Personal good and the common good

St. Thomas has an interesting thing to say about a certain hierarchy of values that seems like a real poke in the ribs.

But a man’s will is not right in willing a particular good, unless he refer it to the common good as an end: since even the natural appetite of each part is ordained to the common good of the whole. (ST I-II q.19 a.10), emphasis added)

It is not sufficient — it is not good — to think only of what is good for me personally, says Thomas. Rather, I need to think about what is good for me in relation to the common good and for the sake of the common good. What comes to my mind immediately upon reading what Aquinas says is what God says in Genesis 2: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Stated positively, it is good for man to have fellowship with other men. Of course, the most important fellowship I can have is with my Creator, and this is obviously not ruled out by what God says. But we are creatures of flesh and bone, and we have weaknesses, and we have needs, and by saying that lonesomeness is not good for us God is saying (as the passage goes on to exhibit) that human beings need other human beings.

The primordial human relationship is between man and wife, but God also commands Adam and Eve (and by extension, us) to “be fruitful and multiply.” So human good — the common good of which St. Thomas is speaking in the passage above — is to be found in the good of human societies at different levels, from the family to local communities to nations to the human race as a whole.

Does this mean — does Thomas mean — that we have to have in mind the good of the whole human race in every decision that we make? Not exactly, but I think it is not wholly excluded either. What is good for me is really found in what is good for others as well as myself. We have seen before that it is perfectly legitimate and even essential that we love ourselves; this is not undermined by what Thomas says here.

The upshot is that I cannot make decisions solely based upon whether they are good for me. I also need to think about the effects of my choices upon other people, and if my choices aren’t so good for them, maybe I need to rethink my decisions. This does not mean that I should not care for myself. I can do no good for others if I neglect myself to such an extent that I die. I am to love my neighbor as I love myself, so clearly it is perfectly fine to love myself. What is ruled out is the self-centeredness wherein I care only about me, and think only about how my choices affect me, and to heck with my neighbors and anyone else. But it also seems to me that there is a rejection of libertarianism in the air here too. It is not enough to say I can do what I want as long as I am not harming others directly: this is ruled out by what St. Thomas says. He says that if my choices ignore what is good for others, then my choices are disordered. So avoiding what is bad or harmful to others is not sufficient. Loving my neighbor means different things at different times and with different folks, but it never reduces down to merely not doing them harm. There is a positive element to love that we cannot overlook.

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Posted in Aquinas - Philosophy, Aquinas - Theology, Charity, Rerum Novarum
3 comments on “Personal good and the common good
  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  2. Laura Droege says:

    I found this post through James’ reblog. It immediately brought to mind something I recently read. The author was in Washington, D.C., touring a museum and hearing about the writing of the Constitution. The tour guide pointed out an old book (I forget the author) that Thomas Jefferson “borrowed’ from when he penned “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The same phrase was used in the older book, but instead of simply “the pursuit of happiness”, the older book added that this was the pursuit of happiness for all mankind, for the common good. (Sorry, I can’t remember the exact phrase.)

    In other words, the older author didn’t mean for his readers to pursue ONLY their individual happiness, but a happiness that kept in mind the good of others. Jefferson chopped off the last part, hence the famous phrase that Americans hold dear.

    Basically, the older author adhered to Thomas Aquinas’ stance and what you’ve expressed here, while Jefferson (and generations of Americans after him) apparently held a more individualistic (dare I say “self-centered”?) approach to getting happiness. Although, in all fairness to T.J., he probably didn’t define “happiness” the same way many other people do today.

    Sorry for such a long comment. I’m a long-winded person!

  3. aquinasetc says:


    Thanks for stopping by. Your comment was not long winded by my standards and was very interesting. Thank you!


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