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.

Substantial and aggregate activities

In the Physics Aristotle gives his famous definition of a substance, which he refers to as a thing that “exists by nature” or as a “natural object”:

Some things exist by nature, others are due to other causes. Natural objects include animals and their parts, plants and simple bodies like earth, fire, air, and water; at any rate, we do say that these kinds of things exist naturally. The obvious difference between all these things and things which are not natural is that each of the natural ones contains within itself a source of change and of stability, in respect of either movement or increase and decrease of alteration. On the other hand, something like a bed or a cloak has no intrinsic impulse for change — at least, they do not under that particular description and to the extent that they are a result of human skill, but they do in so far as and to the extent that they are coincidentally made out of stone or earth or some combination of the two.

The nature of a thing, then, is a certain principle and cause of change and stability in the thing, and it is directly present in it — which is to say that it is present in its own right and not coincidentally. (Physics II.1 192b8-b23)

Edward Feser summarises this definition from Aristotle by saying,

The basic idea, then, is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior — the ways in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts — derives from something intrinsic to it. (Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’ Fifth Way)

Aristotle and the Scholastics would later argue that the only way to make sense of the fact that things always, or for the most part, behave in certain ways is if they are by nature directed towards such behaviour. That is, if they have an inherent tendency or directedness towards such activity as an end. (cf Physics II.8 198b34-199a7) This intrinsic directedness towards an end, then, is the nature of thing:

The point is that those things are natural which undergo continuous change, starting from an intrinsic source of change and concluding at a particular end… it is clear that a thing’s nature is a cause, and that it is the kind of cause I have been saying — namely, purpose. (Physics 199b15-18, 32-33)

It must be recalled that neither Aristotle nor the Scholastics who followed him thought of this directedness or “purpose” as necessarily involving intelligence or deliberation from the things so directed.

This is particularly clear in the case of non-human animals, whose products are not the result of skill, enquiry, or planning. Some people are puzzled by how spiders, ants, and so on make what they make — do they use intelligence, or what? … It is ridiculous for people to deny that there is purpose if they cannot see the agent of change doing any planning. After all, skill does not make plans. If ship-building were intrinsic to word, then wood would naturally produce the same results that ship-building does. If skill is purposive, then, so is nature. (Physics II.8 199b26-30)

Again, Feser explains:

In other words, that goal-directedness does not require conscious deliberation is evident from the fact that a skilled craftsman can largely carry out his work without even thinking about it—”on autopilot” as we might put it today, or without first “making plans,” as Aristotle puts it. But if this is possible for someone with such skill, there is in Aristotle’s view no reason not to think it also possible for natural objects. This is the force of the ship-building example: If there were something in the very nature of wood that “directed it” toward the end of becoming a ship, then what in the case of human craftsmanship results from deliberate design — a ship — would in that case result “naturally” instead, that is, without conscious deliberation at all. Indeed, “it looks as though things happen at the plant level too which serve some purpose” in just this way, even though plants do not deliberate — for instance, an oak derives from an acorn without the acorn planning this result — and there is also of course the example of “non-human animals, whose products are not the result of skill, enquiry, or planning.”

So substances are those things which have an intrinsic directedness towards an end. Because this directedness is tied up with a thing’s characteristic behaviours, and characteristic behaviours are tied up with a thing’s causal powers, we might equivalently say that substances are those things which have intrinsic causal powers. By intrinsic, here, we mean that the directedness or causal powers of the thing are not (1) imposed from some outside agent or (2) reducible to the sum of the its parts considered in themselves. Aggregates (or “heaps”), on the other hand, have only extrinsic directedness or causal powers.

Let’s consider some examples of each. On a molecular level, a water molecule is a substance, for it has causal powers which are not reducible to the powers of its parts. For instance, water boils at 100°C while hydrogen, considered in itself, boils at -252.9°C and oxygen, considered in itself, boils at -183°C. The same goes for other powers.

