By Philip Turner

Shortly before the recent election’s results were settled, I posted a short piece noting the extent of our divisions and the depth of our discontent. I went on to ask: what is the root cause of our inability to address the sickness now attacking the body politic? I suggested that the root cause of our illness is not the internet but the loss of civility. I also suggested that the disappearance of civil discourse has been brought about by the disappearance of the civil virtues that make civil discourse possible in the first place. I further suggested that the social ministry of the churches ought to focus not on policy advocacy but on community building that promotes the virtues necessary for social interchange, harmony and personal development. In this essay I go on to ask what we ought to talk about if ever we do regain the ability to carry on a civil conversation. My simple answer is: the common good.

This suggestion may well seem trite until we become aware of the power and inadequacy of the operative notion of the common good now pervasive in our society. Apparently, as Americans, we are a people who prize liberty, particularly in economic relations, above all other social goods. As a result, we have a very distorted view of the nature of the common good. For most, the common good is simply what falls out from the free exercise of rational choice and self-interest on the part of economic agents. As Susan Lucas has pointed out, the result of this state of mind is a view of human beings shaped primarily by economic activity (in Spencer, Theology Reforming Society). We tend to judge people first of all by their ability to participate in market relations. If they do not have this ability or have only minimal capacity to participate, they become essentially non-persons. By way of confirmation of this charge, a friend recently suggested a new way of self-introduction to strangers at a cocktail party: “Hello, my name is Philip Turner. Buy anything interesting this week?”

At the very least, a Christian with even a rudimentary understanding of Christian belief and practice will be disturbed by this account of the common good. What I will call a neo-liberal view of human nature reduces the notion of a common good to a matter of statistics that measure the satisfaction of acquisitive desire on the part of autonomous individuals. Sensing that something has gone seriously wrong, many Christians are now calling for renewed attention to the common good. They do so, however, without reference either to the idea now current in America, or to an alternative account provided by their own tradition.

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How then might the churches actually encourage among their members a conversation about the common good, and how might we give content to this idea? Where might we turn for guidance? The political philosopher Michael Sandel has made a promising suggestion about a place to begin in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? In contradistinction to popular opinion, Sandel insists that the common good is a moral rather than a statistical notion. We must, therefore, begin with the common good as a moral category rather than as a statistical result.

This view was precisely that of a distinguished group within the Church of England (the Christian Socialists) who, from the 19th through the 20th centuries, have objected to statistical views of the common good (see Turner, Christian Socialism: The Promise of an Almost Forgotten Tradition, Cascade: forthcoming). Among their number are such notables as F.D. Maurice, B.F. Westcott, Stewart Headlam, R.H. Tawney, William Temple, and (most recently) Rowan Williams and John Milbank. These men did not and do not call themselves socialists because they supported nationalization of the means of production. They called themselves socialists because the foundation of their social vision did not begin with autonomous individuals in search of personal “good.” Rather, they began with the conviction that all people are by nature social beings created to live with others in relationships of cooperation, mutual support, and service.

For these men, the common good of society consists in the flourishing of all its members through relations of cooperation and mutual service rather than competition and conflict. The purpose of this communal cooperation is not only to produce a harmonious common life. It is also to ensure that each member of society has both the opportunity and the resources necessary to grow as a complete human being with a well-formed character and a fully developed personality. To their mind a fully developed personality requires of citizens a capacity for self-determination, directedness toward ends, self-directedness through time, and value retentiveness. These convictions about human nature, social relations and citizenship rested upon their Christian belief that each and every person is created in God’s image and that God has sent his Son to show his love for all humankind. From these beliefs, the Christian Socialists drew three conclusions that shaped their understanding of the common good. The first is that there exists a fundamental equality among all people. The second is that each life is holy and so is to be treated with dignity and reverence. The third is that by becoming incarnate in his Son, God has sanctified life in both its personal and social dimensions.

These beliefs led the Christian Socialists in two directions. The first is toward the importance of three social institutions. If there is to be a common good, people must be formed as contributing social beings. In this effort, family ties are of primary importance. Within the family people are formed as social beings. Thus, the Christian Socialists urged policies that served to strengthen family ties. They also focused their attention and effort on educational institutions in which learning and character formation might be fostered. Finally, they believed that, if people were to find satisfaction in their life with others, they must have available meaningful work through which they can sustain their lives and offer their talents to others, and in return receive an honored place in society. The common good, therefore, rested upon the ability of each member of society both to render service to others and to receive honor through meaningful work. The Christian Socialists believed that good government was necessary to promote all these aspects of the common good.

The second direction in which their religious beliefs led them was toward the importance of ideals they thought necessary if society is to be structured in ways that promote the common good and so support the development of personality and character. Chief among these community-forming ideals were cooperation, fellowship, equality, service, sacrifice, and duty. Two others, freedom and property, enable these ideals. Apart from freedom, responsible action is severely limited, and apart from adequate wealth, participation in social life is severely curtailed.

The Christian Socialists believed, in R. H. Tawney’s words, that the moral foundation of English society was “rotten,” and that it was the chief social responsibility of the Church of England to seek the renewal of this foundation by the inculcation of these ideals within its membership. It is my view that, despite the many flaws and errors of their efforts, they were on solid ground in their understanding of the social ministry of the church. I also believe that their work still provides a starting point for a fruitful discussion on the part of Anglican churches in our time, and that a critical discussion of their work might provide a promising place to begin such a discussion within the congregations of the Episcopal Church. We have a lot to talk about and the nature of the common good is a good place to begin.

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is the retired dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including Sex, Money and Power and Christian Ethics and the Church. He has served the Episcopal Church as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.

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Mike Geibel

The abstract, altruistic concept “for the common good” is not unifying because who is to say what is “good.” Marks and Lenin used a similar slogan. The government of China professes to act for the good of the people, but it is an inherently evil government which believes in neither God nor Satan. For the good of citizens, Governors and Mayors have ordered no eating in restaurants or praying inside a Church, and jobs have been lost, many small businesses will never recover, and Churches will close. In practice, “common Good” like the politics of “social justice,” may have the… Read more »