Is There Such Thing as the Common Good?
Monday Notes
Is There Such Thing as the Common Good?
Truth is real, but it's not real for everyone.
Published on: Apr 11, 2022  |  

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I've been thinking a lot about truth lately, or more specifically what it means for something to be "true." I'm generally skeptical of truth claims, not because I don't believe that some things are true, but because I don't see any obvious way to compel agreement on ultimate claims, particularly those that aren't self-evident.

This is why diversity, in the sense of intellectual and ideological combat, is a permanent condition, and not necessarily a bad one. All ultimate, metaphysical claims are, by definition, not self-evident. If they were self-evident, then humans would lose their status as free moral agents who choose between competing conceptions of the good. If one religion was "obviously" correct and true, then most people would naturally gravitate toward that religion. But they don't, and they haven't.

Let's take an example. I am Muslim. If I'm Muslim, it follows that I believe Islam is objectively true (or the most true). So far so good. But that leaves open several possibilities, each different but not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  1. Islam is true for me—and objectively true in the abstract—but not true for all people.
  2. Islam is true for me, so it must be true for all, because, logically, there is no way that two religions with incompatible descriptions of God's nature can be simultaneously accurate.
  3. Islam is true for me and everyone else, but this truth has no necessary link to salvation and therefore has limited practical import. In fact, all other things being equal, I may "prefer" a Christian to remain Christian insofar as they have pursued the truth in good faith and have found sustenance and goodness from their relationship with Christ, something that they may not necessarily find if they opted to embark on a long and winding search for spiritual alternatives.

I lean towards option 3, although I find option 1 to be conceptually intriguing. In any case, I think epistemological humility requires us to qualify our truth claims. If we say something is true, it is true to us but not necessarily to others. This is because what we believe to be true is contingent on historical accidents. We know empirically that if someone is born into a particular faith tradition, there is a strong chance that they will remain within that tradition. Perhaps this is less the case in modern times, where many have rapidly exited Christianity, particularly in Western Europe, but this does not mean that they are likely to convert to a different religion entirely. This simply doesn't happen all that often. When mass conversion happens, it happens gradually over generations, as it did in early Christianity and Islam (in Islam's first centuries, the majority of those living under Muslim rule were not in fact Muslim).

If you take the premise that the truth of any particular religion is not self-evident, particularly in a plural environment that features constantly competing truth claims about God, then it makes little sense to think that someone's salvation would be predicated on the unlikelihood of converting outside of one's own social, moral, and religious universe. For most the path is simply too onerous, and for many the costs are simply too high. It's difficult enough to change political parties. Most Democrats stay Democrats and most Republicans stay Republicans, and there the stakes are considerably lower (although increasingly changing one's party affiliation is treated as akin to a religious conversion).

Most of our personal commitments—whether to a faith tradition, a party, an ideology, or even cult-like activities (Crossfit)—are either inscrutable to outsiders or contingent on the particularities of individual experience. This is not moral relativism. For example, I believe some things are true, right, and aligned with how God created us to be (democracy), while others are definitely wrong (I believe Putin's likely fate is eternal damnation). In other words, I believe in the good; I am just skeptical that it can be held in common, which is why I instinctively get nervous about "common good" discourse. I wish there could be a common good. It's just not clear to me how one might go about constructing it. There are simply too many foundational premises that we, as Americans, disagree about. And there is no way we can come to agree.

If there is no common good, however, does it follow that we should not advocate for our own contingent conception of the common good? This is what I struggle with, and I was reminded of this while reading the political philosopher Liam Bright's defiantly dense, long, and somewhat epic treatment of why he isn't a liberal. He is skeptical of liberal "neutrality," as I am. Which leads him to offer up an alternative: "Better, by far, to simply drop this core tenet of liberalism, admit that common life must be organized around a notion of the common good, and try to work out how we can do this without raising the stakes of political disagreement too high."

I suppose there's one way to square the circle—to acknowledge that most of us are not neutral, because neutrality is a fiction, and that most of us believe in a Good even if we don't realize it. We should promote that vision in our own lives (or in our own writing) while simultaneously acknowledging that there is no real sense in which it can be held in common—that, inevitably, it will be diluted by the inherent messiness of living in democracy. And that we must accept this rather than fight it.

In other words, we cannot, and should not, insist that one conception of the common good must win out over the others. By definition, in a democratic system, the party that believes in x conception of the common good may win several elections, but eventually it will lose to a party that believes in a competing conception of the common good. Within the confines of democracy, then, there is no alternative. I suspect, however, that many of those who believe in a common good—or even the common good—may not be content with a fate as modest as this.