Common Good

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Core Democratic Values
Presidential System
The "common good" is at the core of any situation where two or more people form a partnership, group or country. Many organizations exist for the purpose of providing common good: defense, mass-transit, public safety, public health and many other functions. Without common good, there would be no other reason to form an association.


Common good is difficult to define because it can mean different things to different people. These are just a few examples:

Webster's Dictionary defines common good as "belonging to or shared by each or all" (Webster's 1990, pg. 122).

The idea of common good can also be described "as the product of a particular process, such as a democratic process." This can be a difficult version of common good as those within the procedure can argue what is in the interest of the common good and sometimes make decisions based on personal gain (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg. 10).

There is a "functional or collective" meaning of "what would be good for the enterprise to which a group of individuals belong, rather than what would be good for the individuals of that enterprise." The concern with this definition is that what may be good for the team could be destructive for the public as a whole (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg. 10-11).

The debate over the common good has existed since Plato wrote the Republic in the late 5th century BC. Common good can hold different meanings depending on one's involvement. For example, if City Hall makes a decision that is good for its citizens, but not good for citizens of a neighboring city, is that the common good? And, what is good? It can be defined as "doing what is right or proper" (Webster's 1990, pg. 255), but does everyone agree what actions achieve common good? Probably not (Powell and Clemens, 1998).

A debate about what is "good" is not a negative action. By having as many parties involved as possible can bring together many different perspectives to determine the overall best decisions for the "common."

Historic Roots

Greek philosophers have debated the issue of the common good and there is even debate as to what the philosophers' translations actually mean. Plato concentrated on a person's soul and "assumed that certain states of being were good by nature and that humankind could come to know at least in part the character of that good" (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg. 6).

In politics, Plato developed an ideal in which this knowledge generated political agreement, producing unity, "the greatest blessing for a state." This is in contrast to Aristotle, who "implied material benefit, advantage, and interest as much as more intangible forms of good" (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg. 6).

Christianity brought new ideals in the Middle Ages with writers such as Augustine, stating that God was the common good. Inequity was blatant during this era. "Theologians contrasted kings who sought their private good to those who sought the good of the people." This lead to the borrowing of the Latin words res publica and common weal , which became respectably "republic" and "commonwealth" (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg 7-8). This continued in later centuries with writers such as Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The debates of today can be linked to the Seventeenth century, with writers such as Samuel Fortrey stating, "private advantages are. impediments of public profit." These kinds of arguments stated the good of the monarchy and the public were one and the same. A high tide raises all ships is the basis of supply-side economics or "Reaganomics" (Powell and Clemens, 1998, pg 8-9).


The "common good" is at the core of any situation where two or more people form a partnership, group or country. The reason many organizations exist is to provide a common defense, mass-transit, public safety, public health and many other functions. Without common good, there would be no other reason to form an association.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The common good is promoted within every organization through its mission statement. A neighborhood association wishes to reduce crime to provide security for its residents. An environmentalist wishes to preserve the open spaces so there is clean air and a healthy ecosystem. The United Nations tries to resolve issues through diplomacy rather than the tyranny of war. The nonprofit sector is based on the idea that people can come together to form an organization in order to better their situation.

Key Related Ideas

Affirmative Action is a program designed to integrate African-Americans, women, lower class and others who have previously been excluded from full participation in the decision-making process.

Associations are a group of individuals who unite for a cause or to perform a specific task.

Charity is the act of generosity towards those in need of help.

Civil Rights are promised in the Constitution to ensure that all citizens are equal under the law.

Collaboration means people working together. This can include organizations working with other organizations to fulfill a goal or task.

Collection & Redistribution can be seen in all forms of organization. This occurs when resources are given to the organization by citizens so that benefits can be distributed equitably among the group or larger community.

Collective is a group of individuals who work together.

Communism is a political state where property is owned by society.

Community is a collection of people who live, work or communicate in an area unite due to similar interests.

Democracy is a system of government where decisions by the people as decision-makers who have equal rights, opportunity and treatment.

Equality is having the same rights, opportunity and treatment as everyone else within a given system.

Goodwill is the act of benevolence.

Group is a number of individuals who work as a team.

Interconnectivity occurs when understanding and relationships are developed between groups and people.

Justice involves deserving and receiving rewards or punishments.

Nationalization is the process of exchange of property into the hands of the public.

Public is defined as everyone residing within a given geographical region.

Republic is a form of government controlled by officials who are accountable to citizens during times of elections.

Responsibility is the act of being dependable, reliable and doing what is right for everyone affected by one's decisions or under one's care.

Sharing is the giving and receiving what is held in common.

Socialism is a political system whereby the means of production and distribution are owned by society.

Society is a collection of many groups of citizens within a geographical region.

Union/United is defined as people working together for the same purpose.

Welfare is the redistribution of resources to ensure equality.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Thomas Aquinas: Aquinas was a Dominican philosopher later canonized as a saint. Much of his work was influenced by Aristotle and was given the title "Common Doctor of the Church" (McInerny 1999).

  • Aristotle: Aristotle was trained at Plato's Academy in Athens and later taught there for 20 years. He was known for his philosophy, science and work in logic. As for common good, Aristotle wrote ".not merely unnecessary for a king to be a philosopher, but even a disadvantage. Rather a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not with good words" (O'Conner and Robertson 1999).

  • John Locke: Locke was an English philosopher with many other occupations and interests. Some of his credits include "the legitimacy of revolt against tyrannical governments" and the separation of church and state (Uzgalis).

  • Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a Founding Father of the United States Government, founder of the University of Virginia and the third United States President. He once wrote, "I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man" (White House). However, as an advocate of common good and freedom, he has been criticized for owning slaves.

  • Karl Marx: Marx was a philosopher who spent much of his life documenting industrial work and capitalism. He is best known for his work "Das Kapital" and the ideals of Communism (Engles 1868).

  • Thomas Moore: Moore was a lawyer, diplomat, judge, personal secretary to King Henry VIII, Chancellor and philosopher. He opposed efforts of the King of England to become the head of the church, which lead to his execution. He later was canonized as a saint.

  • Plato: Plato was a great philosopher and teacher whose "main contributions are in philosophy, mathematics and science" (O'Conner and Robertson 1999). Much of his writing centered around politics and the common good. This included Plato founding an academy dedicated to training statesmen as public servants.

  • Adam Smith: Smith is most well-known for authoring The Wealth of Nations and theorized the common good could result from individual selfishness. This manifesto "created the subject of political economy" and "remains the most important book on the subject" (Faber).

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Engles, Frederick. "Karl Marx." (1869). Marxists Internet Archive.
  • Faber, Diane. "Biography of Adam Smith (1723-1790)." From Revolution to Reconstruction.
  • Marty, Martin M. The One and the Many . Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-674-63827-1.
  • McInerny, Maritain M. "Saint Thomas Aquinas." (1999). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • O'Conner, J.J and E. F. Robertson. "Aristotle." February (1999). School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
  • O'Conner, J.J and E. F. Robertson. "Plato." February (1999). School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
  • Powell, Walter W. and Elisabeth S. Clemens. Private Action and the Public Good . New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-300-06449-7.
  • Uzgalis, Bill. "John Locke (1632-1704)." Oregon State University.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University.