"There is a loud knocking at the door from the tenuous ecological situation of our planet. Self-interest has become a suicidal path," Glen Argan writes. Photo by Alex Indigo/Flickr

Glen Argan: Pursuit of the common good is the best path

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  • March 12, 2018
Perhaps the notion of the common good will soon have its day in the sun.

Surely, the belief of Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, that the best economy is the one that promotes self-interest, has been tried and found wanting. Smith held that “an invisible hand” would produce increased prosperity for all if the pursuit of self-interest were allowed to do its work.

The invisible hand has indeed proved to be invisible as hundreds of millions of people suffer from extreme poverty while a small minority enjoys unparalleled wealth. The massive tax cuts for the rich recently legislated by the U.S. Trump administration is further witness to the ideology of the invisible hand being no more than a self-serving myth of the wealthy.

Still, it is surprising to see The Guardian, the British newspaper of the left, frankly endorse Catholic social teaching and its notion of the common good. The Guardian is not normally enamoured with things Catholic, and the Church’s notion of the common good does not fit easily with a left-wing ideology.

The term “common good” is vague enough that it might have just about any meaning. It could be taken to mean, for example, the greatest good for the greatest number. This is the ethic of Caiaphas who proclaimed, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). Defile the dignity of the one person to preserve the rights of the majority.

Or, one could understand “common good” to refer to the good of a mass collectivity — “the people” of communist totalitarianism. Here, the individual person has no value except insofar as they are part of humanity taken as a whole.

The Catholic notion of the common good asserts the inviolable dignity of the human person. Each person is created in the likeness of God and should enjoy an uncompromising respect.

Such philosophical musings may seem removed from the economic ordering of society, but really they lie at its heart. The Second Vatican Council placed the Church in diametric opposition to Smith’s hypothesis when it declared, “If human beings are the only creatures on Earth that God has wanted for their own sake, they can fully discover their true selves only in sincere self-giving.”

There you have it: Are we fulfilled as persons by the unrelenting pursuit of self-interest or by making a gift of oneself to others? The Church opts for the latter.

An ethic of sincere self-giving does tend to make the state secondary in the right ordering of society. Virtue is the foundation on which the good society is built.

Moreover, the affirmation of human dignity that comes through virtuous action not only respects the rights of the poor and excluded, but also their responsibility. For they too achieve fulfillment only insofar as they take ownership for improving their lot. Think of Habitat for Humanity’s insistence that those who are to receive dignified housing also take part in building their new homes. Think of Development and Peace’s determination to let their partners in developing nations do the real work while D&P offers financial support.

Still, the state does play a role, not only in providing a safety net, but also in ensuring an equitable distribution of society’s resources in housing, education, health care and other necessities.

The common good insists on basic morality and on rights such as freedom of conscience. That insistence places limits on the role of the state, but it does not abolish it.

The question remains as to whether the common good will replace self-interest as the guiding principle for modern societies. No crystal ball can answer that question since the answer is ultimately one of human choice.

But there is a loud knocking at the door from the tenuous ecological situation of our planet. Self-interest has become a suicidal path. At the very least, enlightened self-interest will be required to avoid the worst results of climate change. Enlightened self-interest will call forth some level of sacrifice from all of us to make a livable world for our children and grandchildren.

Will such sacrifices be forced upon us or will they be made voluntarily? The latter course will make for a more peaceful global community, but there will be no habitable world at all if sacrifice is not forthcoming. Concern for the common good is humanity’s path to survival.

(Argan is the interim editor of Living with Christ and writes from Edmonton.)

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