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The Common Good - An Antidote to Self-Interest

This article is based on a talk by Henri Ruff for Dorset Humanists. Henri has tutored for the Open University Business School. He facilitates a popular economics course for the University of the 3rd Age (U3A) in Bournemouth. Now retired, he is pursuing an interest in 'installation art'.

We’ve never had a better opportunity to raise the profile of the concept of the Common Good. No matter which country or system you’re living in, things aren’t looking very good. The foundations of the free-market economy are very shaky indeed. Perhaps an effect of the pandemic is the realisation that growth is all well and good but it’s economic resilience that matters more. And, when it comes to the common good, so does our treatment of natural resources and the environment.

The Antidote

I see ‘the common good’ as the antidote to life as it surrounds us now – an antidote to a focus on the self and self-interest. We see more self-employment in different forms and guises. We see politics dominated by self-interest. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that self-interest is the preserve of the right-wing and the alt-right. There's also self-interest in the form of nationalism coming from the left. A wonderful, short book Why Nationalism? (2020) by Yael Tamir, an Israeli academic and one-time minister in the Labour government there, makes the case for nationalism from the left.

Just take a look at all the different aspects of life focused on the self. I understand there are parts of the brain which focus our attention on the self. I can imagine the Mona Lisa taking selfies, had there been smartphones in her day. There was Joan Armatrading's 1980 hit song: 'Me, Myself, & I'. Freud contributed to our understanding of the ego as did Martin Buber in a seminal work called Myself and You (1923). The libertarian view (radical freedom of the self) was promoted by the American philosopher Robert Nozick. And even in the realm of mythology we have the self-adoring Narcissus. A recent book by Michael Sandel The Tyranny of Merit (2020) was subtitled ‘What’s Become of the Common Good?’. And a recent book by David Goodhart Head, Hand and Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (2020) looks at the individual’s sense of dignity in a world that is amplifying the self and diminishing the sense of the common good. Just take a look at the issues being talked about: income and wealth distribution, public health, levelling up, the cost-of-living crisis, growth and resilience, natural resources and the environment, and moving from ‘me’ to the ‘we’. ‘The common good’ is hugely complex. I’m going to try and simplify (hopefully without oversimplifying) some of the main issues. My overarching aim is to whet your appetite to investigate more.

The Common Good – its evolution

In the case of Aristotle, the common good and the good life meant welfare and well-being, and virtuosity – a virtuous life in terms of behaviour, motivation and intent. In Greek and Roman philosophy, the city-state was ‘established for the sake of some good’ for all ‘full’ members but excluded many e.g., women and slaves. The common good centres on ‘the good life’ - the cultivation of virtue rather than maximisation of wealth. For Cicero, it meant people associating in agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) argued that the pursuit of self-interest leads to tyrannical government because it is directed not to the Common Good but to Private Good. He conceived of humans as part of a universal moral order aligned to the Common Good with God, but only available to Christian believers. In philosophy, politics and economics over the centuries, the common good shifts from moral virtue towards the material wellbeing of individuals. Hobbes’ ‘good’ was anything a person might desire compatible with the common peace and security. For Locke this meant government must respect and protect people’s rights to life, liberty, and private property. Adam Smith’s Common Good meant the sum of all individual goods. This mutated into Benthamism, (after Jeremy Bentham) as maximising utility, thus accepting the ‘tyranny of the majority’ where the wellbeing of a minority might be sacrificed. American philosopher John Rawls’s push-back, expounded in his case for social justice, was rebutted by libertarians such as Robert Nozick, attempting to reconcile individual freedom with the common good.

The Common Good in recent history

We’ve lived through dramatic events and there’s a thread running through them which addresses the idea of the Common Good:

  • The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and its aftermath – the common good has not been served and there was an opportunity to build back banking and the economy better.

  • UK Austerity from 2010 and George Osborne’s famous and mischievous slogan: 'We’re all in this together'.

  • UK Referendum 2016: surely, it was asserted, the common good is served by 'the will of the people'.

  • Paris Agreement on Climate Change 2016

  • US election 2016: “Make America great again” – common good or self-good?

  • COVID-19 pandemic 2020: “Stop transmission and prevent the spread of the virus in order to save lives”.

