What Is the Common Good in Political Science? Definition and Examples

Safe and efficient highways and bridges are important parts of the common good.
Safe and efficient highways and bridges are important parts of the common good. Stock Photo/Getty Images

“Common good” in political science refers to anything that benefits and is naturally shared by all members of a given community, compared to things that benefit the private good of individuals or sectors of society. In some cases, securing things serving the common good requires collective action and participation in the political process.

Key Takeaways: The Common Good

  • The “common good” refers to those facilities or institutions that benefit all members of a given community.
  • The common good contrasts with those things that benefit only specific individuals or parts of the community.
  • Examples of elements making up the common good include basic rights and freedoms, police and fire departments, national defense, courts of law, highways, public schools, safe food and water, and natural resources.
  • In most cases, providing the elements of the common good requires a degree of individual sacrifice such as the payment of new or higher taxes. 
  • Today, many impactful social problems are caused by the lack or failure of essential elements of the common good. 

Common Good Definition

As normally used today, the phrase “common good” refers to those facilities or institutions that all or most members of a community agree are necessary to satisfy certain interests they have in common. A few of the things making up the common good in a modern democracy might include basic rights and freedoms, a transportation system, cultural institutions, police and public safety, a judicial system, an electoral system, public education, clean air and water, safe and ample food supply, and national defense. For example, people might say, “The new bridge will serve the common good,” or “We will all profit from the new convention center.” Because the systems and facilities of the common good impact all members of the society, it stands to reason that most social problems are in some way tied to how well or poorly these systems and facilities are working.

From an economic and philosophical standpoint, it is assumed that providing for the common good will require a degree of sacrifice by many members of the society. Such sacrifice often comes in the form of paying higher taxes or costs of industrial production. In an article on economic and social problems in American society, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson once wrote, “We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common goal or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.” Many times, achieving the common good in modern societies requires overcoming the human tendency to “look out for Number One first.” 

History

Despite its increasing importance in modern society, the concept of the common good was first mentioned over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. As early as the second century AD, Catholic religious tradition defined the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 'The Social Contract'

In his 1762 book The Social Contract, Swiss philosopher, writer, and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that in successful societies, the “general will” of the people will always be directed toward achieving the collectively agreed common good. Rousseau contrasts the will of all—the total of the desires of each individual—with the general will—the “one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being.” Rousseau further contends that political authority, in the form of laws, will be viewed as legitimate and enforceable only if it is applied according to the general will of the people and directed toward their common good.

Adam Smith in 'Wealth of Nations'

Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, in his classic 1776 book Wealth of Nations, argues that in systems of “natural liberty” where people are allowed through the “invisible hand” of a free-market economy to pursue their own self-interest, “Individual ambition serves the common good.” In saying this, Smith contends that “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people,” will ultimately result in the advancement of the common good.

John Rawls in 'Theory of Justice'

Much like Aristotle, American moral and political philosopher John Rawls considered the public common good to be the heart of a healthy moral, economic, and political system. In his 1971 book Theory of Justice, Rawls defines the common good as “certain general conditions that are … equally to everyone’s advantage.” In this context, Rawls equates the common good to the combination of equally shared social conditions, such as basic liberties and fair economic opportunity, that come with citizenship.

Like Adam Smith, Rawls further contends that for the common good to be realized, the society bears a shared responsibility to ensure that the well-being of the least economically advantaged class is maintained. Indeed, his Second Principle of Justice provides that for the common good to be persevered, all social and economic inequalities must be prioritized so that they are “of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society,” and that policymaking “offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

Practical Modern Examples

Achieving a common good has always required a degree of individual sacrifice. Today, the trade-offs and sacrifices necessary for the common good often involve paying taxes, accepting personal inconvenience, or giving up certain long-held cultural beliefs and privileges. While occasionally offered voluntarily, these sacrifices and trade-offs are usually incorporated into laws and public policy. Some modern examples of the common good and the sacrifices involved in achieving them include:

Public Infrastructure Improvement

Power lines pass through the fields to serve the common good.
Power lines pass through the fields to serve the common good. Stock Photo/Getty Images

More often than not, public infrastructure improvements—such as safer and more convenient highways and public transportation facilities; new water, sewer, and power lines; dams and reservoirs; and cultural facilities—requires the payment of new or increased taxes. Additionally, eminent domain laws give the government the right to seize private property, in exchange for just compensation, when the property is needed for infrastructure facilities serving the common good like public schools, parks, transit operations, and public utilities. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, expanded the reach of eminent domain to allow governments to seize private property to be used for the redevelopment or revitalization of economically depressed areas. In this decision, the Court further defined the term “public use” to describe public benefit or general welfare, long considered elements of the common good.

Civil Rights and Racial Equality

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the realm of sacrificing assumed privileges and deeply-seated cultural beliefs for the common good, few examples stand out like the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States. Even after the Civil War, and the end of the enslavement of Black people through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, implementing the cultural sacrifices demanded by the civil rights movement of the 1960s did not come without extensive government intervention. Rarely occurring voluntarily, surrendering long-held vestiges of “white privilege” required the force of law applied on a historic scale, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Environmental Quality

Today there is little debate that clean air and water, along with an abundance of natural resources, benefit the common good. However, the process of ensuring environmental quality has historically and is likely to continue to require government intervention coupled with individual sacrifice. Since the early 1960s, Americans have expressed increasing concern over the detrimental impact of industrial growth on the environment. These concerns were addressed through the hard-fought passage of a series of laws including the Clean Air Act of 1963; the Clean Water Act of 1972; the Endangered Species Act of 1973; and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Applying these laws and the hundreds of often controversial federal regulations necessary to enforce them results in considerable economic sacrifice on the part of the industrial sector. For example, automobile manufactures have been forced to comply with a series of costly fuel economy and air pollution regulations. Yet, environmentalists argue that the government bears a societal obligation to protect the natural environment for the common good, even if doing so requires the sacrifice of some economic growth.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “The Common Good.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, August 2, 2014, https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/the-common-good/.
  • Skousen, Mark. “It All Started with Adam.” Foundation for Economic Education, May 1, 2001, https://fee.org/articles/it-all-started-with-adam/.
  • Samuelson, Robert J. “How Our American Dream Unraveled.” Newsweek, March 1, 1992, https://www.newsweek.com/how-our-american-dream-unraveled-195900.
  • Tierney, William G. “Governance and the Public Good.” State University of New York Press, 2006, https://muse.jhu.edu/book/5104.
  • Reich, Robert B. “The Common Good.” Knopf, February 20, 2018, ISBN: 978-0525520498
  • Rawls, John. “Theory of Justice.” Harvard University Press, 1971, ISBN: 0674000781.