The common good

It is as old as the hills and it remains one of the most widespread divides today: the concept of the ‘common good’ (TCG) versus every-man-for-himself (EMFH). In other words ‘that which benefits society as a whole, in contrast to the private good of individuals and sections of society’ (Lee, 2016). As Western society appears to become increasingly polarized, perhaps encouraged by social media, we find ourselves frequently divided into two camps: mask-wearers versus refuseniks; or the Left versus the Right; or pro-life versus pro-rights.

At one extreme there are those people who might volunteer to die for their country (Kamikaze pilots) – TCG, and at the other extreme there are the 1980s ‘Greed is Good – I will think only of myself, and I don’t care about anybody else’ people – EMFH. The latter also appear to believe in a zero sum game and that, in order for them to gain, somebody else has to lose. However, I suspect that, for the most part it’s a sliding scale; that few people dwell at the extremes, and the majority of individuals lie somewhere along the scale.

It was Aristotle who originally discussed a ‘good’ which was only attainable by the community, and yet it is individually shared by its members (Smith, 1999). Throughout history society appears to have swung between TCG and EMFH. This was predominantly caused by political movements. (As a side note I am curious how, in so many collective political situations where the common good is supposed to be pre-eminent (eg., Communist countries) that, generally, several individuals ‘rise to the top’ – a sort of Animal Farm effect where some people are more equal than others.)

Aside from party politics it appears that it all comes down the individual and their approach to life, and I suppose, their culture combined with life experience. A Libertarian who says, for example, “You can’t make me vaccinate my kids. You can’t make me do anything” might see the world differently to a Humanitarian who says, for example, “By wearing a mask not only am I protecting myself, I’m also protecting the community – including you”. (Incidentally, why do some Libertarians who insist on asserting their rights feel that they can impinge on others’ rights, for example by telling women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies?)

It might also be said that EMFH is the masculine way of doing things – part of the patriarchy. After all, with every-man-for-himself, the word to note is ‘man’. We rarely hear “every woman for herself”. That’s not to say that every man believes in EMFH, just as not every woman believes in the TCG. However, it is generally acknowledged (eg., Westermann, Ashby, & Pretty, 2005) that, collaboration, solidarity, and conflict resolution all increase in groups where women are present. Is it possible that EMFH is a head-based phenomenon and TCG is heart-based? If there were only women in the world I wonder whether this particular divide might be so great.

Apart from an all-women world I don’t know what it’s going to take for humanity to come together. One might have thought that Covid-19 might be an opportunity for social adhesion, where the whole world is going through similar experiences. Instead it has somehow turned out to be yet another opportunity for division.

I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to mutual respect. That includes respect for others’ opinions. Today, rather than informed, respectful discourse, I see far too many ad hominem attacks. If you are an EMFH person I suggest that you think strongly about society; how helping others will ultimately help yourself. If you are a TCG person I suggest you tune your heart into the Individualist way of life and their need to assert their rights. There are people who simply need to have not only ultra-strong boundaries, they may be terrified of merging with the rest of society. That doesn’t mean we have to let them take advantage of us. We, too, need our boundaries. But my plea is for everyone to consider their boundaries as cottage fences rather than castle walls.

Human beings are social creatures and there are billions of us. We have to get along. We are in this together. If we don’t, then we’re just going to continue to have one war after another. Eventually, if we don’t have mutual respect and compassion I believe that we are doomed as a species.


Lee, S. (2016) The common good. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Smith, T.W. (1999). Aristotle on the conditions for and limits of the common good.

The American Political Science Review, 93, 625-636.

Westermann, O., Ashby, J., & Pretty, J. (2005). Gender and social capital: The

importance of gender differences for the maturity and effectiveness of natural \

resource management groups. World Development, 33, 1783–1799.

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