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A Reply to a Friend: an Email about the Uncertain Character of ‘the Common Good’
May 16, 2014 richardstevenpark

A Reply to a Friend: an Email about the Uncertain Character of ‘the Common Good’

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So recently a good friend of mine emailed me, asking for advice and resources for understanding the idea of ‘the common good’ (an idea the legitimacy of which I challenge in my doctoral dissertation). I thought that my reply to him might be helpful to others who are interested in the prospect of grounding a framework of political pluralism on the idea of the human good. (To note: the analysis which follows is admittedly brief and cursory, as it was intended to be read by a non-specialist in the area.)

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Hi xxx,

Thanks for this. It’s an area I’m very interested in. (Indeed, much of my dissertation was precisely on this subject!) Here is a (very briefly annotated) bibliography to consider in the respective areas of political/legal theory, philosophy, and Islamic legal theory:

Political/legal theory
John Finnis, ‘Introduction’, in Human Rights and the Common Good, ed. John Finnis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Finnis is a big name in Catholic circles, but seeks to ‘denude’ his legal and political theories of religious convictions (arguing that natural law is sufficiently non-theistic). As you know, he’s taken somewhat seriously in secular circles, but often not. He has more treatment of the idea of the common good in his now classic Natural Law and Natural Rights; but this chapter is a nice summary of his views.  In another chapter of this same work (‘Limited Government’), Finnis goes into far more detail about the various types of common good.

Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good’, in The Macintyre Reader, ed. Kelvin Knight (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1998), pp. 235-39. I think MacIntyre is far clearer in his conception of common good/s (as with most things!). To show my cards, I find the notion of ‘the common good’ unsettling, if widespread, not least because the vexing questions remain: Whose common? Which good? To point to an example, there are Islamic conceptions of ‘the common good’ (or ‘maṣlaḥa‘) which deeply problematize the notion. To this point …

Islamic studies
Muhammad Qasim Zaman, ‘The ʿulama of Contemporary Islam and Their Conceptions of the Common Good’, in Public Islam and the Common Good, eds. Armando Salvatore and Dale Eickelman (Leiden: Brill, 2006). Zaman shows how maṣlaḥa is ultimately grounded in and governed by sharīʿa (or more precisely, maqāṣid al-sharīʿa — i.e., the purposes of Islamic law), making it therefore (as I argue) not so common.

It is for this reason (namely, the necessarily insularly defined character of ‘the common good’) that a more universal notion, found in the semi-Aristotelian idea of ‘the human good’, may be more promising in serving as the basis of a framework of pluralistic political theologies/theories. Indeed, I think the problem of ‘living with our deepest differences’ really is an issue that will challenge the Church and society for the foreseeable future. (And it’s something I’ve been working on in my scholarship, and plan to continue doing so for the next decade or so, God-willing.)

The idea of ‘reasonable accommodation’ in legal/political theory is probably one of the most used approaches these days (cf. Charles Taylor, Jeremy Waldron, et al.) I’m still not sure if this is the end-all solution, since the same intractable problem rears its nasty heads: what’s reasonable for one is unreasonable for another. (We need to pray.)

Finally, this work edited by D. McCann and P. Miller – In Search of the Common Good (New York: T & T Clark International, 2005) – is a hefty volume with a few useful pieces which consider (mainly Christian) scriptural, theological, and philosophical aspects of the idea of the common good.

I hope this is helpful! I’m curious to know where [your request] is [] leading. =)

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(Yes, sometimes I emoticon in my emails.) I hope brief treatment is of great use to you as you think and pray and act in a way that might help solve the problem of what one Christian thinker rightly calls ‘living with our deepest differences’.

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