Review of In Search of the Common Good

[1] As a Lutheran and a political scientist, I originally reacted to In Search of the Common Good as Gulliver: It seemed as though I had washed up on a strange beach, could not understand the native languages, and was uncertain whether I was surrounded by elves, giants, or horses. This is a book by, about, and for serious theologians, with heavy representation from those holding Catholic or Calvinist credentials. So they do not reason about social ethics as Lutherans typically do.1

[2] Making what I can of this unfamiliar situation, I agree, of course, that it is beneficial to read arguments from unfamiliar perspectives, particularly when they come from persons as obviously qualified and talented as the authors of this anthology. I will confine my observations, and possible embarrassment, primarily to chapters in the final third of the book, which are the ones most closely related to general political concerns.

[3] James W. Skillen (“Community, Society, and Politics”) maintains that in a pluralistic society definition of the common good necessarily reflects the limited perspectives of various organizations and institutions. It is the responsibility of the “public-legal community” to reflect the interest of all, but this cannot be thought of as a unitary objective norm, universally applicable within a particular society (256, 274). That risks totalitarianism (256-7). Instead, the pursuit of the common good must reflect the diversity of social groups and their partial understandings of common goods. “My argument is that the very possibility of contention over the common good arises from the inescapable norm-responsive character of human existence….There is, and forever will be, no neutral terrain on which to stand to negotiate agreement on an idea of ‘the common good,’…before we assume responsibility for thinking about and shaping society” (259-60).

[4] After reviewing the contributions of the biblical, Platonic, medieval, and modern traditions, he encourages Christians to join in the search for the common good that may be embodied in law, while avoiding the dead ends of Christian arrogance, non-engagement, or pacifism (277-89).

[5] Max L. Stackhouse (“The Common Good, Our Common Goods, and The Uncommon Good in a Globalizing Era”) argues that neither Anglo-American theories that expect equilibrium of individual interests nor continental views that expect a regimented solidarity can any longer promise a consensus about the common good. Discussions about the common good can and should proceed within either the “hierarchical-subsidarity” or “federal-coventantal” tradition (282). Both respect the legitimacy of persons and communities and both “know that a ‘transcendental’ frame of reference is required” (283). We cannot hope to define “what is common or good without God. Natural reason and voluntary agreement by themselves cannot get the common good right” (285). Yet, as the world becomes more integrated, people of faith of all traditions must learn to respect each other’s commitments while exploring areas of agreement. There is a role here, as well, for deontological dialogs, which also offer promise that more moral laws can be embodied in international agreements (300).

[6] William T. Cavanaugh (“Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good”) offers the view that the nation-state is a modern development and that societies are more the results of these states than the creators of those states. The latter view, of course, is the foundation of social contract theory and contemporary political science discussion of the importance of civil societies for democracy. He cites numerous authorities for this view. These states, he insists, prevailed over other political forms, because of their superior ability to marshal military resources and control land, and, as a result, simplify the myriad of guilds, classes, and associations into a single unified society. Nation-states tend to discourage other forms of common life. “The urgent task of the church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company….The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly”(329).

[7] In the final chapter, Robert W. Jenson (“The Triunity of Common Good”) approaches the subject of divining the common good by gently taking issue with some of the preceding essays. He is less convinced than most of the others that communities need to be in agreement on what the common good is or that there can be no such thing as an objective common good apart from these contracts. For example, it is not in our interest that the stock market crashes, regardless of whether we are part of any group to prevent that (333-4). For him, I suppose, if good happens in the middle of the forest without anyone around to will it, it can still be good. Related to this is the problem of representation based on agreements: A representative can present interests, should personally pursue the good, but cannot presume to pursue the good on behalf of others. We must each do that on our own (335). Nor is he as ready to give up on the nation-state’s duty to pursue moral purposes. It may mainly be a vessel for collecting expressed interests, but it may need the residual collective ideas of civic virtue to work: “we should not, in my judgment, be quite so suspicious of national patriotism as are some members of our group” (336).

[8] Jenson distinguishes between a common good that may characterize any “polity,” which he defines as any “relatively permanent community whose life together is shaped and guided by binding moral discourse functioning as such” (337) and the common good, which “is the one that will survive the Last Judgment, that will be the bond of the new Jerusalem.” He includes an interesting discussion, too complicated for this short review, of the nature of the triune God, but comes to the conclusion that the church is the mediator between God’s perfect good and earthly polities that should aim for good while always falling short: “Every merely earthly polity…perdures by longing for what it cannot have except by abandoning its rebellion against the Creator; in which case it would no longer be a merely earthly polity” (345).

[9] The ultimate common good is union with God, a form of “participatory monarchy” (346). If we judge historical polities by how much they “anticipate” this goal, it is appropriate for them to be “participatory democracies,” while recognizing Churchill’s view that they are the least worst kind of government. The norm for judgments of the good should be the Ten Commandments: “If there is natural law, they republish it; if not, they are all we have or need” (347).

[10] It would be presumptuous for a political scientist to judge how much of a contribution this anthology makes to theology and social ethics, but as a political theorist I found the final third of the book difficult, interesting, and worthwhile. Without discarding the social contract tradition, the essays bridge the interest group pluralism that we political scientists catalog and sometimes embrace with a renewed emphasis on the traditions of Christian social thought, which preceded it and whose moral intuitions have continued to influence it. As a Lutheran, I found myself becoming uncomfortable at times with the assertions that the civil state in some manner embodies the Divine, but perhaps that is just my misinterpretation. I definitely found Jenson’s recognition of the dialectical tension between the moral good we might aspire to and the good we are able to achieve as a more familiar expression of the correct understanding of the relation between people and God. Now that I have gotten more acquainted with this new land, I am definitely of the opinion that its inhabitants are neither elves nor horses. This book deserves to be included in any library of theology, social ethics, or political theory that serves advanced undergraduates and above.

1 For example, Luther, Augustine, and Reinhold Niebuhr are scarcely mentioned, and there are twice as many references to Black Elk in the index as all of others combined. There is a chapter on Paul, and its conclusions are in line with typical interpretations of how he viewed the role of the church in the world and church people as citizens. Unfortunately, most of the references to Paul are confined to this chapter.