Common Good/Uncommon Evil

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Of late, I have heard much about the “common good,” but little about “common evil.” The common good does not mean that some substantial form exists out there which we are trying to embody in order to perfect our dealings with one another. Such an idea is responsible for much serious evil in the modern world.

Rather the common good signifies that order in which human persons and groups of persons, bound by some common purpose, can themselves flourish because of their own reason, habits, and freedom. It does not mean that everyone does the same things or has the same tasks, talents, rewards, or burdens. It means that they do not. Thus, a wide variety of riches in every area can freely come forth.

Plato’s specialization requires our recognizing that we cannot do everything by ourselves. If we do so try, we all will be poorer. Man, as a political animal, should establish an order in which the particular goods of each person are achieved through work, through fair exchange for the goods of others. The state is not itself a common good or a substantial being, but an order in which, through action, goods can be brought forth and distributed by sensible human beings. The process is not magic.

But “common evil”? Evil, in the classic sense, is the absence of a good that ought to be there, but is not. Hence, evil is not a thing, but the lack of something that ought to be there in a good thing. Moral evil means the deliberate failure to put a right measure in our freely chosen actions or words. Evil cannot exist except in some good.

Hence, when we bring “good” out of “evil,” we do not make what is evil good. Rather, we take what is already good in the being that does evil and develop it. This is what repentance is about. It admits that the original good was indeed good. Evil, as such, can never become good, nor good evil.

Yet, as Christians, we sense that something more needs to be said. Evil is more than a philosophic concern about “lacks,” though it is that too. Evil seems personal. Someone wants to dialogue with us about it, wants to convince us evil is good.


Pope Francis has said that the Devil “hates” us. Blunt words. Francis is not talking about some inert “lack.” He is talking about a positive hating of the good because it is good. Only persons can hate. Lucifer is an angelic being who rejects God by calling good evil, by convincing other rational beings to change good into evil.

Classical ethics and moral philosophy gave us accounts of virtues and vices. Usually two vices existed for every virtue, a too much and a too little. We find in the writings of Plato a sense that our vices are not just foibles or mistakes but objects of judgment. Plato rightly worried that the world was created in injustice if the vices were not ultimately punished. This consideration led him to propose the immortality of the soul to guarantee that no one could get away with doing evil, even if he died in human glory but covered with sins.

Christianity provided a more profound explanation of evil, though one not necessarily disagreeing with Plato. Christ affirmed that the Devil’s kingdom could not stand if it had dissention within its rank. This information means, as I understand it, that we find both a logical sequence of disorders, or deviations from the good, as Aristotle understood, and an active presence. This logic works through willing human beings who find themselves assenting to a step-by-step deviation from the good, each worse than the one before.

Those familiar with spiritual literature recall that the Church Fathers warned monks that sin begins with things only slightly off-center. Yet things do not stand still. Either the evil is recognized and corrected or the next logical step away from the good is taken. Eventually this leads to calling of evil good, all in the name of pursuing some good but in a manner contrary to reason or the commandments.

What I take to be “common evil” today exists in our public order as a “hatred” of the good that is embodied in innocent human life and the way in which it ought to exist. It seems clear that the ultimate “hatred” is for innocent human life in its weakest conditions. When we look at the steps that justify this position, we cannot help but see a steady pattern of deviation that leads politicians, judges, experts, professors, and ordinary people along a deviant line.

Finally, they justify lying to themselves that they work for the “common good,” when in fact they freely promote “uncommon evil.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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