer to to the good of the city-state, such as koinon agathon (common good) and koinon sumpheron (mutual advantage). Aristotle always conceived the citizen’s happines and the common good as consisted of aristocratic actions. It means that the pursuit of happiness requires participation in the public life and the cultivation of virtue, rather than, the maximisation of wealth. However, in ancient Greek city-states, that excluded many inhabitants of the city-states  such as women and slaves whom Aristotel counted improper for the life of moral and intellectual virtue. In Book III of his Politics Aristotel used the concept of common good to distinguish several good and corrupt constitutions or forms of goverments. On his account, whenever the one, the few or the multitude rule for the common benefit, these constitutions must be correct. By contrast, if one person, a few or a multitude rules for the private benefit, then they should be considered as the deviations from the previous types. Aristotle called good government by one person “kingship”, good government by several people “aristocracy”, good government by the multitude “politea”. Corresponding to these three types are three corrupt forms of government, as “tyranny’’, ‘oligarchy’’ and ‘’democracy’’. In this classificatory scheme, the concept of the common good served as a normative standard which allowed Aristotle to evaluate different kinds of regimes.

Other classic thinkers developed influential ideas about the common good, peculiarly the Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. In “On the laws”, he denoted that the good of the people is the highest law of the state. Cicero referred to the common good as salus popoli  which literally translated as “safety of the people”, but is commonly understood to refer generally to their “welfare” or “wellbeing”. Cicero also reflected on this subject in  On the Republic where he noted that res publica is “a thing of the people”. He continued and specified: “a people doesn’t mean any kind of association, but is an assemblage of people in large numbers in agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good (utilitatis communion). Thus, Cicero invoked a particular conception of the common good to differentiate republics from the other kinds of human association. He contended that individuals do not pursue their mutual advantage, but are also united by their agreement on principles of justice that govern their social relations. 
Thomas Aquinas who drew on both Aristotle’s and Cicero’s ideas developed the most influential Christian account of the common good. Following Aristotle, Aquinas argued that the pursuit of self-interest leads to a deviant form of rule: A tyrannical government is not just because it is directed not the common good (bonum commune), but to the private good (bonum privatum) of the ruler. Aquinas 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 the 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. In his words, the good of the whole universe is that which is apprehended by God, who is the Creator and Governor of all things. 
It’s generally agreed that at some point in the history of political thought conceptions of the common good shifted from concerns with moral virtue and an ideal political community towards more pragmatic considerations of the material well-being of individuals. Theorists, like M.Kempshall argue that this development had already occurred in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The modern conceptions of the common goof basically evolved in the seventeenth century. By subjectifying the notion of good, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes defined the common good as anything that a person might desire. In his “Leviathan”, T.Hobbes remarks that whatsoever is the object of any man’s Appetite or Desire, that is it which he calls Good. According to the English philosopher, the role of state should be comprised of ensuring that individuals can pursue their personal ends in accordance with their common peace and safety. These ideas diametrically discordant with Greco-Roman visions of common good.

A more individualistic conception of the common good also played an important role in early modern debates about religious liberty and constitutional government, especially in England. In his “Two Treatises of Government”, English philosopher John Lock contrasted arbitrary power with legitimate rule which is limited to the public Good of the Society. According to Lock, this meant above all that the government ought to respect and protect people’s inalienable rights to liberty, life and private property. Other characteristically modern conceptions put les emphasis on individual rights and rather viewed the common good as the sum of all individual goods, that is as the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. This notion is mostly associated with utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham had originally meant that the government ought to maximize the utility or the happiness of all members of a political community. Later, he acknowledged the danger that wellbeing of the minority may be sacrificed to increase the sum total of happiness.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant provides an example of an early attempt to link local realizations of the common good with the theory with a theory of international peace and cooperation. In his essay, “Toward Perpetual Peace”, he argued for the need to establish lasting peace between sovereign states. For this end, all political societies have to adopt republican constitutions which are based on the idea of an original contract among all citizens. In additions, states should constitute a foedus pacificum – federation of republics that subject their relations to law.

