marqueur eStat'Perso


The quest for Common Good : Milestones for a post-utilitarian approach

Bernard Perret


Seminar on the Catholic Social Thought, Whose ethics, which priorities, Cambridge, 11-14 April 1999



In modern societies, the idea of Common Good is both subsumed and denied by the domination of economic finalities. But - and this is my main point -, the contemporary conditions of socio-economic development give a new relevance to this notion. That is, to be more specific, to the idea that the desirable future of humanity needs to be explicitly considered and designed in the light of normative conceptions of human nature and vocation. In a second part, I will discuss some concepts, theories and social analysis devices related to this necessary re-opening of the debate on the orientation of social development.


A- Common Good reduced to economic wealth ?

The traditional Catholic notion of Common Good embodies the idea of a strong link between welfare, social justice and morality. For example, in Rerum Novarum; we can read "What makes a nation wealthy, is pure morals, families based upon order and morality, religion practice and justice respect, a moderate taxation, a fair distribution of public charges, industry and business progress, a flourishing agriculture and other elements of this kind" (RN 26). Through different formulations, we find the unchanging assumption that social welfare and personal morality reinforce each other. Corollary : if good produces good, social welfare and justice should be pursued consciously for themselves. They will result from intentional public and private decisions induced by ethical choices related to a global attitude of social responsibility.

This traditional view is in obvious contradiction with the domination of economic rationality in modern societies. To be accurate, economic principle should be envisaged in this context through two contrasted ideas : first, liberalism, and second utilitarianism. But, in fact, the dominant economic vulgate is a synthesis of the two. The core paradigm is very simple to formulate : free market development gives consistency to a society in which the maximisation of social welfare is not only compatible with individuals selfishness, but is the quasi mechanical result of it. From this proceeds a singular feature of modern society. Across history, all societies have been based on the repression of desire, subordination of individual wants to society goals and values, and some kind of promotion of sacrifice. Our market society is based on a radical denial of the traditional distance between individual aspirations and Common Good. Economic growth is more and more dependent on private consumption; itself based on the activation of desire. When I act in order to satisfy any kind of economic want, I also act in favour of economic growth. We see government encourage people to buy new cars, etc. In fact, one could define modern market economy as a deliberate and systematic attempt to build a system in which self-achievement oriented conducts lead quasi-automatically to an increase of common welfare. In this sense, the idea of Common Good is both subsumed and denied by the economic principle.

From Common Good to General Interest

Of course, one could say that the importance given to economic wealth is related to the replacement of Common Good by General Interest as fundamental political regulatory principle. Hence the following question : to what extent is this shift inherent to modern democracy ? And this other question : is not this shift a logical development of the traditional concept of Common Good, if we interpret it as what creates the best material and social conditions for every man to exert his moral freedom and pursue the ultimate goals he has freely chosen ? As Leon XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, quoting Thomas : "No doubt, Common Good (...) is mainly a moral good. But in a well constituted society, there should be also a certain amount of material and external goods the use of which is required to the exertion of virtue" (RN 27). Significantly, Leon XIII uses often the expression "Common Interest" as an equivalent of Common Good. In other words, the notion of Common good, in its Christian acceptance (not Aristotelian, to this respect, because Aristotle's Common Good is an overlapping common finality), embodies paradoxically an individualistic and dualistic scheme (obviously related to the Augustinian " two cities " paradigm) that opens the road to economic liberalism, when the sense of individual destiny and freedom is no more counterbalanced by a sense of common human nature and vocation, and metaphysical goods disappear behind tangible goods.

Even if we are not dogmatist liberals, we observe and must admit the practical relevance of the classical economic paradigm, so far, at least, as economic wealth is concerned. In the long term, the disadvantaged groups themselves have benefited form economic growth. Which does not mean, of course, that market regulation is completely self-reliant. Let me briefly reiterate here a classical but always powerful critical argument against the "invisible hand" paradigm : I mean the fact that it assumes a certain level of trust among individuals. Any kind of economic exchange includes a moment of uncertainty and insecurity, concerning the fact that the other partner will respect its commitment and behave according to basic co-operative rules. The expression " Invisible hand-shake " used by Johan Verstraeten is very appropriate in this respect. This crucial role of trust in economy has been expressed in a formal way in the famous "prisoner's dilemma", which remains a strong point against the self-reliance of market mechanism. To put it briefly, it shows clearly that no collective optimum can result from purely egoist conducts. Indeed, anyone can see that, even in a market economy, economic life embodies a community dimension. For example, firms, and more generally productive organisations, rely upon non-market co-ordination. The recurrence of the term "partnership" reflects the growing importance in the economic sphere of non-hierarchic relationships, that could be named hybrid relationships, based on mutual trust and sympathy play as well as on mutual interest.

Although their importance in social life can't be denied, disinterested conducts are de facto depreciated under the invading influence of money. Individual conducts based on a strict economic rationality tend to be officially approved, or even fostered, for their beneficial consequences. The main collective objectives, not only material welfare and its direct corollaries (such as : comfort and security of life, medical progress, communications development) but also full employment, reduction of inequalities and more generally social cohesion and development seem completely dependent on economic growth. Consequence of it, non-economic dimensions of social life, and even ethics, are more and more subordinated to economy. Human and social resources, knowledge, skills, co-operative abilities, the well functioning of justice and other democratic institutions, etc, are sometimes considered as mere instruments as well as ‘side-effects’ of economic development. The best example is European Union : it would be easy to show that economic development has been progressively promoted as both the practical condition and the ultimate rationale of its political development.

Can we think of economic wealth as the modern figure of Common Good ? It has, indeed, some of its attributes. In a pluralist democratic society in which individual emancipation is the supreme value, no other social goal (except, maybe, for medical progress) can reach such a consensus. GDP growth is the condensed expression of what is universally desirable, regardless of personal choices concerning ways of life, culture or ethics. It is not enough to denounce as materialistic this drastic flattening of collective hopes, insofar as growth is nowadays wanted for its social effects (to begin with unemployment reduction) still more than for its direct utilitarian fallout. We need it as a " political solvent " (1), a regulation mechanism adapted to societies in which individuals are supposed to act in an autonomous way, according to their own interest. Contrary to the traditional vision, this common good needs not to be recognised as such through an explicit ethical or political judgement : it simply shows itself as the universal means through which all kinds of specific goals can be pursued (including, if the case arises, ethical goals). It is not necessary to specify which kind of society we want to live in : market is supposed to give the answer.

But this is only one part of the story, because our societies need also a substantial and unified representation of social welfare (and here we meet the utilitarian side of economic Ideology). Economic choices must be legitimated from the point of view of global social welfare, and they are discussed in the public sphere through a set of aggregate indicators, beginning with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that pretend to measure it. And this measure embodies a set of conventions that can be de-constructed and criticised. As a matter of fact, the religion of GDP has long since been criticised. Noticeably for the reason that it takes no account of domestic and all non-monetary production. At least in France, the non-equivalence of economic wealth and social welfare is a commonplace of the social debate.

Towards a post-utilitarian Era ?

Which new elements can be brought ? My point is that the limits of a utilitarian and materialist conception of social welfare appear more clearly in "post-scarcity societies". According to Antony Giddens, a post-scarcity society is a society where people are confronted to a "wider set of life concerns that those of productivism " (2). To put it differently, it is a society in which "qualitative" aspects of life become more important. By qualitative aspects, I refer notably to all cultural, social, ecological or bio-ethical issues that can't find solutions in a growth of economic production or even in a more equitable income distribution. Always according to Giddens, we should now recognise the increasing centrality of "life politics", that is, "a politics not of life chances but of life style. (which) concerns disputes and struggles about how (as individuals and as collective humanity) we should live in a world where what used to be fixed either by nature or tradition is now subject to human decision" (3).

We must, of course, admit that no tradition and no definitive truth about human nature can be accepted as such without discussion in the democratic debate, but then, on what basis argue about "how we should live" ? As far as this questions refers to issues - more and more frequent and pregnant -, for which market (that is the result of free individual choices) or economic indicators can't give the right answer, the notion of "life politics" sends back to the question of Common Good. Because it implies collective and explicit judgements about the way we should live, and because no reasonable discussion could take place in such matters if not in the light of a normative conception of human vocation.


B - Some contemporary conceptualisations and problematics related to the notion of Common Good

In addition to these general considerations, I will now mention some more specific issues, presently discussed among economists, sociologists or philosophers. Closely related to the issue of Common Good, even if the very expression is not used.

GDP, a biased measure of Social Welfare

Economists are more and more conscious that GDP cannot measure important aspects of human development, such as education, inequalities, social violence or natural environment depletion. Moreover, the growth rate is so much more biased that social and ecological problems are becoming more threatening. Many experts across the world seek to implement new instruments to analyse and measure social development. A well-known example of such instruments is the set of Indicators published each year by the United Nations Development Program. The Human Development Index measures the overall achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development-longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living. It is measured by life expectancy, educational attainment (adult literacy and combined primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment) and adjusted income. Other indicators are published in UNDP reports, among which The Gender-related Development index (GDI), which measures inequalities between women and men for the same criteria, and different poverty indicators. Ranked through HDI, the hierarchy of countries is noticeably different. For example, France is in second position after Canada, and the USA only in fourth position.

This approach is innovative, but its limits are obvious. The choice and the weighting of qualitative development criteria are highly arbitrary (they have no theory-based justification). In fact, improving development indicators could be seen as an attempt to elude the intrinsic inconsistency of any synthetic quantitative figure of Common Good. The UNDP report itself is very clear about that : " Human Development Reports, since the first in 1990, have published the human development index (HDI) as a measure of human development, recognise, however, that the concept of human development is much broader than the HDI. It is impossible to come up with a comprehensive measure-or even a comprehensive set of indicators-because many vital dimensions of human development are non-quantifiable (...). The HDI is not a substitute for the fuller treatment of the richness of the concerns of the human development perspective " (UNDP report, 1998). It is, of course, a progress to draw attention on elements such as education, life expectancy or gender inequalities, which tend to be occulted by economic indicators. But it is also a kind of contradiction in terms to try to aggregate them via a synthetic indicator, because comparison and aggregation of heterogeneous objects and realities, "cabbages and carrots" as we say in France, is precisely the core issue of an economic representation of social reality. Against economic reductionism, as I will argue below, we must plead for the recognition of the pluralism and heterogeneity of goods. Anyway, we could indefinitely enlarge the list of crucial elements and circumstances of everyday life that can't be valued on a univocal quantitative basis. One of the best examples is Time. Many aspects of Time social regulation are crucial for the quality of life. For example : the fact that some social rythms are preserved (I think of the necessity to respect Sunday as a day of rest), the clear separation of private time and professional time, the personal mastering of one's agenda, etc.... There is no sense to imagine that these elements could be quantified, weighted, and included in some kind of "Gross National Happiness".

The notion of Social Capital

Another limit of the economic representation of social development is that it embodies no attention to its political, societal and cultural sustainability. The concept of capital, even extended to Human Capital, refers to the basis of future economic production. But if we consider society as a complex system, including culture, civilisation in a broad sense, economy tells us nothing about the conditions in which this system can reproduce itself. It is clear that economic indicators give no information about the "sustainability" of civic and social order. In this connection, there is much to think about the notion of "Social Capital" introduced by American sociologists. According to Robert Putnam, " Social Capital refers to features of social organisations such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefice" (4). Networks of civic engagement, such as unions, political clubs and parties, all kinds of associations, neighbourhood informal networks, sports clubs, and co-operatives, are typical manifestations of social capital. The denser these networks are, the more likely will the members of a community co-operate for mutual benefit. Of course, Social Capital is important for economic life because networks, norms and social trust facilitate co-operation, and it is not surprising that American sociologist tend to develop an utilitarian vision of Social Capital. But the most important thing for me is that the concept of Social Capital embodies an enlargement of the patrimonial perspective to non-economical aspects of social life. We are all responsible for the preservation and development of a stock of social connivance, of a collective capacity of living peacefully and acting efficiently together.

