Though, mounting evidence lends credence to the dismissal of the idea of the common good as pious rhetoric, with polarisation and inequality exacerbating. Interest groups with fundamentally opposed ideologies duel in legislative assemblies, consultative committees and the media. However, I will argue that the notion of common good is neither futile nor vacuous on multiple tenets; in this article, the focus will be on the presence of incentives which stimulate individuals to seek out the common good.
The understanding of these incentives necessitates the recognition of the embedded moral deficiencies in a private society – a society whose members’ interests pertain only to individual needs. In such a community, the motivational horizons are constrained to focus only on people and endeavours in the realm of individual interest. Hence, it will be inept to converge for the formulation of public goods, whose absence will be sub-optimal and diminish aggregate societal welfare. There, consequently, exists an impetus for the formulation of a public agency which draws individuals into mutually beneficial patterns of cooperation. Moreover, the inevitable presence of society itself imposes certain relational obligations upon people which must be upheld for the functioning of a public agency. In a liberal democracy, for example, by virtue of the endowment of the right to vote, private citizens have been transfigured into public agents, a role requiring them to think and act in a manner different from a private individual and adhere to certain standards of political morality to preserve common societal interests.
Additionally, in a private society, no efficacious framework of collective decision-making is conjured due to the absence of collective thinking in the first place. Hence, collective decision-making needs to unfold in the broader public life, where participation mandates, to some extent, the transcendence from personal concern to a common standpoint. While pluralists argue that even in public life, people negotiate for the trumping of their own interests or policy preferences, Waldron, and others, contend that many actions are prompted by a care for certain wider interests and liberties – a care arising due to a shared framework of reasoning. It is argued that pluralists fail to differentiate between individual decision making in a market context – where people prioritise their interest at the opportunity cost of others – and in a democratic framework, where the rationalising framework is opposite to that in a market because, as Rawls argues, “it is a political convention of a democratic society to appeal to the common interest.” As proponents of the epistemic conception of democracy argue, democratic decision-making is a prerequisite for the sustenance of political morality, which is premised upon the existence of laws which reinforce common interests; this sustenance, in turn, extends the stability necessary for sustained societal progress and is, thus, desired by citizens.
Another argument for the presence of common good stems from the deliberative conception of democracy, a theory propagated by Joshua Cohen. He argues that as no citizen, in the long run, would submit to a legislative proposal contradictory to his interests. Political morality, therefore, creates space for negotiation and induces pluralism in policies, thereby adopting a common good orientation. However, some may contend that this is too utopian and cannot explain the lower positions of groups in a hierarchical society. The response to this is that with the logical framework of common good and endeavours ushered for its attainment, there is an ongoing prioritization and reprioritization of the importance of interests of different groups as per the needs of the broader society. Accordingly, the form in which common good manifests in society is fluid and diverse.
Along with this political association of individuals, there exists a deeper social dimension to their relationship. This political relationship in which members exist imposes, like all other relationships, specific obligations upon people to enact certain ideals, such as solidarity. Hence, the onus exists on citizens to carry out their ‘prioritization and reprioritization’ in a manner that embodies these values.
Though what constitutes common good varies in societies, there are certain shared characteristics of the common good which manifest everywhere. The first is a joint vantage point for the rationalising of behaviour. Just acting in ways mandated by political morality does not suffice; a common pattern of reasoning is necessary to engender mutual concern and predictability required for the smooth functioning of society; this mutual concern enables citizens to prioritize societal interest in extenuating circumstances, where personal interests may have trumped otherwise. Secondly, there are certain common institutions, tangible or not, that citizens agree to tend to. For example, adherence to the social institution of private property benefits citizens by extending the ability to exert control over the physical environment, making its conception a common good. Hence, citizens have a relational obligation to preserve common faculties as they cater to the needs of the wider political group. The propensity to serve wider needs exists due to an inoculated solidarity concern, whereby a person alleviates the status of the interest of others to his or her own interests. This occurs because society binds individuals to wider faculties, giving way to mutual concern, and an attack on a single member is perceived as an attack on broader social institutions.
In conclusion, one must acknowledge our increasingly individuated approach, with separate existences giving rise to competing interests. In such a context, the common good is not a fact – but an attainable, though difficult, achievement.