Common goods

I had originally intended to tie up the thoughts begun in previous posts on natural and moral goodnesssubstantial activitiesbasic goods, and virtual existence, but it has since occurred to me that this would be too ambitious for a single blog post. So, I’ll attempt to approach the topic in installments as I find the time. Those previous discussions are important for the direction I want to go, since we will be using much of the terminology and conclusions there. As such I strongly recommend reading them if you haven’t done so, and perhaps even rereading them if you haven’t done so for a while. In this post we will be introducing the notion of common goods, which will be much of our focus hereon out.

In general something is good to the extent that it realises its end. This is what Aquinas meant when he said that the “good has the nature of an end” (ST Q94 A2 corp). We’re most familiar with ends as intended by rational beings, but these are just a small number of the ends we’re considering. Non-rational animals act for particular ends too, of course. Beyond this the development process of living things is directed toward the end of healthy adulthood. And we’ve seen every substance is in some sense directed toward its characteristic behaviours given by its nature. (Besides the posts linked above, I also discussed this in section 2.2 here.)

Since goods and ends are so linked, a common good is therefore the realisation of a common end. And since common ends belong to communities or societies, it follows that common goods are the goods of these communities. But what is a community? It turns out the answer isn’t a simple matter: there are alternatives and each putative answer gives a slightly different notion of what the commonness of common goods involves. For the remainder of this post we will be unpacking all of this, with the help of our foregoing discussions.

In our discussion on virtual existence we outlined the three ways parts relate to their wholes: (1) parts which are actually present in their aggregate, (2) parts considered in themselves which are virtually present in their substance, and (3) parts considered as parts which are actually present in their substance (in the sense that they derive their being from the substance itself, and this substance is actually present). In (1) the parts each maintain their individual ends, and the end of the aggregate is merely the sum of the ends of its parts. Substances, on the other hand, have ends intrinsic to themselves. In (2) the end of the substance “overrides” the ends the parts would otherwise have in isolation, and in (3) the parts have the same end as the substance because they share in its being and nature.

In our discussion on substantial and aggregate activities, we noted that there is an analogous sense in which activities can be understood as substances or aggregates. And everything we’ve said about wholes equally applies to activities. For instance, we can also speak of virtual existence in the context of substantial activities. We introduce the idea by applying our hylomorphic analysis of virtual existence to a concrete example. Imagine we’re considering an orchestra playing a piece of music, and imagine we zoom in on one of the violinist’s playing. Recall that an action can be analysed hylomorphically, with the matter being the movement and the form being the intention. And recall that the virtual existence of parts in themselves involves retaining the matter while “filling in” (through intellectual activity) a form the part would have in isolation from the whole. What do we get in the case of our imagined example? Well, the intention of the violinist considered as a part of the orchestra is to play with piece together with the rest of the orchestra members. An intention that we might fill in would be the violinist practicing the piece by themselves. In this way actions can exist virtually in the substantial activities they belong to.

Now, are communities to be understood as wholes, or activities, or some combination of the two? It doesn’t seem correct to identify the community with the activity because the parts of the activity are the individual actions whereas the parts of the community are the individuals themselves. At the same time it seems mistaken to completely divorce a community from its activity. The same group of humans could be an orchestra and a soccer team, for instance, but surely the orchestra is distinct from the soccer team? Put another when we consider the members of the orchestra we consider them as musicians, but when we consider the members of the soccer team we consider them as soccer players.

As such, it seems to me that we should consider communities in terms of both wholes and activities. Again, hylomorphism gives us a natural way of doing so: when considering a group of individuals it is their activity that determines what community they are. That is, the group is an otherwise indeterminate substratum and the activity is what determines them to being this or that community. That is, the group is the matter and the activity is the form of the community.

So communities represent a third category which is a hylomorphic combination of the first two. And just as there are three ways for parts to relate to their wholes, and three analogous ways for actions to relate to their activities, so there are three analogous ways for individuals to relate to their communities. How should we understand these in terms of the wholes and activities that make up the communities? With regards to matter (the whole), it seems intuitive that the underlying whole of a community will always be some kind of aggregate of individuals, each of which will be substances in their own right. With regards to form (the activity) we have three options: (1) an aggregate activity in which the individual actions actually exist, (2) a substantial activity in which the individual actions virtually exist, and (3) a substantial activity in which the individual actions actually exist. Each of these would translate to a different kind of community. In (1) the community is merely the aggregate of the individuals, and its end is the sum of the disparate ends of these individuals. In this case, the only things that can truly be called a substance are the individual substances. In (2) we see the reverse of this: the individuals are the parts of the community considered in themselves, and as such their individual ends will be “overridden” by the ends of the substantial community. (3) represents somewhat of a middle ground, and will be of much interest to us. Here the individuals are parts of the substantial community, but not in such a way that they have their ends overridden. This is because their actions are all directed toward the common end of the community.

At least two of these views already have names: (1) is called atomic individualism and (2) is called organic collectivism. Matthew O’Brien and Robert Koons introduce them as follows:

In attending to social nature, the ethically minded metaphysician must avoid both the Scylla of atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of organic collectivism. The attempt to navigate successfully the narrow strait between them has been a recurring theme in Western metaphysics, from the time of Plato to the present. The organic collectivist holds that the most fundamentally real things (the “substances”) are complete and sovereign human societies; on this view, typified by Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, individual human beings are merely cells of the social organism, with a nature, an identity, and an existence wholly dependent on that of the whole. In contrast, the atomistic individualist, such as Ayn Rand, holds that individual human beings are the substances, with societies as mere aggregations or “heaps” (to use Aristotle’s expression)….

