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July 18, 2020

Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace: Part 1

What Is the Common Good? Hamilton, Rousseau, and Confucian Political Philosophy

Yunxiang Yan

Recently, the blockbuster Broadway musical “Hamilton” streamed on Disney Plus during the July 4th weekend. In the wake of the civil rights protests after the killing of George Floyd, some, including Ed Morales on CNN, have criticized the musical as at odds with strident calls for change, a “feel-good” rendering of history that was popular among a white liberal audience. The debates about “Hamilton” bring up a larger question of what a common good truly is.

There seem to be different understanding of common good. In the more politicized version, common good is achieved through the collective action of citizens participating in their own self-government. Such an understanding can be traced back to Aristotle who contends that individual citizens actively participate in politics, playing different roles such as public servant, a soldier, or legal expert, and produce the common good for their community, such as safety for all citizens.

This understanding continued in the American tradition of republicanism, Hamilton, Madison and John Jay all advocate with passion for the achievement of common good through citizen participation in politics.

Diverging to a different path, Rousseau emphasizes that the common good must reflect the general will of the citizens of a republic, and the pursuit of the common good would enable the republic to act as a moral community. But, where and how does this general will arise remains unclear, and it becomes more problematic if one recognizes the internal division of any society across the lines of gender, class, and race in modern times. It is hard to perceive common good in singular term. Instead, there are a number of politically defined common goods, including certain goods arising from the act of citizenship and certain goods enabled/provided by the state and social institutions.

The core of common good in this version, however, is that freedom, autonomy, and self-government can only be realized through the collective action and active participation of individuals. Yet, the liberalized market promises a different kind of freedom which can be realized in the private domain by individuals as isolated and atomized consumers. Consequently, civic engagement and political participation become a kind of common good in and of themselves in modern times.

Catholic moral theology provides a different understanding of the common good, which is relation in nature and can be realized at two levels. First, it refers to the social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. The family and the community are good examples in this connection. At a second level, the Catholic version of common good also emphasizes the good of all people, “the human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists ‘with’ others and ‘for’ others.” Here, the common good seems to be the social and the collectivity at the same time.

Such an emphasis on the collectivity is also the feature of the Confucian understanding of the issue in question, albeit there is no such a term of common good in Chinese language before the modern time. The Confucian political philosophy highlights the importance of the subordination of individual interest to that of the group or collectivity, which facilitates the achievement of common good. The collectivity is contextually defined and can be the family in its smallest circle and the entire empire at its maximum. I will discuss this more in my second blog.

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