Being Right

This is a topic I’ve written about previously but feel it bears revisiting. The term “common good” is quite fashionable nowadays. From the environment to education reform, common good has been uttered to add credibility to whatever measure is being proposed. Unfortunately, there is a need to clarify what is really meant by the term “common good.”

To start, let us discuss another oft-used phrase: Salus populi est supreme lex, which many people understand as “the will of the people is the supreme law.” Which is not really the case. The closer translation goes like this: “The welfare of the people is the supreme law.”

There is a world of difference between the two translations: the latter indicating that what is necessarily good for the people is something they may not consciously will or desire but still must logically or rationally be achieved.

The same with the common good.

The common good is not the sum total of the desires and aspirations of the people. Rather, it is the instrument for which each people’s individual rational flourishing is to be achieved. More on this later.

As I wrote in 2014 (“The Common Good”), one finds the term in our Constitution’s very beginning, the Preamble: “An attempt to restore the phrase ‘general welfare’ in place of the Committee’s phrase ‘common good’ was not accepted. The change from ‘general welfare’ to ‘common good’ was intended to project the idea of a social order that enables every citizen to attain his or her fullest development economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually. The rejection of the phrase ‘general welfare’ was based on the apprehension that the phrase could be interpreted as meaning the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ even if what the greater number wants does violence to human dignity, as for instance when the greater majority might want the extermination of those who are considered as belonging to an inferior race (see Fr. Bernas; The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, 2009).”

From the foregoing, two points: The Preamble lays down the purpose of the Constitution. It is, as Fr. Bernas points out, a “manifestation of the sovereign will of the Filipino people.” Secondly, the use of the term “common good” was a deliberate act on the part of our Constitution’s drafters.

Now, what should be undeniable is the peculiar strain of Judeo-Christian thought that permeates our constitutional system. It comes from two sources: its Spanish lineage and the relatively recent (and more direct) US genealogy.

And many from those sources up to the people who drafted the present Constitution would have been steeped (consciously or not) in Aristotelian thought, and quite definitely the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau.

Hence, the recognition of man’s inherent dignity and equality (between men and women, and regardless of race or religion), the natural law and natural rights (e.g., freedom of speech and of religion and the right to change religions), the social contract, and – of course – the common good.

For Aristotle, sometimes acknowledged as the father of the “common good,” the same is that which leads to individual good or human flourishing (the so-called “eudaimonia”). This finds its way in Catholic social teaching (e.g., Gaudium et Spes), which views the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

For me personally, the best definition can be found in John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights: “a set of conditions which enables the members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives, or to realize reasonably for themselves the value(s), for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other (positively and/or negatively) in a community.”

Note the repeated mention of the attainment “for themselves” by the people.

The government should not, must not attempt to do everything, the president is not envisioned to be the national patriarch.

And thus, here is another point where many of our government and policy makers go wrong: the common good of society, indeed even society (or country) itself, are not the ends. They are merely instrumental (not intrinsic) goods. They are “primarily a means to the realization of valuable ends by members of the community; it is not an end in itself. Participating in the life of the community as one of its members does not immediately instantiate a basic aspect of our well-being and fulfillment as human persons (Robert George, The Common Good: Instrumental But Not Just Contractual; Public Discourse, 2013).”

The end is the flourishing of each member of the community, for which responsibility ultimately lies not with the government but with each and every individual.

Because human flourishing requires self-responsibility, not dependence. Hence, common good’s constant partner: subsidiarity.

This is what it means when we say that ours is a government of, by, and for the People.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula