Social justice is typically associated with some notion of the common good. “Common good” is a wonderful term that goes back to Aristotle, but in practice, it often hinges on a key question: namely, who decides what is the common good? In ancient societies, often the wisest and strongest person was the ruler, and it was he who made the important decisions, such as where we will camp tonight or near which source of water we shall build our village. The person with the greatest strategic and tactical sense of what is safe and the greatest ecological sense of where there will be good community life would make these decisions.
In contemporary times, beginning a century or two ago, that responsibility gradually shifted to the bureaucratic state. Decisions became too numerous for the ruler himself to make, and they became delegated to a variety of organizations. Further, such decisions came to be decided by many people at once. No longer is there one clear person to be held responsible and accountable for these decisions. Quickly, the beautiful notion of the common good gets ensnared in red tape.
A central misuse of the term “common good” became clear to me for the first time when, at the Human Rights Commission in Bern, I was prodding the Soviet delegation to recognize the right of married couples, one of whose partners was from one nation, the other from another, to share residence in whichever nation they chose. The Soviets staunchly resisted–in the name of the common good. The Soviet Union, they insisted, had invested great sums of money and much effort in giving an education to each Soviet citizen. The common good, they said, demands that these citizens now make comparable contributions in return. Therefore, the Soviet partner could not leave. Individual desires must bow to the common good of all.
In this way, the common good becomes an excuse for total state control. That was the excuse on which totalitarianism was built. You can achieve the common good better if there is a total authority, and you must then limit the desires and wishfulness of individuals.
As a result, there are many occasions when one must argue for individual rights against the argument of the common good. Most people speak of “common good” when they mean something noble and shiny and good, something motherly. But who decides what the common good is, and who enforces the common good? These are fundamental questions.