“The Common Good (also known as ‘the public interest’ or ‘public goods’) denotes those goods, services or policies that serve the welfare of all members of a given community – but also no particular group – as well as generations not yet born.” Adapted from Amitai Etzioni, an Israeli and American sociologist.

What’s the ‘Common’ in the Common Good?

  1. One key facet is ‘common interests’: The public interest in contrast to private interest. A quick illustration of this is the phrase ‘not in my back yard’ (NIMBY) in relation to, say, housing developments or windfarms.

  2. A second key facet is common concerns or threats such as the global pandemic.

  3. A third aspect is responsibilities such as fair trade, Corporate Social Responsibility, UN sanctions – all in the interests of ‘the common good’.

  4. Fourth, a common aim or goal that is shared such as recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

  5. Fifth is ‘resonant reasoning’ – in other words, reasoning that resonates with you as an individual, corporation, or institution for a common good aim like protecting the environment or mitigating climate change

  6. And sixth we have ‘membership’ – i.e., shared interest in the common good as defined by particular groups whether geographic, cultural, ethnic, or religious. An example of this would be those who voted remain in the EU referendum.

What’s the ‘Good’ in the Common Good?

This question can broadly be categorised into three compartments:

1. Tangible and intangible benefits

  • It’s functional and useful to drive on the same side of the road

  • Safety and security such as national defence

  • Trustworthiness is less tangible (e.g., police forces and judiciary

  • Greater cohesion (less conflict) – a negative example is the period post-Brexit

2. Comparative benefit (advantage)

  • For example, is health better served by public or private healthcare systems?

  • Benefit over time e.g., housing in the post-war period hit a peak of 400,000 units a year

Ethical considerations

  • Is it virtuous? (Aristotle)

  • Are we paying due respect to an individual’s autonomy (libertarians) or the intrinsic nature of something like love? (Sandel)

  • Doing the ‘Right Thing’ e.g., the sanctity of life (Kant)

  • Is it socially just? (John Rawls)

Does the common good entail prioritizing justice or liberty? John Rawls and Robert Nozick represent two sides of the argument with Ayn Rand even further to the libertarian right.

The Common Good: obstacles to getting there

The idea of the common good has to be ‘sold’ in order to get buy-in. There are two things you have to do when you want to sell something: you need to sell the benefits and you need to be able to handle objections.

Objections or obstacles to the Common Good:

  1. Self-interest is a major obstacle but there's a distinction between own interest (not at anyone else’s expense) and self interest (pursued at your expense). Selfish interest is a major obstacle to the common good, as described in the concept of 'the tragedy of the commons', first developed by the 19th economist William Forster Lloyd, where a shared resource is overused.

  2. A second major obstacle is ideology which may be characterised as supplying the answer before you even know the question. A conspicuous example is libertarian thinking – freedom of the individual at anyone's expense. But we’re talking about quite a spectrum from Ayn Rand at one end (‘no such thing as society’ – she said it first) to Robert Nozick who is a much more moderate libertarian.

The Common Good: some ideas for getting there

  1. Sharing is one step we can take such as collaborative consumption, peer lending, crowdfunding, room renting, couch surfing, car sharing, job sharing, fair trade.

  2. Overlapping (e.g., private and public health care)

  3. Joint/mutual ownership: (e.g., Nationwide Building Society - this is not product placement! - and Credit Unions - there are around 5,000 in the US)

  4. Negotiation e.g., Paris Climate Agreement

  5. Coercion/compulsion e.g., taxation which pays for health, social welfare and education (‘theft’ according to Nozick!) including the possibility of hypothecated taxes.


We’ve never had a better opportunity to raise the profile of the concept of the Common Good. Things aren’t looking very good no matter which country or system you’re in. The foundations of the free-market economy are very shaky indeed. Perhaps an effect of the pandemic is the realisation that economic resilience, and our treatment of natural resources and the environment, matter more than growth.

Further reading

  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) Michael Sandel

  • Head, Hand and Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (2020) David Goodhart

  • Why Nationalism? (2020) Yael Tamir

  • Generation Share: The Change-Makers Building the Sharing Economy (2019) Benita Matofska and Sophie Sheinwald

  • Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) Robert Nozick

  • A Theory of Justice (1971) John Rawls

  • The Virtue of Selfishness (1945) Ayn Rand

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