By accepting practical obstacles such as cultural differences, Kant did not envision an immediate realization of his plan for the world peace. Some modern political theorists also made attention to the roles of ideological understandings of the common good in politics and society. In The German Ideology, K.Marx and F.Engels notes that every ruling class would have to ensure for its interests to be represented as the common interest of all the members of society. It’s very significant to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational, universally applicable ones. In this way, Marx and Engels maintained that appeals to common interest do not mean genuinely to advance the good of all or to reconcile competing interests of different social groupings. Rather, such rhetoric serves the purpose of preventing subordinate classes from realizing their true interests which conflict with those of dominant class.

It is sometimes noted that the similar ideas on the common good also developed in non-Western thought. The datong concept in ancient Confucian thought denotes a state of affairs in which individuals devote themselves to serving the greater god of society, rather only seeking their personal benefit. Various strands of Confucianism also considered the ideals of political leadership and the exercise of moral virtue on behalf of common good.

In the history of Islamic political thought there are different notions that may correspond with the phrases “common good” or “public interest”. The concept of maslaha which literally means “wellbeing” or “welfare” was invoked in the first centuries of Islam to refer to policies that served society as a whole. From the eleventh century onwards, Islamic legal scholars argued that divinely revealed law (sharia) ought to bind political decisions and began to define maslaha  in religious terms. After the fourteenth century, Islamic writings on the public good were dominated by the concept of siyasa shariyya which denotes the binding nature of religious law for all political life. Such religious concepts of public interest have lost influence in the modern world. Both maslaha  and siyasa shariyya continue to be invoked to justify or to critique different political agendas.

As remarked before, in contemporary political philosophy, issues pertinent to the common good have been brought up during and in the wake of the so-called liberal–communitarian debate in the 1980s. These concerns include the moral universalism of liberal theories, and the need for a sense of community. There have also been debates on democracy and public deliberation, the conflictual nature of politics, and the limits of normative political theorising.  “Communitarian” political theorists took issue with several aspects of Anglophone liberal political philosophy, and particularly with John Rawls’ highly influential A Theory of Justice. In this work, Rawls set out to develop a non-utilitarian liberal political theory that establishes principles of justice, which should govern the basic structure of society. According to Rawls, the purpose of government consists of “maintaining conditions and achieving objectives that are similarly to everyone’s advantage”. That is to say, he conceived of the common good in terms of individuals’ “basic equal liberties”
Communitarian political theorists who criticize the views of J.Rawls argued for the need to consider the role of social practices and understandings, and proposed modifications to liberal principles of justice and rights. Some critics, such as Michael Walzer, objected to Rawls’ aim to establish universal requirements of justice notes that the socio-cultural values of specific values of each historical community should be taken into consideration. According to communitarian critics, the liberal concern with justice and rights does not adequately take into account how people participate in the good of their political community.  Michael Sandel criticised Rawls for seeking to avoid promoting a substantive conception of the good by asserting the primacy of justice and for not making an attention to the social foundations of the well-structured society. On Sandel’s account, justice and equal rights alone cannot provide conditions for people to pursue a good life, because individual identities are socially constituted and a good life is only feasible if people understand themselves as members of a community. Sandel also argued that the liberal “politics of rights” should be abandoned for a “politics of the common good” in order to revive communal life and public morality.

Another communitarian political theorist, Charles Taylor claimed that citizens are only prepared to accept the legitimacy of a liberal political order and share the burdens of justice if they have a sense of community based on a shared conception of the common good. As a way to determine the common good, with his seminal account of the ideal of deliberative democracy, Joshua Cohen points out that  collective decision-making should proceed through public argument and reasoning among equal citizens, rather than merely through democratic elections. He suggests that public deliberation itself, which aims to arrive at a rationally motivated consensus, will neutralise relations of power and subordination.  Other political theorists, such as Chantal Mouffe, have argued that the ideal of deliberative democracy cannot be realised, because it fails to account for the conflictual nature of politics.

