Reason, Community and the Common Good

September 1 st 2001

Second of a three-part series on pluralism, edited and excerpted from James W. Skillen and Rockne M. McCarthy, eds., Political Order and the Plural Structure of Society, © 1991 Emory University. Used by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. To order this title, contact the publisher at 800-253-7521 or at

The first part of this essay dealt with a number of historically grounded criticisms of liberalism. Partly in response to the apparent relativism of those criticisms, another line of moral argument is developing in the contemporary American context. It focuses on the internal contradictions of liberalism's practical reasoning about justice and society.

Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, contends that Enlightenment liberalism aimed to create a "social order in which individuals could emancipate themselves from the contingency and particularity of tradition by appealing to genuinely universal, tradition independent norms." In fact, those who give themselves to this project have not managed to transcend tradition but have simply become caught in a new, more problematic tradition of their own making. What "began as an appeal to alleged principles of shared rationality against what was felt to be the tyranny of tradition, has itself been transformed into a tradition whose continuities are partly defined by the interminability of the debate over such principles."

Nisbet, Lowi, and Walzer illustrate perfectly the "interminability" of the debates in our liberal context, MacIntyre would say. Each raises criticisms of the existing social order and urges the adoption of other values so that justice can be done to individuals and groups in our open society. But each one continues to assume that his argument appeals to universal principles of practical reasoning.

In MacIntyre's view conceptions of both justice and practical rationality differ depending on the fundamental preconceptions people have about reality, and those preconceptions are grounded in the actual social and political contexts in which people live.

The structure of modern liberal societies is such that even as individuals confidently appeal to universal principles, they undermine any hope for achieving genuinely common or universal agreement about justice and rationality.

Liberalism's view of the common good is that every individual should be free to express his or her preferences in a variety of ways. Practical rationality, under these conditions, turns out to be a method of justifying individual preferences and setting constraints on the bargaining process among self asserting, competitive individuals. The kind of reasoning and bargaining that Lowi criticizes as interest group politics is precisely what one should expect to see emerge from liberalism. Thus the centrifugal tendencies of this individualizing and relativistic liberalism contradict its claim to being the manifestation of a universal rationality.

The very indeterminacy of social spheres that Walzer condones when he says that they are artifacts without any natural boundaries, manifests a defect in the underpinnings of modern society.

Liberalism cannot foster a mode of practical reasoning that proceeds from and moves toward a genuine common good. That is because liberalism does not accept the idea of a common natural social order that precedes individual claims to autonomy. Under liberalism, individual preferences multiply to create a diverse range of goods and groups, each compartmentalized in its own sphere. The heterogeneity of this type of society means that "no overall ordering of goods is possible. And to be educated into the culture of a liberal social order is, therefore, characteristically to become the kind of person to whom it appears normal that a variety of goods should be pursued, each appropriate to its own sphere, with no overall good supplying any overall unity to life."

MacIntyre believes that in order to reach agreement about the demands of justice for a structurally complex society, we need more than an argument that defends the historical emergence of different social spheres each of which expresses different individual preferences.

What is needed is a mode of practical reasoning that develops within the context of a community that recognizes justice and other standards as natural or transcendent. Practical reasoning can truly succeed only in a community that agrees on the moral virtues appropriate to the different social roles performed by its members. The liberal tradition provides no such context in which to reason.

According to MacIntyre, in Aristotelian practical reasoning it is the individual as citizen who reasons; in Thomistic practical reasoning it is the individual as enquirer into his or her good and the good of his or her community; in Humean practical reasoning it is the individual as propertied or unpropertied participant in a society of a particular kind of mutuality and reciprocity; but in the practical reasoning of liberal modernity it is the individual simply as individual who reasons.

MacIntyre believes that the Aristotelian Thomistic tradition may lay claim to an authority and validity greater than that to which the liberal tradition lays claim because, among other things, it has recognized itself as a tradition of practical rationality within a particular context of order and meaning.

Since diverse ethical and social traditions do in fact exist, the strongest kind of practical rationality will be one that recognizes itself as grounded in a tradition of virtues within an overall, integrated view of a just society.

In turning to Aristotle and Thomas for a normative view of justice and practical rationality, MacIntyre indicates his commitment to an ordered natural (or natural/supernatural) hierarchy within which reasoning can find its mooring and proceed coherently. He aims to go beyond the limits of liberal individualism not by reaching for an illusory rationality that can transcend all past communities and traditions. Rather, he wants to take his stand in the best tradition of thought that is both conscious of itself as a tradition and able to direct practical reasoning toward truth and justice—the truth and justice of human community.

Jeffrey Stout appreciates MacIntyre's criticism of philosophical individualism and his quest for rational community, but he fears that MacIntyre runs the danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water: "MacIntyre sees our society as an expression of Enlightenment philosophical ideas gone wrong. If he is right, and the Enlightenment project was bound to fail, then our way of life was bound to fail too, and we should not be surprised to find it in ruin. On MacIntyre's view, our society is as radically individualistic and unconcerned with the common good as liberal philosophers have always wanted it to be, and this is the clue to its moral downfall."

