Beyond general interest, the Common Good

When discussing the articulation of individual versus collective interest, general interest is usually referred to as carrying a fairly obvious content. However, one soon realizes that what they believed was a solid platform for consensus is in fact the place for important misunderstandings, each party defining it in its own way. 

This is no big surprise since the French political philosopher Condorcet or the US economist K. Arrow who both demonstrated in their own words and in their own times that it is mathematically impossible to aggregate individual interests to obtain in a given situation a reliable definition of the general or collective interest.

If aggregating individual interests does not work, then the best ways to identify general interest is either the autocratic method (“This is the general interest because I say so”) or the democratic method (“We are more numerous – even by one vote only - in considering that this is the general interest”).

It immediately results, in both methods, in a crunching of the individual interest of a large number of persons, those who are not in full agreement with the chosen definition of the general interest.

Therefore, if one wants to try to define some kind of general decision criteria which would be respectful of the interest of the largest number of people in a given community while, at the same time, would constitute a good reference for collective action, Common Good is probably the appropriate way to go.

Common Good is thus not to be confused with general interest. It is, at the same time, more and less than the general interest, as

  1. Common Good is more than the general interest of a community as it involves the added condition that the individual good of none of its member be violated and that the community be capable – if need be and in a spirit of service - of voluntarily renouncing its power to impose its decision on its individual members who would disagree with it.
  2. Common Good is less than the general interest because it carries also the idea that each individual is ready to give up – again in a spirit of service - part of his/her legitimate interest for the sake of the interest of the community.

Common Good is not to be confused either with those goods which are called common goods and which are shared by everybody because they are made available to everyone: air, water, solar energy, wind energy and more recently Internet, etc. Still, it is necessary to refer to the Common Good when using those goods. The right of any individual to use them should not be limited nor jeopardized neither by any individual nor by the community. In other words, Common Good is the grammar of living together, in a spirit of service, of care, of attention to the other.

Instead of viewing each member of the community as an entity per se, as an individual, taken in isolation, carrying individual interests, the Common Good is suggesting that everyone be considered as a person i.e. as a human being in the perspective of his/her relationship with the other members of the community and with the community in general.

While general interest is a legalistic, intellectual and often ideological, democratic thus arithmetical, limited and therefore closed concept, Common Good is an experiential, deliberative, inter-subjective, open and humanizing journey which allows a society to become a genuine community, sharing a common vision of a common future. Common Good aims at developing the social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily, such fulfillment being defined in the widest sense to include all aspects of life, from material, professional, social, intellectual, artistic, political, etc. to spiritual.

The existence of intermediary bodies, between the individual and the wider community, is often considered as an obstacle to achieve the general interest.  For the pursuit of the Common Good, intermediary bodies  are on the contrary viewed as very useful. Indeed, each person or group belonging to a given community is called to contribute to the Common Good and, in turn, each person or group is expected to directly or indirectly benefit from the Common Good. Nothing is an obstacle to the Common Good except individualism and self interest.

This being said, people may ask: “This is well and good but do you have concrete examples of the Common Good?” Unfortunately, it is as difficult to provide examples of the Common Good as it is to give concrete examples of the general interest.

However, to address the role of the corporate enterprise in striving for the Common Good, some basic considerations might help illustrate what the Common Good is referring to and explain why it is so uneasy – but definitely possible - for the Common Good to develop in the economic sphere:

-         Common Good relies on the simple idea that any economic transaction should benefit not only the contracting parties but also the entire community.

-         Common Good genuinely aims at promoting the good of society as a whole through the provision of goods and services that are truly good and services that truly serve.

-          Common Good can only be implemented if everyone accepts the idea that the good of the other is as important as his/her own good.

This is pure common sense. Common Good is, in fact, pure common sense.

This explains why the pursuit of the Common Good is a demanding exercise: making sure that the common sense is prevailing at all times and at all levels for the purpose of both developing a common vision of a common future and of translating it into collective and individual action is very difficult.

Failing such vision, both individual and community are wandering aimlessly, only guided by the short term vagrancies of their respective immediate and individual interests, with no consideration for the interests of their neighbours or for the long run. In such circumstances as it too often happens, power, strength and violence become important governance tools and peace, harmony and happiness – both individual and collective – are permanently put in danger.

By Antonin Pujos

Secretary General, Zermatt Summit Foundation

Non-executive director, Adviser

Chairman of the Research Club of the French Institute of Directors (IFA)

Antonin Pujos is an economist, alumnus of INSEAD (MBA '73) and of Paris Institute of Political Sciences ('70). With a 30-year experience as corporate finance and investment banker, he is an expert in corporate governance, an advisor and board member of many international companies and foundations.