“I agree with Deneen—and I suspect many others on the Left do too—that the local community is the optimal setting to pursue the good.”
he idea of the common good as a goal worthy of being pursued has been gaining traction in conservative circles in recent years. Broadly, the pursuit of the common good means that society ought to do more than simply let each individual lead his own life. Instead, they argue that is preferable to lead everyone towards some unifying moral goal, but more on this later. This philosophy stands in opposition to the more libertarian strand of conservatism that had previously been dominant for decades. Notably, this recent turn has been championed by academics like Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame and other public intellectuals such as Rod Dreher of The American Conservative. As such, it is relevant to consider this argument not just from a conservative perspective—but also from the Left. I believe the Left and conservatives supportive of a common good philosophy can have discussions that would be productive for both sides. I want to review only a few conversations, though, that I believe are key. First, there is one question for which anyone who advocates the advancement of the common good needs to answer. And, as the state of the discourse stands today, I do not believe conservatives have a satisfactory response, which is not to say they cannot have one. However, there are also issues that I think the Left should concede to conservatives, and perhaps, most surprisingly, there are some interesting grounds of potential agreement.
The first thing that we need to make clear when talking about the common good is that it is but a special case of the concept of the good: one pursued as a shared goal by all the members of a defined community. However, the existence of a conception of the good does not necessarily entail the existence of a common good. A Theory of Justice, by the late American Philosopher John Rawls, is one of the seminal works of Western political philosophy of the 20th century. Rawls is often depicted as a defender of the status quo of welfare state capitalism, which was the rule in many Western democracies at the time. In fact, he explicitly argues that welfare capitalism does not meet the requirements of his principles of justice. The two arrangements he identifies as being able to satisfy them are what he calls a property-owning democracy—a democratic regime in which the ownership of capital is widely and equitably distributed among individuals—and liberal socialism—a politically liberal regime in which workers exercise democratic control over the economy.
After all, Rawls explicitly says that his theory of justice prioritizes the right over the good, and I think this would be a fair characterization for many theories of justice coming from the Left.
One of the core tenets of Rawls’ theory is the priority of the right over the good. To understand this (and to understand the idea of the common good), we need to define what is meant by “the right” and “the good.” In a very broad sense, the good is the satisfaction of our preferences—or of a higher goal—that gives meaning and purpose. The right, by contrast, refers to rules that govern the morality of individual actions or of the structure of society. Both are moral issues, but the right, especially as it refers to social institutions, tends towards the universal, whereas the good does not, unless we speak of the common good. In this sense, conservatives are not entirely wrong when they accuse the Left of trying to impose homogenous standards, as Patrick Deneen suggests in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. After all, Rawls explicitly says that his theory of justice prioritizes the right over the good, and I think this would be a fair characterization for many theories of justice coming from the Left. But things are somewhat more complicated. The precedence that the right takes over the good does not imply that the good is less important. In fact, it could be argued that the opposite is true.
Let us look further at what Rawls says about the good, both in A Theory of Justice and in his second monograph Political Liberalism published in 1993. In the first of these two, Rawls argues that the right principles of justice are those that allow for individuals the freedom to pursue their own conception of the good. This does place some constraints on the kinds of conceptions of the good that are permissible, but these are not unreasonable. It would be incompatible with deriving pleasure or meaning from seeing other people’s liberty restrained but not much more than this. However, what is relevant is that the right takes precedence precisely because the point is to allow each of us to pursue our own conception of the good because of how deeply personal it is. Political Liberalism is concerned with how we can maintain a functioning democratic society in which different reasonable conceptions of the good exist. Part of the answer comes in the form of what Rawls calls an overlapping consensus. This can be understood as the maximum set of values upon which people with different conceptions of the good can agree as a way to achieve social cooperation.
Another relevant matter is the knowing what exactly does a “common good conservatism” imply. In an essay for The Atlantic from March of this year, Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule defines a legal philosophy he calls “common good constitutionalism,” which provides an insight into the conservative notion of the good. He stresses, among other things, the importance of hierarchy and authority and argues that the idea that an individual can “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” should be regarded as abominable. This requires a government with enough authority to gear society towards this vision of the good.
Once there is a particular vision of the good, however, the question that begs an answer, arises. Namely, does the pursuit of this particular conception of the common good allow individuals or groups to pursue their own conception of the good? And if the answer is negative, then why is this particular notion of the common good more perfect than the ones that others might seek? The first part of the question, I think, will be answered in the negative. Vermeule even calls the thought “abominable.” The second part of the question—whether this is a more perfect version of the good—I think has no satisfactory answer. It is, after all, one of the biggest unresolved problems in philosophy. A further issue is that this is a vision of the common good is intended for a nation, which creates a fundamental tension at the heart of common good conservatism.
Nothing about the idea of an overlapping consensus suggests that it must be limited to ideas about the right and that it cannot include some shared notions of the good. But let us first look at a different perspective: the promotion of the common good is articulated by these new conservatives. In one of his discussions of the common good in Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen draws extensively from the writer Wendell Berry, an American poet, essayist, and novelist from Kentucky who has devoted much of his work to describing small town life. This reveals what I think is the fundamental tension at the heart of common good conservatism. In Deneen’s account, while not opposed to larger settings, Berry sees the local community as the proper setting for the achievement of the common good. The local community, in this telling, is not a place where freedom is central. In fact, it is often characterized by many rules and constraints. This, however, provides the kind of bonds, certainty, and tranquility necessary for a meaningful pursuit of the common good. National and international frameworks necessarily rely on abstraction, which moves us away from the focus on real human lives. But conservatives do have an interest in influencing politics beyond the local level.