For organic, collectivist pictures of human life, the good of individual human beings carries no weight, since, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an individual: the good of the society as a whole is everything. For atomic individualists, the ‘common good’ consists of nothing but the sum of measures of the individual welfare of participants.

Their article doesn’t work from the exactly same distinctions we’ve made, but it’s clear from the quoted passage that for the organic collectivist the community’s being a substance in some way “overrides” the individuals that are part of it. That is, the community is a substance at the expense of the individuals, which corresponds with what we’ve said of (2). I don’t know of a name for (3), so for the sake our discussion here we will refer to it as unitivism.

So we have outlined the three views of (1) atomic individualism, (2) organic collectivism, and (3) untivism. Each gives us a different picture of what makes a community, as well as a different understanding of the commonness of common goods. It is this that we must unpack to adequately answer the question at hand.

Let’s start with atomic individualism. On this view the community is merely the sum of its individuals, and therefore so is its end, and thus the common good is also understood as an aggregate of individual goods. A good is common, in this sense, by virtue of being predicated of the many individuals of in the community. So, for instance, health or wealth would be common goods since it is good for each individual to be healthy and sufficiently wealthy. And the health of the community, for instance, would be the aggregate of the health of the individuals. Common goods, in this sense, are contrasted with singular goods in that to be common to be predicated of many whereas to be singular is to be predicated of one. So, we speak of the health of the community as opposed to the health of this or that individual.

Next consider organic collectivism. On this view the community is a substance at the expense of the individuals. Since it is a substance it has its own end, and this is what the common good would be. Since the individuals exist only virtually in the community, this common good overrides their individual goods. An example comes from some socialist economic theories, where individuals are to give up their individual right to private property in order to be part of the political community. So we find that common goods, in this sense, are contrasted with individual goods. The common good, in our example, being the common property which is contrary to the private property of individuals, or what we might call “individual property”.

Finally there’s unitivism. The unitivist agrees with organic collectivist that the community is a kind of substance, but disagrees that this comes in such a way as to override the individuals. We achieve this by noting that the realisation of the common end toward which all the members work together is a good for each member, and it is on account of their shared intention toward this end that they are considered a substantial community in the first place. Moreover the unitivist agrees with the atomic individualist that the goods of the community are the goods of the individuals, but disagrees that these goods are merely shared by virtue of predication and aggregation. We achieve this by noting that the common end is numerically the same for all the individuals, and its realisation is a single good shared by the individuals of the community without thereby being diminished. Consider, for instance, that the piece played by the orchestra is one and the same piece played by each of the musicians, a victory in war is one and the same victory for the entire nation, and so on. To use some Thomistic jargon the common good is a universal cause not a universal predicate. The common good, in this sense, is contrasted with private goods in that to be common is to be shareable with thereby being diminished and to be private is either to be unshareable or always diminished when shared.

Perhaps we should spend some more time unpacking this distinction between common and private goods. First some examples. We mentioned the playing of the piece for the orchestra and the victory in war for the winning nation are both common goods. Other examples are manifold, so long as we can identify the aggregate wholes engaging in substantial activities for common ends: victory in a sports game is a common good for the winning team, financial success is a common good for many companies, the picking up of a car by two friends is a common good for them. A previously mentioned example of a private good was food, for “if there is a loaf of bread between me and someone else, the more the I eat the less there is for the other person to eat.” Two other examples of private goods would be the two goods listed as common by the atomic individualist: health and wealth. While many individuals have health (on account of which it is a common predicate), they do not all share in one and the same health. Wealth is more or less a generalisation of food, in that the more money I give you the less I have for myself. Of course, private property would also be a private good.

Second, we note that in most (if not all) communities there will be certain private goods the members need in order to participate in and enjoy the common goods of that community. This often involves some form of equipment and training, but can also include other things. We will have cause to speak about this in more in later posts. We note this here because it reminds us that while common goods and private goods are contraries conceptually, they needn’t be (and often aren’t) contraries in practice.

Third, what we mean by activity should be construed quite broadly so as to apply to every kind of community we might consider. Indeed, once we do this we begin to see hierarchies of communities form. For instance, a soccer team participates in a soccer game, which itself is part of a larger tournament, which is run by the local soccer league, which is part of the national soccer league. The soccer team’s activity is also more than this or that game, but rather includes all their games as well as their practicing, recruiting, purchasing of equipment, and so on. The hierarchy of communities entails that when communities are parts of bigger ones, they can have private goods themselves. For example, playing a soccer game is a common good for both teams, but victory is private to one of the teams. That same victory, however, is common to the members of the winning team. So whether a good should be characterised as common or private depends on the community and individuals in focus.

Fourth, an important qualification: while common goods can be shared without thereby being diminished it doesn’t follow that sharing always leaves them undiminished. For instance, orchestras are limited in their size because once they get too big they become unmanageable. The same goes for political communities and friendships and presumably any community. Furthermore, including bad musicians in an orchestra might also diminish the end insofar as those musicians get in the way of the orchestra performing well. But in these cases it is not the sharing per se that is diminishing the good, but rather the sharing with too many people or sharing with bad musicians. With private goods, no matter how you share you will always diminish your ends.

Now, all three accounts of common goods can and do occur in reality. Of the three, however, it seems that the unitivist’s notion is most relevant to the study of the good of humans in social or political contexts. That we seek to study human goods means we are not primarily interested in goods that by their very nature occur at the expense of the human individuals. And that we seek to study human goods in social and political contexts means we are not primarily interested in goods that are mere aggregations of individual goods.

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