But, says Stout, our social order is not purely the expression of an individualist philosophy.

Despite the impact of liberalism, American society is not yet in ruin; it does display degrees of social agreement about the nature of the common good and about the virtues needed in diverse spheres of social life. Those elements of agreement are themselves the fruit of our long Western tradition in which earlier disagreements, especially those expressed through religious warfare, were overcome by decisions to limit the political order to an arena in which we would all have certain rights while enjoying the freedom to disagree peacefully and to pursue a diverse range of goods.

Modern liberal societies, therefore, are not as individualistic and relativistic as MacIntyre imagines. They reveal a particular kind of practical rationality at work that produces meaningful if not completely integral political communities.

By tracking the inner logic of actual social differentiation and institutional formation, says Stout, we can still work to achieve levels of rational agreement higher than MacIntyre thinks possible. Such agreement will not be exhaustive with respect to a comprehensive understanding of the common good. But it can be sufficient for building both a "thin" conception of the common political good as well as an appreciation of the protected freedom we all require in order to carry on diverse activities in other spheres of social life.

Much like Walzer, Stout sees a "thin" agreement about the nature of the common good as a manifestation of our practical Western agreement not to try to achieve complete social community through politics. Room is then made for complex equality—a rich complexity of life in many social spheres where people can continue to nurture virtues proper to each sphere—schooling, church, health care, family, and more.

This does not mean that Stout is sanguine about the health of liberal society as if all the diverse spheres of contemporary social life manifest virtuous development:

The idea that liberal society lacks any shared conception of the good is false, but this doesn't mean that all is well. It could still be the case that politics, as the social practice of self governance directed toward the common good, has begun to give way to merely bureaucratic management of competition for external goods . . . The social practice of politics is, of course, always being threatened in some such way. All genuine republics, not just our kind, are fragile, susceptible to corruption by external goods and unjust acts. So there is no permanent, utopian solution to be sought.

Note carefully what Stout is doing in his response to MacIntyre and to other communitarian critics of individualism. He is advancing what he calls a stereoscopic view of society in which the political common good is understood as an agreement to protect both individual freedoms and the integrity of diverse spheres of social life.

The inherent threat to such a society comes not so much from the intellectual conflict between different traditions of practical moral reasoning, but more from the propensity people have to act without giving sufficient attention to the different virtues that are appropriate to different social spheres. Thus, for example, they end up trying to impose the values of markets and bureaucracies on all spheres of life.

According to Stout,

Moral discourse in pluralistic society is not threatened by disagreement among its members about the good. Neither is it threatened by the confusion of tongues manifested in its various moral languages. It is threatened by the acids of injustice, which eat away at the moral fibre of privileged and victimized alike, and by the possibility of nuclear war, which would destroy much more than the prospects for rational moral debate. And it is also threatened by the corruption our lives have already suffered from idolizing external goods and the erosion of our most valuable practices by habits of mind and heart appropriate to the marketplace and the bureaucracies.

Stout's vision here is clearly one that seeks to comprehend the whole of society as a complex, just, and balanced order of justice, not as a simple collective unity.

His vision is not Aristotelian or Thomistic, though he wants to use some of MacIntyre's and Walzer's language of multiple virtues appropriate to distinct social spheres.

His vision is not individualistic, though it includes a liberal conception of individual rights and a limited government; he wants an open public order that will not demand deep civic agreement about a comprehensive common good.

His vision is not socialist, but it is critical of the power of marketplace values to overwhelm non market forms of community.

Stout identifies his mode of reasoning as a form of pragmatic social criticism with both eyes open. And yet he conducts a moral argument for principles and practices that he believes transcend his personal preferences. "The languages of morals in our discourse are many, and they have remarkably diverse historical origins," he writes, "but they do not float in free air, and their name is not chaos. They are embedded in specific social practices and institutions— religious, political, artistic, scientific, athletic, economic, and so on."

But how does this statement answer the questions posed by MacIntyre?

On what basis, other than our own self-assertive preferences, should we approve the diversity of historically differentiated social practices and institutions that Stout approves? Living face to face with a wide range of religious, political, artistic, scientific, medical, and economic institutions, do we not need to articulate the norms or standards by which we believe each should be judged good or bad, healthy or unhealthy? And in order to do that, don't we need to propound arguments as to the very nature of this reality? If this complex array does not "float in free air" or go by the name of "chaos," then what order of nature or divine creation allows human life to take this complex shape? Is there any philosophical grounding that Stout can provide for his stereoscopic view of society that lies deeper than historical development and personal preference?

Michael Novak takes a somewhat different approach to these questions while remaining closer than either Stout or Walzer to liberal individualism.

Novak agrees that thinking about the common good should not be totalistic or undifferentiated. Precisely by means of societal differentiation and the opening of free economic markets, individuals have been able to realize their potential both as persons and as members of diverse communities. The conception of the common good to be adopted, therefore, should be one that presupposes and reinforces the free initiative of individuals to shape community life, to argue rationally, and to seek multiple forms of the common good.

