The “common good” de-perplexed

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 21, 2016

A dictum of Catholic social thought that has perplexed and occasionally frustrated me for some time: the common good, we're told, is not just a collection of individual goods. So, we probably assume, it must be the good of the whole (which is somehow not reducible to the sum of all individuals).

But if it is common, I have always asked, "common to what?" Common to individuals, clearly, and so it's hard to see how the common good could be meaningful as anything but the sum of individual goods, since a society does not subsist apart from individuals.

But Jacques Maritain says that if the common good isn't the sum of individual goods, it is also not just the good of a whole which would absorb individual persons: it is "common to the whole and to the parts." I think I finally understand.

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist, composer, and occasional amateur comedian living in New York City. He produces and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: NicholasOfChicago - Feb. 23, 2016 7:20 PM ET USA

    Yves Simon is not as well known as he should be on this topic. I highly recommend his work on the topic of the Common Good.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Feb. 22, 2016 7:04 PM ET USA

    The paradox of the common good is that while the group may not sacrifice an individual for its own benefit, an individual may sacrifice himself for the group's benefit. Ultimately advancing the common good is a triumph of the individual and not of the collective. But try explaining that to a Marxist, or any other kind of big government supporter, whether he be inside or outside the Church.