Robert Dahl, in Democracy and its Critics, has a section late in the book where he considers at length the concept of the common good. I had always suspected that the idea of the common good could be little more than a reification – an concept that, given the huge diversity of human interests, could have no real content behind it. While reading the Dahl chapter, I found myself musing on whether a conception of the common good, consistent with pluralist values, could be found. My resulting thought experiment follows.
Take any particular polity or demos as a given. This is not a restrictive criterion, because the process can be repeated for any given (other) demos. Do a Senian partial ordering of people’s conceptions of the good. (Realize that the process – discussion, dialogue – will change the constellation of preferences with which people start the process.) By a “Senian” partial ordering, I mean a ranking of preferences such as Amartya Sen often mentions in The Idea of Justice, which he conceives essentially as in Social Choice Theory, but he frequently observes that even if we can’t get a complete ordering, so that we have a complete social ranking of all possible alternatives, sometimes we may have a clear definition (e.g., consensus) with respect to a partial ordering, and in many cases that may be, if not “good enough” at least good enough to be of some practical use.
A Senian partial ranking would mean that consensus, or near consensus on some items had become apparent. (For instance, all may value that the community is prosperous, that child mortality rates be low, that the drinking water be clean…) Is it enough? Can consensus be improved? Consider the other (non-consensual) issues. Can some of them be packaged or bundled in such a way that the bundle will be at least acquiesced to by consensus (ranked as preferred or indifferent by all; opposed by none). Is this, now, enough? “Enough” means can the rest of the items be left to individuals or subgroups to pursue or decide autonomously for themselves.
If not, then no definition of “common good” applies to the group, and the only option is power politics in which different subgroups (whether minority or majority) try to dominate others. Of course, another option available to each group is to try to sway public opinion. The situation is dynamic. Over time a sense of the common good may become meaningful where none was before. Or a prior conception of the good could become no longer consensual.
Note that for this not to be arbitrary, the demos must be inclusive of all who will be bound by its decisions, and consensus must be real, e.g., not based hidden dominations like of husband over wife or boss over employee. If there are such de facto dominations, the question of hegemonic ideas or false consciousness arises, whereby domination is so habitual that it is internalized and appears as free will on behalf of the dominated. Obviously, situations like this are always disputable and hard to prove.
My use of the term “near consensus” also raises issues. If people are to be excluded from consideration in a consensus process for determining the common good, there must be a “good reason” other than simple minority status, e.g., mental illness, (literal) immaturity, intentional perversity (“anything everybody else wants, I will reject”). People with a manifest desire to dominate others, who will not accept any conception of “the good” that does not include their domination, would be another example. Obviously such exclusions are also disputable, and the “good reason” hard to prove.
The problem of people affected by decisions of the demos, but not included in the demos, cannot always be solved (even in a thought experiment) by extending the demos. One example is the “good” of future generations. I don’t see any way around this other than to say that justice demands that members of the demos consider, to the best of their ability, what the wishes of those others would be, were they to be somehow included.
Remember, this is a thought experiment, and not something that could necessarily be implemented to actually define “the common good”. But it might be argued that a legislative procedure modeled on these ideas would tend to produce legislation consistent with the underlying concept of “the good” that would have been so discovered. Particularly if debate around proposed legislation was allowed to be open, broad and free-ranging.