Is capitalist economic growth, as it shows nowadays, favourable to Capital Social development ? Many observations suggest it be not. To demonstrate this, Putnam uses various indicators of civic or associative commitment, good neighbourliness or social trust, such as unions' membership, religious affiliation, or electoral participation. For example, he notices that "The proportion of American saying that most people can be trusted fell more than a third between 1960, when 58 percent chose that alternative, and 1993, when 37 percent did", and so on. Most interesting for us are the possible reasons for social capital decline mentioned by Putnam. Two of them sound like classical conservative arguments, I mean, first, a) "the movement of women in the labour force", and, second, family transformations (divorce and so on). Just one comment about the first explanation. It is, of course, highly plausible that the growing importance of professional work in women's, but also in men's life, reduces the time and energy available for building Social Capital through associative commitment and family life, but the issue of women's emancipation through salary work is much more complex, and many positive effects on social life could be evoked. The two other factors mentioned by Putnam appear as less anticipated consequences of contemporary economic trends. These are, first, geographic mobility (Putnam says : "mobility, like frequent re-potting of plants, tends to disrupt roots systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots"), and second the technological transformation of leisure. Indeed, anyone can observe that new technologies (television, Internet, video games) foster privatisation and individualisation of leisure. And thus, are detrimental to many collective leisure practices (feasts, carnivals, living performances, family meetings) that constitute as many opportunities for Social Capital formation. The hypothesis of a general decline of Social Capital in industrialised countries should be considered and discussed seriously, which is not possible within this short presentation. Anyway, what is most interesting for us is 1) the obvious affinity between the two notions of Social Capital and Common Good. 2) The fact that the Social Capital thematic emphasises the role of social trust, which has obvious religious implications, and 3) the fact that the most likely interpretations of social capital decline underline the perverse effects of key features of contemporary capitalist development, like excessive job mobility and leisure commodisation.

In a more philosophical style, several authors have recently put forward the diversity of personal and community needs or ways of life and the specific role of diverse social resources in individual and collective well being, as arguments against economic reductionism. In his book Spheres of Justice, the American philosopher Michael Walzer advocates a "pluralist" concept of social justice, opposed to the individualist and contractualist concept of John Rawls. For him, the access to different categories of social resources (Health, Housing, Education...) should be organised according to shared understandings of the specific nature of these goods, and of their role as intrinsic attributes of a common social belonging. For example, equal access to justice is a condition of democracy, so that justice should not be distributed as an economic commodity : when money has too much influence in the juridical sphere, justice is denied and social conviviality in danger. Similar considerations apply to Health, Education or Housing, so that social welfare is crucially dependent on specific efforts to institute norms of social justice adapted to these different fields. The high significance of Walzer's thought lies in its recognition, on a very convincing philosophical basis, of the necessity to consider very precisely human nature and human needs in the seeking of social welfare.

In a complementary way, the recent Economy Nobel prize Amartya Sen argues that economic resources take sense and value within the setting of "functionings" specific to individuals or communities. The influence of Sen is perceptible in the UNDP definition of Human development, which makes use of the same term "functionings" : "The Human development is a process of enlarging people's choices. Enlarging people's choices is achieved by expanding human capabilities and functionings". For the UNDP, as well as for Sen and Walzer, the true value of economic commodities lies in their capacity to enlarge people's choice - what is exactly meant by the word empowerment. The notion of functionings is crucial because it highlights the fact that well-being is basically a matter of life style, autonomy, abilities, activity and social participation, even if Income is important. The real, I would say "existential", value of economic goods is not independent of a global life context. As UNDP report says : "Essential areas of choice, highly valued by people, range from political, economic and social opportunities for being creative and productive to enjoying self-respect, empowerment and a sense of belonging to a community". Economic wealth contributes to people's empowerment, but it should not be disconnected from all other social resources (including ethical resources) that may contribute to make life "good", which means, of course, happy, but also, and above all, sensible and dignified. Finally, we come back very near to the traditional Christian idea of Common Good understood as the material and social conditions of human freedom and dignity.



- Return to the top -

- to Bernard Perret's personal Page -

- to the Text Bank -

FastCounter by LinkExchange