On a more macroscopic level, individual animals are substances. Considered in itself, an organ is merely a clump of flesh which decomposes if left to its own devices. However, when the organs co-exist in an animal they are each capable of their individual functions in the body (walking, grasping, thinking, sensing, pumping blood, and so on) and they are all capable of participating in the life of the animal, where life is:

… the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is… (David Oderberg, Teleology: Inorganic and Organic)

Consider, for instance, how you develop from a baby in your mother’s womb to a fully-grown adult, or how body heals itself when damaged, or how you don’t just decompose (unless you’re sick in some way). None of your organs, considered in themselves as mere clumps of flesh, are capable of these things and so you are not merely the sum of your organs.

A pile of rocks would be an obvious example of an aggregate. Its power to hold something 2 meters above the ground is merely the sum of the individual rocks that make it up. Above Aristotle used an example of a bed, which is merely an aggregate of the materials (wood and metal) that make it up.

Some aggregates, because of their complexity, are less obviously aggregates. Examples of these are things like watches and computers. A watch’s power for time-telling is imposed on it by us, and its power for the circular motion of its hands is merely the sum of the powers of its parts such as the conduction of electricity and so on. Similarly for a computer or a calculator.

From wholes to activities

All this is by way of introduction for what I really want to talk about here. The space was not wasted, however, for what we have introduced will serve us well in what follows. Thus far we’ve been discussing the distinction between substantial and aggregate wholes. My aim here, however, is to make a parallel distinction between substantial and aggregate activities.

A substantial activity, then, is one which has intrinsic directedness towards an end. That is, its directedness is not (1) imposed from some outside agent or (2) reducible to the sum of the its parts considered in themselves. In order for us to understand this we need to be clear on how an activity has directedness, and the best way to achieve such clarity is by considering how substances engage in activities. For our purposes here, it will be sufficient to distinguish between three groups of substances: non-animals, non-rational animals, and rational animals.

By non-animals I mean inorganic substances (rocks, water, atoms, …) and non-animal organisms (that is, vegetation). What distinguishes animals from non-animals is that the former have some form of sentience (and, typically, an ability for self-movement). Since non-sentience involves not being able consciously move to an end it seems we have two options with regards to how activities involving non-animals have directedness: either their activities don’t have directedness, or the directedness of their activities derives from the directedness the substance has in virtue of its nature.

What distinguishes rational animals from non-rational animals is that the former have the ability to (1) abstract universal concepts from particulars (“Socrates is a human“), (2) combine these concepts into judgements or propositions (“All humans are mortal”), and (3) string these propositions into arguments for conclusions (“Therefore, Socrates is mortal”).[1] So within animals we distinguish between non-rational animals, which are only conscious of particular things via sensation, and rational animals, which are additionally conscious of the universal concepts that pervade all the particulars. By virtue of their consciousness animals are capable of directing their actions towards specific ends in addition to the ends set for them by their natures.

For instance, a cat is by nature directed towards certain characteristic activities such as walking on four legs and eating certain types of food, as well as developing such morphological features that make these possible. However, because this cat is hungry and conscious of that bird it directs and moves itself towards that bird in order to eat it. All the while, however, the cat is not conscious of universal concepts (as such) like “being hungry”, “birds” and so on. Much of its “reasoning” is driven by instinct and nature. But this does not invalidate the claim that it has a measure of self-direction which it derives from its consciousness of particular things. Rational animals, because they are also aware of universal concepts, are capable of directing themselves in accordance with a richer set of ends.

The Porphyrian tree for corporeal substances. Leaf nodes represent species and edges represent specific differences that divide each genus up.
The Porphyrian tree for corporeal substances. Leaf nodes represent species and edges represent specific differences that divide up each genus.

Whether an animal is rational or not, ultimately its intention is what determines the direction of a given activity. Consider, for instance, the movement of my hand into your shoulder. What I intend to achieve with the movement is what determines whether this action is me punching you or merely an accident (which would be the case if I was intending to get something else and misjudged our relative positions).