Deneen has also argued that liberalism fully rejects the idea of the common good, except as mere aggregation of individual preferences through voting and the market. He contrasts this with classical and Christian philosophers, who argued—above all—that rule based on the common good asks whether policies will lead to human flourishing. Now, there is a sense in which Deneen is correct to say that a common good under liberalism is only expressed as aggregation of preferences. After all, the overlapping consensus described by Rawls is more or less this. But if Deneen follows Berry in arguing that the proper setting for the pursuit of the common good is the small local community, then this should suggest an answer as to why—in a larger setting—this is reduced to mere aggregation. Political theories that prioritize larger settings also prioritize the right over the good, as Rawls does. And with this, they also tend towards abstraction. This is a fact that Deneen laments as it ignores the common sense and wisdom of the local community. However, it should be clear why there is a fundamental tension at play.
I agree with Deneen—and I suspect many others on the Left do too—that the local community is the optimal setting to pursue the good. But this, in itself, makes an idea of a common good difficult to scale, which makes nationwide settings, especially in a country as large as the United States, much more receptive to rules and institutions based on notions of the right than the good. Again, this fact does not imply that no common good can be achieved on a large scale, but it places some constraints on how this endeavor can be undertaken in the first place. Importantly, it leads us back to the questions that beg for an answer. Either they show that their vision of the common good allows others to pursue their conception of the good separately, or they explain why their vision of the good is superior to others. The first, as I already explained is a non-starter, since the “common” aspect of the common good necessarily implies that it is for everyone. The problem with the second question is partly that it is one of the central unresolved questions in philosophy, as I mentioned before, but it goes further. The attempts by conservatives such as Deneen and Vermeule to advance their vision of the common good tell us nothing about why we should accept them. In the same Atlantic article, Vermeule, for example, tells us, in no uncertain terms, that libertarian conceptions of free speech are antithetical to the good, yet he gives no defense of this position. He does contend that this understanding of free speech protects vulgarity, for example, but this ultimately tells us nothing. This is because he would have to defend the claim that all people ought to be shielded from vulgarity, which is far from obvious (and, in my view, false). The problem is only made more profound because—even if the conservative common good position were shown to be superior—reasonable individuals who disagreed with it would still presumably want to know why they could not pursue their own lesser—but still preferable—idea of the good life.
This leads me to a peculiar area in which conservatives and the Left—by which I mean socialists particularly—may have some surprising common ground. First, we should note that common good conservatives also have a vested interest in particular conceptions of the right. An important one is religious liberty. As I think any consistent conservative would agree, this applies to all religions. Here, however, it is important to note that religious liberty is but a subset of the broader principle of freedom of conscience: that is, our private thoughts and beliefs are ours alone and are not to be policed as long as we do not infringe on others’ liberty. Importantly for conservatives, this includes issues like doctors not being obligated to perform abortions or bakers being able to refuse baking cakes with messages supporting same-sex marriage. But this works both ways in the sense that if freedom of conscience allows this, then it must also allow for people to marry people of the same sex and even to promote same-sex marriage and normalize it. These, of course, are all issues that relate to our conceptions of the good, which is why I think we should all have an interest in prioritizing the right over the good. There must be an overlapping consensus that allows for both conceptions of the good to flourish.
In his 2017 book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher argues that if we are moving towards a post-religious society, Christians ought to move into small local communities which would allow them to pursue their conception of the good. This, of course, is in line with Deneen and Berry’s thoughts on an ideal setting for the common good. Dreher was inspired by the monastic life of the Benedictine order, yet this is not far removed from the projects undertaken by the utopian socialists of the 19th century, and themunicipalist ideology of libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, with their emphasis on small communities as the proper vehicle for change. And, while today’s socialists are not of this kind, they also do not advocate for Soviet-style centralized planning and authority. Instead, many advocate for a democratized workplace, in which workers own and manage the companies they work for. This is the kind of socialism that is advocated by academics like Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin, the Marxist economist Richard Wolff, and which goes back to the Labor Republican movement of the 19th century in the United States, which even predated Marx.
Yet, I believe the kind of nation-wide institutional arrangements that would foster and protect these kinds of co-operative economic communities would work the same for Christian communities that wish to maintain a certain way of life based on a particular conception of the good. This is especially true, I think, given that conservatives in the style of Deneen are also critical of the kind of libertarian free market fundamentalism that undergirds our contemporary economic arrangements. I obviously cannot pretend that socialists and Christian conservatives share identical goals. For common good conservatives, personal liberty might be less important, and their focus is on maintaining certain traditional bonds and ways of life. For the Left, it is the goal is the liberation of the working class from conditions of domination. Yet, there is a certain way in which there is a certain means that could achieve both goals, so this shows that there are interesting areas in which we are not opposed. To be clear, I reject the idea that we should all retire to local communities and pay little or no mind to broader issues. This, however, is best approached through informed, good-faith deliberation. I believe this kind of deliberation is more likely when we all have some certainty that our conception of the good is secure from outside forces with an interest in homogenizing all ways of life.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.