‘The common good’ is one of those phrases we trot out all too easily without considering in any depth what it might mean. When I was asked to give a short talk last November on the subject from a Bahá’í perspective, I had to give it some deeper thought than usual.
What, I wondered, is ‘the common good’? What is ‘good’ and who has the authority to say what is ‘good’? How common is ‘common’? Does everyone benefit from sharing the ‘good’ in question? Apart from a number of obviously common goods, such as the basic requirements for staying alive, don’t we have different needs?
An online search on the phrase ‘common good’ throws up plenty of results, many of which serve to demonstrate the widespread lack of clarity about the concept.
For example, Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer address some of the difficulties surrounding the notion of ‘the common good’ in an article in Issues in Ethics (Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1992):
What exactly is ‘the common good’, and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are… equally to everyone’s advantage’. 
The authors identify four obstacles that hinder us from responding to calls to cooperate for the common good:
- Different people have different ideas about what is worthwhile or what constitutes ‘the good life for human beings’.
- The ‘free-rider problem’: there are those who are willing accept the benefits, but who do nothing to support the common good.
- The culture of individualism: placing the rights and freedom of the individual over the good of the community makes it difficult to appeal to people to sacrifice some of their freedom for the common good.
- The problem of an unequal sharing of burdens: some individuals or groups may find themselves bearing more of the cost of the common good than others.
In a blog post on the website of the Center for Ethical Leadership, Pat Hughes and Bill Grace comment:
The common good can mean many things, but over the past dozen years repetitive themes have emerged to define the common good, including equity, fairness and the opportunity for every person to be clothed, fed, healthy, safe and free to achieve their potential. 
A commitment to the common good is noble and necessary work, but promoting it is difficult, since people have different ideas of what ‘good’ looks like.
Another blog post, this time by Andy Crouch on the Christianity Today website, points up a major weakness of the phrase:
All by itself, ‘the common good’ is as vague as fine-sounding phrases tend to be. And being fine-sounding and vague, it easily becomes political pabulum to promote whatever policies the speaker wants to advance. Not surprisingly, it arises at times when politicians want to justify imposing costs on some part of society… At the least, when we hear that some sacrifice will serve ‘the common good,’ it’s reasonable to ask, ‘Sez who?’ 
And the author raises some challenging questions:
It’s also reasonable to ask how far Christians can pursue a common good alongside people who believe in very different goods from us, or who question whether we can call anything ‘good’ at all. It’s not just Christians who wonder about this: Secular thinkers have pushed back against the phrase on the grounds that no pluralistic society has the right to dictate a vision of the good for all its members. That was fine for European societies in the Dark Ages, they imply. But in the diverse and doubting 21st century, we have to settle for something thinner, something we can all agree on without stepping on one another’s metaphysical toes—allowing everyone ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and calling it a day.
I turned to the Bahá’í sacred writings for clarification.
The Bahá’í teachings are infused with and founded on the understanding that we humans, at a deep level, are all one family. This understanding, embraced wholeheartedly, is crucial to a clear view of what constitutes the common good.
The reality of human oneness is expressed most poetically in one of Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:
O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other… Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.
In His writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son and Head of the Bahá’í community from 1892 until 1921, speaks of the need for:
…harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed [He says] it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá recalls His Father’s teaching that ‘Ye are all the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch’ and comments:
Thus hath He likened this world of being to a single tree, and all its people to the leaves thereof, and the blossoms and fruits. It is needful for the bough to blossom, and leaf and fruit to flourish, and upon the interconnection of all parts of the world-tree, dependeth the flourishing of leave and blossom, and the sweetness of the fruit.
For this reason must all human beings powerfully sustain one another?
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s language on the subject is uncompromising. There are no exclusions. Everyone, young, old, female male, of any ethnic or religious or linguistic group, of any sexual orientation, of any place of residence, doer of good or evil, is included. The foetus in the mother’s womb and the elderly person suffering from dementia are all part of the human family, are all parts of the ‘world-tree’.
This is not a matter of opinion. Human oneness is both a reality and a guide for our behaviour towards each other. It is, in fact, one of the foundations for our understanding and practice of ‘the common good’.
The other foundation is justice. Justice, as Bahá’ís understand it, is not limited to courts of law, but encompasses the individual’s exploration of reality – not depending on rumour, gossip, and what others say, but conscientiously arriving at one’s own understanding – as well as economic, social and legal justice. Justice is foundational for a society in which all can enjoy spiritual and material prosperity, for the common good, in other words. Human oneness and solidarity are expressions of this fundamental principle which underpins a society in which all can flourish and live with dignity.
So what might this mean in practice?
As I was doing my research for my brief presentation, I came across a paper on the website of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (ISGP) with the title May Knowledge Grow in Our Hearts: Applying Spiritual Principles to Development Practice.
The paper reports on a study by ISGP of the work of Seva Mandir, an NGO working for the development of the rural and tribal populations in southern Rajasthan in India. Seva Mandir reaches out to around 70,000 households, influencing the lives of approximately 360,000 people.
The Seva Mandir trustees and co-workers are clear that the organisation has the goal of working for the ‘common good’.
In attempting to describe the nature of the work undertaken by Seva Mandir staff and the challenges they face, the ISGP paper ‘discusses the meaning and implications of working for the “common good”, a goal that is present in Seva Mandir programs in areas such as forestry, health, and education.’
To work for the common good… requires an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, a principle that is present throughout all of creation. Seva Mandir staff and collaborators believe that their programs have gained their vision, direction, and impetus from the recognition of this spiritual principle… Spiritual and material progress, then, are achieved when members of a community, convinced of the interconnectedness of creation, engage in action that transcends individual interest and benefits the whole.
Seva Mandir exemplifies in its philosophy and practice key principles and values that are crucial elements in the Bahá’í teachings and which underpin what Bahá’ís would understand to be ‘the common good’:
- unity in diversity;
- the interconnectedness of ‘the world-tree’ (to use ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s phrase);
- human solidarity and the need for us all to powerfully sustain one another;
- spirituality has to do with collective well-being, not just individual well-being;
- the importance of love, unity and trustworthiness in all that we do;
- the alignment of means and ends – if the phrase ‘the common good’ is not to be merely empty rhetoric the way we work with our fellow human beings for the common good says as much as the words we use.
There’s no doubt that ‘the common good’ is a matter of continuing public concern, but, as the excerpts at the beginning of this post show, it is also a matter of some confusion, particularly given our reluctance in our post-modern times, emphasising as many thinkers do diversity over unity, to assert any kind of universal ethical and spiritual standards.
It seems to me that we find in the Bahá’í teachings a solution to what seems to many to be an insoluble conundrum – how to balance unity and diversity. These are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complementary aspects of our humanity that are partners in a dance with each other, so to say. The common good emerges when we stop giving preference to one partner or the other and, instead learn the dynamics of the dance.