With these distinctions in hand we ask the following question: how are substantial and aggregate wholes related to substantial and aggregate activities? It seems obvious that substances are capable of substantial actions and aggregates are capable of aggregate activity. But does this exhaust the possible relations?

The possibility of substantial activity by aggregate wholes

There are only two other options we could consider. The first is substances performing aggregate activities, but in the interest of time we’ll leave this to one side.

The second option is that of an aggregate performing a substantial activity. Such an activity would require an aggregate of substances to direct their otherwise disparate activity toward a common end. Is this not what we find in various teams and associations throughout human society? A sports team works together to win the game, an orchestra works together to play their piece well, the various employess in a company work together for the sake of the company, the various military personnel work together to achieve victory in war, when two friends pick up a large object together, and so on.

At this point we must be careful, lest we fall into error and think some such activities substantial when in fact they are merely aggregate. Take the example of the members of an orchestra performing their piece. This is an example of substantial action because each intends to contributes to the same performance. It’s this shared intention (or something like it) that makes the activity substantial, and not just that the sound produced is a combination of the sounds of the various instruments. After all, even aggregates involve combinations of their parts. By contrast, consider the musicians behind stage before the performance starts, while they each tune their respective instrument. An observer standing backstage will hear the combination of all the various sounds they make as they do this. The making of this combined sound will be merely an aggregate activity. Why? Because there is no shared intention directing the musicians to a common end. Rather, in this case each musician intends merely to tune their own instrument independent of the others. So when we aggregate the various tuning activities we end up with an aggregate of ends and therefore an aggregate activity.

So aggregate wholes can indeed engage in substantial activities, and they do so when and only when the members of the aggregate intentionally work together toward some common end.

But we can take this further. You’ll notice that the examples I listed above all involved aggregates of rational animals. This was not accidental, for only aggregates of rational beings are capable of this kind of substantial activity we’re considering. We see why when we reflect on what’s involved in working together with others toward a common end.

First, working together involves recognising both you and another falling under the same category of “part” in some sense. It requires that we understand the roles we’re responsible for and how those roles contribute to the achievement of the end in sight. Often (if not always) this will require that we understand the rules which encode our responsibilities. All of this, and more, requires a capacity for being conscious of universal concepts like “part”, “whole”, “role”, “responsibility”, “rule”, “expectation”, and so on. Since only rational beings are conscious of universal concepts, it follows that only rational beings can work together toward a common end.

Second, working together toward a common end requires that we be conscious of the end as common. Briefly, common ends are ends that can be enjoyed by multiple members without thereby being diminished. They are opposed to private ends, which are always diminished when shared.[2] For instance, 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. Siblings will know that the time I spend playing on the computer is time my brother cannot play on the computer. Consider, however, the examples we mentioned earlier: winning a sports game, the musical piece, the good of a company, victory in war, the picking up of a car. All of these are shared amongst the members in the corresponding aggregate, but are not thereby diminished. The same victory in war, for instance, is equally had by everyone in the winning nation.

Now, from the examples given it seems clear that particular things (or combinations of particular things) considered as particular can only serve as private ends. By contraposition, it follows that in order to be conscious of an end as common requires that we be conscious of universal concepts. Therefore only rational beings can be conscious of, and direct themselves toward, common ends.

Notes

  1. The Scholastics called these the “acts of reason”, and labeled them (1) grasping, (2) composition and division, and (3) reasoning. Each of the acts of reason are dependent upon the earlier ones for their operation. Technically, (2) is richer than merely the ability to form propositions: it also enables rational beings to form universal concepts of things they haven’t experienced yet. For instance, once we have an concept of a horse and the concept of blackness we can consider the combination of these two concepts without having ever seen a black horse.
  2. Of course this is not the whole story, and common ends tend to be notoriously difficult to talk about (see, for instance, Marcus Berquist’s Common Good and Private Good). The particular qualification I want to add here is that while common ends can be shared without thereby being diminished it doesn’t follow that sharing always leaves it 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 end, 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. Because this qualification doesn’t affect the overall thrust of my argument, I chose to just mention it here in the footnotes.