Is the common good the same as the general interest? Who defines it? Who ensures that it is respected? Following is a brief overview of the history of the concept, and the value it holds in the 21st century.
From the general interest to the common good
The common good as a philosophical concept appeared in the 13th century through the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas reviews Politics, in which Aristotle affirms that the city assumes "the existence of a common good [...]. Just as the whole is more important than the part, and takes priority [...], the city takes priority over the individual...and its overall well-being is of a higher importance...than that of each individual himself... " But for the Dominican philosopher, this concept contains elements of a religious approach: the common good is a political and social organization that allows humans to seek God. Salvation is the guiding principle of society, the one that guarantees the notion of "good" for all.
there are two broad concepts of the general interest. On the one hand, there is the Anglo-Saxon vision, which postulates that "the general interest results...from the sum of the interests of each", a very liberal approach to individual rights. On the other hand, the French-style republican vision exists in which "the general interest is understood as an objective which exceeds the sum of individual interests."
In this sense, the common good could first be understood as a synonym for the general interest, which assimilates specific, sometimes contradictory, needs toward an end result that benefits all. As explained in a thought-provoking article by Chrystèle Basin for Solidarum, published by Usbek & Rica, there are two broad concepts of the general interest. On the one hand, there is the Anglo-Saxon vision, which postulates that "the general interest results...from the sum of the interests of each", a very liberal approach to individual rights. On the other hand, the French-style republican vision exists in which "the general interest is understood as an objective which exceeds the sum of individual interests." In this concept, the state plays a top down role: "The public power is progressively affirmed as the guarantor and the designer of the overall interest, knowing in theory better than anyone what suits everyone and distrusting individual desire, viewing it as something that should be contained or limited." The notion of the common good, as it is understood today, is precisely a response to the limits of these two meanings of the general interest - on the one hand, a libertarian vision that subjects individuals to the excesses of capitalism, and on the other hand, a notion that exists solely to curb individual desires.
The need for engagement
In the 20th and especially in the 21st century, the definition of the common good that prevails is much more horizontal. The common good is neither a sum of disparate individual interests nor an arbitrary direction fixed by the state; rather, it comes from the community, and pertains to the goods that the community can share. In 1944, in Authority and the Common Good, philosopher and theologian Gaston Fessard defined the common good in three dimensions, according to Alain Giffard, Director of the Group of Scientific Interest in Digital and Media Culture: "1. Community property: public or other shared assets; 2. the community around community property: the nature of everyone's access to the community property; 3. the well-being created by community property: the nature and balance of the relationship between the individual and the community." In the 21st century - an era in search of answers in the face of crisis, and of experimentation with the equalization of social relations through the advent of the internet - the common good is certainly the sharing of common resources, but it is also the way in which one aims to build a society. Chrystèle Basin identifies some contemporary definitions. As such, for the philosopher François Flahault, the common good is something that allows everyone to "see his place in relation to others and enjoy a well-being based on that." For Alain Giffard, "the common good (...) implies more than the respect of the law in expressing the general interest. It requires a commitment from everyone as an operating condition of the rule. The common good is not a norm; it is not defined by convention; but there is, nevertheless, the object of discussion among the people involved." In short, the common good is developed by the citizens themselves in a conscious way. "Being a citizen is less about one's duties in exchange for the guarantee of one's rights than about participating in a society through the contribution of one's intelligence, time, and skills, and in being able to decide the nature of one's contribution," writes Chrystèle Basin.
Defining a common interest
One of the most concrete definitions of this reinvention of "the general interest" is the return of the concept of "common goods" (i.e. goods in the economic sense). Common goods are natural, tangible, or intangible resources around which a community organizes in order to use. Perhaps the best known examples would be the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, or green spaces that exist in cities. According to American researcher David Bollier, cited in an Usbek & Rica article on common goods, it is a "new way of thinking and taking care of resources that do not belong to public or private citizens, but are shared and cared for by a community that defines the rights of use with respect to access, sharing, and distribution." The organizational efforts that are deployed in order to define access to these goods, therefore, belong to the common good. "To share common goods is to experiment with self-organization. It is the putting into practice a civic responsibility in a society that tends to expect everything from classic vertical channels," writes Usbek & Rica. It is, in short, to define one's place in society while building it; to expect more from "living together" than the guarantee of one's rights.
The question is what do we want to build together, and how do we decide what is a common interest? For Hubert Allier, member of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, as quoted by Chrystèle Basin, "It is less a matter of seeking a definition than of identifying objectives." He gives three: the guarantee of personal fulfillment, the conditions of a collective well-being, and the responsibility toward future generations - a roadmap for truly sustainable development.
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