Seeking the common good in its deepest sense means continually insisting that persons are of infinite worth—worth more than any system, any institution, or any cause. Societies are graded on a curve, with the fate of the most vulnerable given the most weight, because the fate of the most vulnerable tells us whether a society truly values persons as ends or just as means to an end.
And the common good continually reminds us that persons flourish in the small societies that best recognize them as persons—in family and the face-to-face associations of healthy workplaces, schools, teams, and of course churches. Though it is a big phrase, "the common good" reminds us that the right scale for human flourishing is small and specific, and that the larger institutions of culture make their greatest contribution to flourishing when they resist absorbing all smaller allegiances.
The Ultimate Good
For a while, the Q conference used the tagline, "Ideas that create a better world." But Gabe Lyons became dissatisfied with it. "I saw an ad for 'furniture that creates a better world.' I wanted something with much more Christian grounding, something that would give us a definition of what the 'better world' is." For Lyons, "the common good" in its Christian definition is especially valuable for insisting on the dignity of every person. Lyons distinguishes the common good—"the most good for all people"—from narrower ideas like "the public interest," which he paraphrases as "the most good for the most people." The common good, Lyons says, is not another word for utilitarianism—doing whatever would make the greatest number of people happiest, even if some people have to suffer. Instead, it is a bulwark against utilitarian calculations that might conclude, for example, that "a better world would be one without disabled people."
But Lyons also thinks "the common good" helps Christians better articulate their commitment to a pluralistic society. There was a time when Christians might have focused on "caring for those who believe like we believe," says the Liberty University alumnus. "But the common good requires us to care for all people—loving our neighbor no matter what they believe."
Seeking the common good, then, requires taking the phrase as seriously as its rich history demands. And this richer version of the common good could have beneficial effects.
First, the common good can give us common ground with our neighbors. We may not agree with them—indeed, Christians don't always agree with one another—about what exactly human flourishing looks like. But the common good is a conversation starter rather than a conversation ender. It can move us away from pitched battles over particular issues and help us reveal the fundamental questions that often lie unexplored behind them. In a time when many conversations between people with different convictions seem to end before they begin, we simply need more conversation starters.
But equally important, the common good allows us to stake out our Christian convictions about what is good for humans—and to dare our neighbors to clarify their own convictions. "In the simplest sense," Bradley Lewis said, "the common good is God. It is God who satisfies what people need, individually and communally." Adopting the language of the common good means owning this bedrock Christian belief and proclaiming it to our neighbors. If we are not offering our neighbors the ultimate common good—the knowledge and love of God—we are not taking the idea of the common good seriously.