In Mouffe’s view, the common good will always be contested and part of a political power struggle. To conclude, there is considerable disagreement as to what the common good consists of and how it should be realised. The source of that disagreement is the tension between appeals to the common good and the promotion of human rights and equality. Many communitarian scholars who seek to revive notions of the common good acknowledge that this concept has been used in the past to justify social and political inequalities, and the suppression of parts of the population. For instance, as mentioned above, Aristotle sought to promote the virtuous life of full members of a city-state, yet not of all inhabitants, in the name of the common good. Contemporary theoretical debates point to various ways in which the relationship between the common good and human rights and equality could be conceived. M. Ann Glendon (1991) argued that liberal “rights talk”, particularly in American society,  has impoverished political life and eroded the social foundations of individual freedom. She also claimed that the language of individual rights “regularly promotes the short-run over the long-term crisis intervention over preventive measures, and particular interests over the common good”. Communitarian critics of liberal political philosophy have expressed similar views. Sandel, as mentioned previously, suggested that a particular neo-Aristotelian theory of the common good, according to which individuals can only thrive by participating in the public life of their community. However, his appeal to an Aristotelian conception of virtuous political life seemed “nostalgic at best and dangerous at worst” to many critics. 
Liberal political theorists take issue with appeals to a community’s traditional notion of the good life, which may risk glossing over historical injustices committed in the name of the common good and could further exclude marginalized groups. For them, The very concept of “community” is politically contested, and some scholars argue that it has non-progressive implications when it is invoked in political practice. From this perspective, liberal political theory is not opposed to a politics of the common good, but rather committed to the view that the good of a pluralistic society consists of justice and equal human rights.

Some theorists such as Alasdair MacIntyre offer a pessimistic account of the prospects for a politics of the common good in contemporary societies. MacIntyre argues that political communities cannot survive or even flourish if politics is reduced to the role of providing conditions for individuals to pursue their personal ends. For him, what is required is a shared understanding that connects the good of the community with the wellbeing of its members in a more substantive way. It means that people must share a commitment to ordering their individual and collective goods through what MacIntyre calls “communal learning”. He points out that in today’s large, pluralistic societies “no place is left any longer for a politics of the common good”.

In conclusion, how rights and equality relate to the common good depends on the way in which the latter concept is understood. If the common good is identified with a community’s values and conception of the good life, it may conflict with universal human rights. Historically, according to Liberal political theorists, conceptions of the common good have been invoked to justify existing inequalities and discrimination against minorities. A society’s common good actually can consists of equal rights for all of its members, or that rights and equality can be instrumental for politically realising the common good.  


1.    Aquinas T. (1993) “Summa Theologica”. In: The Collected Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, InteLex electronic edition. Available at: www.nlx.com/collections/7
2.    Aristotle (1998) Politics. Indianapolis: Hackett 
3.    Glendon M.A. (1991) Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of American Political Discourse. New York: Free Press
4.    Kant I. (1991) “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”. In: Reiss, H.S. (ed.) Political Writings, pp. 93–130.
5.    Kempshall M.S. (1999) The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press
6.    MacIntyre A. (1998) “Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good”. In: Knight K. (ed.) The MacIntyre Reader. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 235–252
7.    Marx K. and Engels F. (2014) ‘German Ideology’ Manuscripts: Presentation and Analysis of the ‘Feuerbach Chapter’. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
8.    Mouffe C. (1999) “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research 66(3), pp. 745–758.
9.    Rawls J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
10.  Sandel M.J. (1982) Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
11.  Walzer M. (1983) Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books

Subhan Padarsoy

Graduate of the Faculty of History at Baku State University, researcher on sociology of modernism, author of the books “The era of modernism and human” and “Entropic world”