Common Good, The

Most basically, the common good is a ‘good’ that benefits the community at large.  The common good is often contrasted with private, or self-interested goods, such as the accumulation of personal wealth; conflicts between the common good and private goods sometimes arise.

Philosophically, the common good is often associated with the utilitarian phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  For utilitarians, the ‘good’ here refers to pleasure or the satisfaction of preferences.  A utilitarian conception of the common good can thus be summarized as ‘the greatest amount of pleasure (or preferences satisfied) for the greatest number of people.’

The common good is often said to be the aim of politics, or the state, and the term often arises in political contexts.   In this context, “the greatest number” to which the utilitarian conception refers is typically limited to the citizens of a particular nation-state.  Politicians in the U.K. who are committed to the common good, for example, are committed to satisfying the preferences and interests of the citizens of the United Kingdom.

In some instances, the conflict between the common good and self interested goods arise in political contexts.  In the United States, for example, some have voiced concern over the influence of special interests groups in Washington, which seek to advance their own interests even at the expense of the common good.

Critics of this political arrangement often point to the financial sector, which contributes more money annually to politicians than any other industry or private interest group (see, to illustrate their point.  These critics claim that the lack of accountability and oversight which lead to the 2008 financial crisis – a significant detriment to the common good – was largely a result of financial deregulation that the financial sector lobbied to attain.

Defenders of financial deregulation claim that the generation of wealth that results from deregulation benefits the community at large, that is, it contributes to the common good.  The impact of the recent financial crisis, however, poses serious problems to this argument, and with new regulations in place (and on the horizon), it seems that the equivocation of unchecked creation of wealth with the common good has fallen out of favor.

« Back to Glossary Index