Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

By , on March 19, 2013

The Common Good

“Distributive justice regards the allotment of certain things to the individual, insofar as the property of the community also belongs to each member.” This means: the “allotment” consists of the individual’s share in the bonum commune (the common good).

At this point we ought to attempt a clearer description of the bonum commune. A preliminary approach may suggest the following definition: the bonum commune is the sum total of society’s production, the whole of its output. The correct nature of this statement is based on the fact that all social groups and professions, and in rather unstructured, unsystematic ways the individuals as well, function together, thus making available for the people, for the society as a whole, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, health care, training and schools, also the manifold means of pleasure and entertainment. The strict interpretation of iustitia distributiva (distributive justice) would require that all these goods and services be distributed and “allotted” evenly among all the members of society. This conception, however, is inadequate.

Such a definition springs from the mentality of a technical mind set that believes that everything can be “made”. Because of these roots, such a definition incurs the risk of neglecting the truth that the bonum commune extends beyond the realm of the merely material and usable goods of production. There exist contributions to the common good that are neither “usable” nor “makable” but that nevertheless are quite real and indispensable to boot. This is the meaning of the statement, for example, that it is necessary for the perfection of a commonwealth that there be persons dedicated to contemplation. This states, really, that the life even of society as such is nourished by the public presence of truth and that the life of nations becomes all the richer the more they attain a sense and awareness of the depths of reality.

We should notice here, incidentally, a primary characteristic of the absolute labor State: there the principle prevails of identifying the common good with the “common usefulness”, and the plans by which the bonum commune allegedly is pursued are all utilitarian in nature.

The second objection to the definition of the bonum commune as society’s output focuses on a more essential, deeper-rooted deficiency.

The original literal and inherent meaning of bonum commune concerns “the good”, the essence of all the different goods that together form a community’s reason for existing and that a commonwealth would have to achieve and obtain before it could be deemed to have realized its full potential. It appears to me, though, to be definitely not possible to define the bonum commune, in this sense, with any comprehensiveness and finality. For this would presuppose that it is possible to describe, accurately and definitively, the full potential of a community and therefore its “essence”. It is as impossible to formulate this as it is to define the “essence” of the human person—and so nobody is able to state ultimately what constitutes the good of the human person, either—that good, namely, which provides the reason for human existence and which would have to be achieved in life before any human person could be deemed to have realized his full potential. No other meaning than this attaches to Socrates’ stubbornly propounded contention that he did not know what “human virtue” was and that he had not yet met anybody who could teach him.

If the bonum commune is to be conceived in this way, what, then, does it mean to “render each and all their due”? What does it mean, then, to exercise “distributive justice”? It means: to make sure that the individual members of the population are given the opportunity to add their contribution to the realization of the bonum commune that is neither specifically nor comprehensively defined. This participation according to each person’s dignitas or capacity and ability—this is precisely each person’s rightful “due”. And this participation may not be prevented by the administrator of the bonum commune if the iustitia distributiva, the justice of power, is not to be violated. This points to a further aspect: the “good of a commonwealth” includes the inborn human talents, qualities and potentials, and part of the iustitia distributiva is the obligation to protect, preserve and foster these capacities.

After all this we are able to identify once again an essential element of totalitarian regimes. There the political powers claim the right to define in complete detail the specifics of the bonum commune. The fateful and destructive nature of those five-year plans does not come from their attempt to increase industrial output or to gear production and demand toward each other. What is so ruinous here is the fact that the “plan” becomes the exclusive standard that dictates not only the production of material goods but equally the pursuits of universities, the creations of artists, even the leisure activities of the individual—so that anything not totally conforming to this standard is suppressed as “socially unimportant” and “undesirable”. (Josef Pieper, An Anthology, Ignatius Press, 1989)

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