By IHE Graduate Fellow Monica Burke
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, so too we continue the debate over how to reconcile public and private needs. How can we pursue the common good during a pandemic? How can we weigh man’s physical and emotional health against his social and economic well-being, not to mention his spiritual life?
While speculative science is no replacement for concrete political prudence in these matters, philosophy supplies us with a foundation to answer these questions. Let us consider the relationship between the individual and the common good as explained by Aristotle and Aquinas. In Nicomachean Ethics 1.2, Aristotle tells us:
Even though the good be the same for one man and for the whole state, it seems much better and more perfect to procure and preserve the good of the whole state. It is admirable, indeed, to preserve the good of an individual, but it is better still and more divine to do this for a nation and for cities.
At first glance, this passage reads like a blank check for the state to do as it pleases. However, that’s not what Aristotle means by the priority of the common good. The good of the whole does not override the good of its parts, just as a foot or a hand does not properly exist if the whole body is destroyed. The parts of the political community — citizens, households, etc. — can only properly function in the context of the whole.
The key here is to understand in what sense the common good is “common,” as Aquinas explains in his commentary on the aforementioned passage of Aristotle:
Certainly it is a part of that love which should exist among men that a man preserve the good even of a single human being. But it is much better and more divine that this be done for a whole people and for states.
The common good does not override the private good. The same love that prompts us to do right by a single human being can be extended to a whole community. Such love is not diminished by extension — in fact, it increases! This is because the common good is held in common not merely by predication but as a common end.
Yves Simon, a twentieth-century French Thomist, had this insight in mind when he argued that common action is the basis of political life. To pursue a common end, there must be common action unto that end. To unite all of the various parts of society to common action, communities need authority.
Authority’s role is to determine that in which the common good consists and what the state must do to pursue the common good. Our current political situation is no exception: our rulers have a responsibility to formulate general rules so we can act as one people in pursuit of the common good. Think of government regulations on gatherings, university rules on social distancing, and our churches’ guidelines for participation in the Mass. Yet, even with such rules in place, the picture is incomplete. To realize the common good, we need conscientious citizens as well.
Yves Simon argues that particular subjects like you and I also need to will the common good, not only by obeying authority, but by attending to our own particular goods. Society can only flourish if we care for the needs of our families, friends, and neighbors. This care includes their physical needs, like wearing a mask to protect an at-risk relative. However, it also includes “other-centered needs” like friendship and religion. We need to consider how to incorporate socialization and worship safely into “the new normal.” If society is to function, we must continue to attend to the goods entrusted to our care — even when facing difficult choices about how best to pursue them.
There is no easy answer as to how to achieve the common good in the time of COVID-19. This is a challenge of special concern to our political leaders, whose job it is to promote unified action through general rules aimed at the good of all. However, the common good encompasses more than what we traditionally think of as “politics.” It can only come about if we persevere in serving the individuals, families, and organizations that make up society. Such a feat is only possible through prayerful discernment and prudential deliberation. This is no small task, but it is one that all of us, not just politicians, are called to carry out.
Monica Burke is an IHE Fellow and graduate student in the Catholic University of America School of Philosophy.