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  • The Meaning and Importance of Common Goods
  • Benjamin L. Smith

EVERY SCIENCE includes a specific subject matter, common and proper principles, and proper conclusions. The principles are the indemonstrable starting points of demonstration within the science, including axiomatic propositions and foundational notions. The principles of the practical sciences are precepts related to ends, and the architectonic principle of all practical science is the ultimate end.1 The notion of the common good and the principle of the primacy of the common good are important for all practical sciences. Indeed, a right understanding of the meaning and importance of the common good is an essential element of any species of wisdom about practical matters and for the exercise of prudence. The purpose of this article is to define the common good in general and explain its importance. Although the political common good will be discussed, the aim of this essay is to define the common good as a general category of goods. The question “What is a common good?” needs to be addressed prior to defining the specifically political common good.

Defining the common good in general is timely because there has been a consistent distortion of the meaning of the common good among some Thomist commentators beginning with Jacques Maritain and reaching to contemporary proponents of the New Natural Law theory. Maritain consistently argued that [End Page 583] the common good of the political community is subordinated to the individual good of personal happiness, whether natural or supernatural.2 He was supported in this interpretation by Ignatius Eschmann.3 Charles De Koninck opposed Eschmann, arguing that Eschmann misunderstood the unity of the common good.4 More recently, proponents of the New Natural Law theory have argued that the political common good is merely instrumental to more basic goods and John Finnis—a leading representative of this group—has defined the common good as an aggregate of individual goods.5 The “instrumental interpretation” of the common good has been vigorously opposed by Lawrence Dewan, Michael Pakaluk, and John Goyette.6 In general, this article supports the efforts of those opposing Maritain, Eschmann, and the New Natural Law theory.

I. Preliminary Theses and Distinctions

Since the common good is a version of the good it will prove helpful to summarize some relevant theses about the good; these theses may seem basic and remote but they are important. Following Aristotle, Thomas teaches that the good is that which [End Page 584] all things desire; it is the desirable objective that stimulates intention, desire, or natural movement. In this perspective, the good (or the perception of the good) is prior to intention and desire. Rational creatures cognize something as good prior to intention; animals sense that something is good prior to desire; plants and inanimate substances naturally move towards that which is desirable for them proximately by natural inclination but ultimately by divine providence. Accordingly, the good, understood as that which is desirable, operates as a final cause, moving agents to action. And something is perceived to be desirable insofar as it is perceived to be perfective, for, according to Thomas, all things seek their own perfection, namely, the actualization of their natural powers.7

However, not everything that is desired is really good. Sometimes we err about what is perfective; sometimes we pursue an inferior sort of perfection when we should not; sometimes we pursue a perfection in the wrong way or in the wrong context. Nevertheless, the good and perfection are synonymous. For this reason, Thomas affirms that goodness is really the fullness of being, for what makes something complete and perfect is the actualization of its being. Goodness is simply the full realization of being proportionate to a given subject. In fact, Thomas insists that the name “good” does not really add anything to its subject other than a certain relation.8 Good does not signify any distinct property, rather, it signifies that which actualizes and therefore perfects a given subject.

Thomas divides the perfection of being in a way that mirrors his universal division of being into act and potency. Something becomes good insofar as it is actualized and perfected in its species-specific powers. The cause...


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