Integralists and their fellow travelers continue to drive much online discussion in legal and political theory. They propose what many have proposed in the past, that social institutions be structured so as to promote the common good. They have a very specific conception of the common good, but most of the negative online responses to their proposal haven’t focused on their having the wrong conception of the common good, but on basing institutional structures on the common good of any variety.
There are two sources of skepticism. The most common objection is that there is no common good or we can’t know it, and so attempts to base institutions around the common good are really just masks for the will to power.
Another objection is pragmatic: power corrupts, and we shouldn’t empower political institutions in particular to promote the common good.
My preferred objection, advanced in Must Politics Be War?, is that, while we can know the common good, and in some cases think that political institutions could promote it, free, equal, and reasonable people disagree about what the common good is, and so imposing one view of the common good on others is likely to undermine the basis for social trust and respect for diverse persons in large-scale societies where people have come to trust each other.
But let’s suppose all these objections fail. Assume that there is a common good, we know what it is, we can overcome pragmatic objections, and that we should promote the true good even if some reasonable people are mistaken about it. Shouldn’t we then base society on the common good?
Perhaps. But a problem looms. The common good is supposed to be distinct from the aggregate good. It isn’t just the sum of the good of each person. This is how defenders of the common good avoid consequentialism and the perverse trade-offs that consequentialism allows. But that means there is some principle internal to the concept of the common good that forbids certain kinds of treatment of individual persons that would or could maximize the aggregate good.
In my view, those principles are grounded in the dignity of the person and the norms implicit in the kinds of relationships we want to have with other persons, in particular the moral relationships of love, friendship, and trust. These are what Jerry Gaus has called principle-grounded values. To be a good friend, and so to achieve the good of friendship, friends must be honest with one another. Honesty becomes a kind of deontic reason: if we value friendship, then we are prohibited from deceiving our friends, at least in the normal course of our friendship. So we can only get the teleological value if we follow the deontic principle.
I think the common good is itself a principle-grounded value. The common good is a kind of close social relation, and it is partly constituted by principles prohibiting treating others in certain ways even if doing so would result in more good. That means to fully specify the common good, we may have to articulate a series of rights claims. But we can’t appeal to the common good to ground those rights, since that would put the cart before the horse.
So I think the common good is not a master normative concept. It certainly has some of its own content, but we cannot fully specify the common good without reference to deontic constraints.
In Must Politics Be War? I argued that a principle of public justification captures the series of deontic reasons that we must be responsive to in order to maintain relations of social trust. But if we adopt a principle of public justification, then we must respect traditional liberal rights, because only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. I may be wrong about the details – I probably am! – but we must do that careful work before we can appeal to the common good. And so the common good doesn’t really help us to decide between liberal and non-liberal arrangements.