Rebirth of Reason


A Randian Definition of the Common Good
by Edward W. Younkins

“The common good” (or “the public interest”) is an undefined and undefinable concept: there is no such entity as “the tribe” or “the public”; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; “good” and “value” pertain only to a living organism— to an individual living organism—not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships.

  “The common good” is a meaningless concept, unless taken literally in which case its only possible meaning is: the sum of the good of all the individual men involved. But in that case, the concept is meaningless as a moral criterion: it leaves open the question of what is the good of individual men and how does one determine it?”
                                                                                                                                                             —Ayn Rand

In the above quotation from page 20 of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal Ayn Rand raises the question of how the common good is to be defined and determined. In this essay I will attempt to define the common good from a distinctly Randian or Objectivist perspective.

In order to discover what is in the common good of all men, it is first necessary to determine what makes man man. We need to observe and specify the characteristics possessed by all men that differentiate them from other forms of life. Manness thus refers to the attributes that are the same in every instance of the species, man. Our first step is therefore to identify the essential distinguishing characteristics of men. We do this by inquiring about man’s nature and the facts of his existence.

Man’s distinctive nature is exhibited in his rational thinking, the process of abstraction and conceptualization that is necessary for his survival and self-actualization. Reason is man’s faculty that perceives, identifies, and integrates the input that is received from the senses. Unlike plants and animals, man’s unique nature is that he has no spontaneous and unthinking means of survival in the world. Men are living beings whose rational faculty sets them apart from all other living species. Man is a cognitive being who relies upon his reason as his means for obtaining objectively valid knowledge and as his basic tool of survival and fulfillment of his human capacities. To live as a human being, man must think, act, and create the conditions that his life requires to survive and prosper.

Freedom, a fundamental personal and social good, is another natural state of man’s existence. Each person has the ability to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to those thoughts. Men are rational beings with free wills who have the ability to form their own life purposes, aims, and intentions. If a man is to maintain his life and fulfill his human potential, he must conceptualize the requirements of human survival and flourishing, face a multitude of choices and actions, and act in accordance with his rational conclusions. The right to liberty (and to life) is the right to the above process. Freedom is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for one’s survival, moral well-being, and happiness.

Man’s right to freedom can be logically derived from his nature. The object of the right to negative liberty is to allow people to live life as they choose, as long as their actions do not constitute an aggression against the freedom of others. Individuals are free to initiate their own purposive action when they are free from man-made restraints in the form of coercion by other individuals, groups of people, or the government. Because force is the means by which one’s rights are violated, it follows that defended freedom is the fundamental common good. Whatever is alleged to be the common good must be good and must be universal. The common good must be that which is good for every human being. Liberty fulfills this requirement, because protected self-directedness is good for every person. The common good rests not in what men do when they are free, but rather in the fact that they are free. The common good consists in treating each person as an end and never solely as a means to an end. This simply means respecting the personal autonomy of each individual.

The common good of protected self-directedness can be possessed by all persons simultaneously. The commonness of the common good can be explained as its indivisible and nondiminishing availability to all members of the human community. Each person can possess the common good without his possession lessening in any way another person’s possession of it. Each person can have the entire common good rather than simply a part of it. Because the common good is an intangible or nonphysical good, it can be shared by persons in such a manner that there is no restriction in the sharing of it. Any number of people can experience the common good and each person can possess it in total.

In contrast, when liberals and socialists (of whatever variant) speak of the common good, they are oftentimes actually referring to what are really material collective goods. This vision of the common good is something that, although possessed by all as a group, is actually divided up when distributed to various individuals. The distinguishing attribute of a collective good is that, as the number of sharers increases, each partaker actually possesses less of it. As each person possesses a collective good, the good becomes private and in no way can be viewed as common. Today’s welfare-state liberals use the term common good for rhetorical purposes when they are advocating programs that actually distribute collective goods.

Each person has the right to be protected against all forms of external aggression initiated by private individuals or by the state. The proper role of the state is to protect the freedom that allows individuals to pursue happiness or the good that each defines for himself. From a Randian or Objectivist viewpoint, the state ensures the common good when its functions are restricted to protecting the natural right to liberty and maintaining peace and order. The necessity of self-direction provides a rationale for a political and legal order that will not require that the autonomy of any individual will be sacrificed for that of any other. A minimal state only guarantees man the freedom to seek his own happiness as long as he does not trample the equivalent rights of others. A libertarian institutional framework is concerned with a person’s outward conduct rather than with his virtuousness. A proper social system should not force a particular good on a man nor should it force him to seek the good—it should only maintain conditions of existence that leave him free to seek it. The legitimate purpose of the state is procedural in nature and simply involves the protection of our natural right to liberty.

To achieve the common good is to preserve the right and opportunity for every person to pursue the good as he sees fit. The common good is concerned with a man’s ability to reflect upon his own actions and to make choices based on these reflections. The defense of individual rights allows for the development of institutions that nourish practical and voluntary cooperation without requiring previous agreement regarding final ends or personal desires. The essence of common good is to guarantee in all aspects of social life the benefits of voluntary participation and cooperation. The only way to ascertain if the common good is attained through cooperative effort is to observe whether or not each individual is cooperating voluntarily.

The purpose of the common good is to allow each and every individual’s self-realization of his potentiality as a person. The common good is the set of conditions that permits people the opportunity to gain physical, spiritual, moral, cultural, and other goods for themselves through their own deliberations, judgments, choices, and actions.

Forced cooperation is contrary to the common good. Neither the goals of central planners nor of a majority deal with the common good. Mandatory participation may be for the good of the majority or of the central planners and their supporters, but not for all the individuals involved.

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