Three Mistakes about the Common Good

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I want to draw attention to three mistakes about Aquinas’ teaching on the common good which are encouraged by some presentations today of so-called “common good” jurisprudence. If we take Aquinas to represent “the classical view,” then these are mistakes, too, about classical thought.

Begin with Aquinas’s famous, four-part account of the essence of law: any law, he says, is:

(1) a precept of reason,

(2) directed to the common good,

(3) set down by a competent authority, and

(4) promulgated.

Because this is an account of the essence of something, you simply can’t have that thing at all, Aquinas thinks, unless all the parts of the account are somehow verified in it.

What this means is that anything that can in any way count as law, by definition – by its very essentia – is directed to some conception of a common good.  Aquinas remarks that even the laws of a tyrant promote a common good: they propose in effect that the citizens should together find their good in promoting the personal good of the tyrant.

This is the first mistake, then: it’s misleading for any party, or school of interpretation, to claim that they are offering something distinctive or different, because they favor connecting the law to the common good.  All law does that, of necessity.  Nothing can count as “law” unless it is ordered to a common good.

All the interesting questions, then, involve what conception of the common good is implicit in a law.  Does it promote what Aquinas calls “the true good” (verum bonum) or something else?  Is its implicit conception something we can really embrace?  Is it perhaps incoherent, or self-defeating, or calculated to lead to bad things despite someone’s good intentions?

Even Roe v. Wade contained conceptions of the common good, of course:  a conception of the autonomy of the professions (the inviolability of “a decision made in consultation with one’s doctor”); of the equality of women, and what is necessary for that; and a conception of the limits of government’s power to proscribe.

These conceptions were and remain gravely mistaken.  Certainly they are disputable by fair-minded persons and cannot be held to be built into the very social compact of the United States. Obviously, too, any “common good” implicit in Roe includes the good only of born human beings, subordinating the good of the unborn to the born. In that sense, Roe’s conception of the common good is tyrannical.


But the point is that both sides claim to promote the common good.  The debate hinges on what that truly is, not whether it is invoked.  To say that the master key is to introduce the premise that the law should be ordered to the common good is a mistake and a diversion.

The second mistake as regards “the classical view,” is to describe the common good of human law without reference to the virtues and to God, but to regard it as a social system of economic and political instrumentalities, even construing classical language such as “public peace” and “public order” in this way.

Aquinas does not do this.  In his discussion of human law specifically, he does not separate peace from virtue: “in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed.”  Indeed, making those subject to it good, he says, following Aristotle, is the goal of law: “if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply.”

Again, because piety is a central human virtue for Aquinas, not surprisingly he approves of Isidore’s claim that a chief purpose of human law should be “to foster religion.”

On “the classical view” one cannot avoid these matters by saying, as Adrian Vermeule does, that it’s possible to confine one’s discussion to “the order of nature” and avoid “the order of grace.”  On Aquinas’s view, human beings precisely as natural creatures, cannot attain even “temporal happiness” except through exercising the virtues – and as rational creatures they are ordered to God, who is the ultimate common good of society.  As John Paul II liked to emphasize, it’s inherent in the human person to have a transcendent character, and the common good of human society must be framed correspondingly. Religion after all is a pagan virtue.

The great theologian, Johannes Messner, writing in his 1949 Social Ethics after the horrors of World War II, comments, “Only if a personal God is recognized as creator and lawgiver can the idea of the ‘might of right’ possess its quite definite authority; otherwise, there can be no compelling reason why the principle ‘might is right’ should not in one way or another prevail.”

This brings me to the third mistake, which is that current presentations of the common good seem to downplay the necessity of liberty, identifying liberty with libertarianism and individualism.

This third mistake follows from the second.  Liberty is necessary for genuine virtue and for our response to God.  Downplay virtue, and liberty is easily lost from sight.  Moreover, as James Madison emphasized in his Memorial and Remonstrance, the relationship which a human being has to his creator, prior to political society and government, is a fundamental safeguard of liberty.  Prescind from our relationship to God, and how else are fundamental liberties secured?

Let Messner have the last word here: “full humanity depends essentially on [man’s] personal responsibility and self-reliant activity in carrying out the demands of his being. . . .the common good means that social cooperation makes it possible for the members of society to fulfill by their own responsibility and effort the vital tasks set for them by their existential ends. . . .although a domestic animal is not harmed in its essential nature by being provided for, the ‘provider state’ does impair man’s natural status because it takes away from him a sphere of self-determination and personal responsibility.”

*Image: Saint Thomas Aquinas by Antoni Viladomat, bet. 1700-1755 [Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s Common Good/Uncommon Evil

Stephen P. White’s Catholic Schools and the Common Good

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.