The extent to which Novak retains any comprehensive idea of social order is to be found almost entirely in his understanding of a dynamic, historical teleology of human existence: "The formal concept of the common good," he says, "is dynamic, and is always driving toward the full and ultimate development of human beings. Its aim is the highest stage of development in the personality of each, and in the most fully developed community of which they are capable." This is not so much a stereoscopic view of complex equality as an open-ended "vision of liberty and progress."

Novak drops hints of a hierarchical order of institutions while using phrases from the liberal tradition. The ultimate, eschatological common good is the kingdom of God, according to Novak, who is committed to the Christian faith, but that common good can never be achieved in history. So it remains always out of reach as a historical goal.

Short of that goal, human beings seek an upward moral mobility toward fulfilment: "At each level of achievement—in person, family, city, state, and humankind as a whole—the concept of the common good recognizes both an end achieved, and a new inward impulsion toward a further achievement, upon a larger and more complex plane."

But what rational meaning has Novak retained in this concept of common good? Diverse persons, families, and organizations have different identities, so one would think that the good peculiar to each must surely reveal a distinctive qualification. Otherwise, how can we differentiate between a family and a state, or between a school and a business enterprise? Moreover, schools, families, churches, and businesses do not as such share something in common. Thus, the common good, as Aristotle or Aquinas or MacIntyre uses the term, is still not applicable to anything Novak has identified until we consider the state or society as a whole.

Precisely at this point, however, Novak is most uncomfortable about using the words "common good" in referring to any substantive condition or aim of practical reason.

In order to protect individual responsibility against the danger of totalitarianism, Novak is reluctant to allow the possibility that citizens as citizens, or individuals as individuals, can legitimately envision together a substantive common good to be legislated and enforced by government for the good of the whole community. Rather, he identifies common good in its grandest sense with the unreachable kingdom of God, and in its reachable sense with a diversity of individual and organizational initiatives.

He also identifies the common good with an inner potentiality that controls the whole movement of history toward freedom: "Thus, the common good is the inner dynamo of human progress, rooted in the human's capacity to reflect upon his or her own actions, to grasp their deficiencies and incompletenesses, and to choose to press onward toward the full development of the entire range of human possibilities."

A public or political common good, in the more traditional sense, cannot be achieved by direct intention, according to Novak, but must be allowed to arise as a more or less indirect consequence of freedom expressed in a variety of human communities.

"In sum," Novak writes, "the new concept of the common good pushes us beyond a simple reliance upon authority that defines for all the substantive good, and turns us instead toward achieving the rules that make an open society possible."

Despite his talk of common good and diverse communities, Novak returns in the end to something very close to liberalism with its emphasis on individual freedom and public rules of due process and democracy. Apart from affirming the importance of "mediating institutions" between the individual and the state, Novak offers little of substance with regard to an ontological conception of the pluralistic structure of society.

While Stout and Walzer try to give a historical account of the reality of multiple social spheres, and while MacIntyre tries to renew the notion of an integral, complex social order of justice, Novak reaches for theological language to back up both his teleological orientation and his belief in the universal validity of the principles of liberty and justice: "Liberty and justice are 'transcendent' principles in the sense that they can never be perfectly fulfilled at any point in history, but keep driving a pilgrim race ever forward in their pursuit. In every generation, there are always further steps in pursuit of justice and of liberty to be taken, amid the vicissitudes of historical circumstances, social necessity, and human fallibility."

From MacIntyre's point of view, Novak is trying to offer a universal rational argument to justify the superiority of liberalism over other traditions. Precisely because Novak's critics either hold to other liberal preferences, or because they stand in other traditions in which his mode of practical reasoning makes no sense, the consequence is that Novak, too, cannot escape the confusion of tongues rampant in our contemporary world.

Novak is trying to synthesize every tradition into the liberal tradition, but, from MacIntyre's point of view, that project cannot succeed.

We can now understand more clearly the urgency of the question about how to comprehend society's diversity in relation to some kind of integral unity or coherence.

MacIntyre argues that liberal individualism makes such an attempt at comprehension impossible.

Stout believes that society is actually more integrated than the ideology of liberal individualism allows its to recognize, so we need to concentrate on deciphering the reality behind the ideologically blinding dogmas.

And Novak is convinced that liberalism is part of the progressive solution to the problem of building the common good since it helps to scrape away false (especially totalitarian) attempts to create integral societies while freeing individuals to pursue a vast plurality of common goods. But have we received from these writers a convincing normative argument that can guide action toward the shaping of a coherent and pluralistic society? Must we return to Thomas Aquinas or to Aristotle for a philosophy that escapes the historicizing and relativizing tendencies of modern, pragmatic liberalism? Or must we give up hope of finding a normative social philosophy that can do justice both to the diversity of social spheres and to the coherence of a common public order?


Jim Skillen directs the Center for Public Justice in Washington D.C., where his job is essentially to read, write, and argue with people about government and politics. He is the author most recently of With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations (2005) and earlier of A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (2000). He and his wife Doreen have achieved sufficient maturity to become grandparents. He would play more golf if he had more time and money and if Doreen didn't mock it as a silly little game.