November 2016 Pulse
Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.
Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”
It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”
This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.
In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.
However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”
Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.
“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”
Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?
Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.
Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.
Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.
But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.
The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.
But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.
To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.
It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.
Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”
Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.