The common good of political society has recently generated a lot of attention on the blogosphere. Robert George started the discussion in the course of claiming that the political community’s realm of authority is strictly limited. What generated some controversy was his way of arguing for this claim: The common good, he said, is only an instrumental good and not an intrinsic good. Michael Hannon replied that the common good of the political community is no mere instrumental good but is rather an intrinsic good. Hannon claims the authority of Aristotle for his position, and thinks that George, by instrumentalizing the common good, is keeping company with modern individualists like Locke. In his reply to Hannon, George defends himself ably against the charge of individualism, arguing that the common good as he understands it facilitates not just the good of individuals but also the good of primary communities such as the family and the church.
George also helpfully frames the entire question by situating the common good of the political community between two other kinds of common good. There is the common good of a commercial business firm, and there is the common good of a family. Whereas the firm seems to be a good simply because of the advantages that result from its activity, the family seems to be good even prior to its advantageous consequences. In other words, the very fact of living in a harmonious family seems to be something good in its own right. Hence the firm seems to be an instrumental common good, and the family an intrinsic common good. George’s position is well expressed by saying that the common good of the political community is more like the former good than the latter.
Yet, for all the clarifying merit of George’s response, there seems to me to be more to the position of Hannon than George acknowledges.
Consider the right of the state to punish criminals. When this right is responsibly exercised, a certain very significant justice is realized in the political community. When a crime goes unavenged, a distressing disorder arises in the community. The victim, or the family of the victim, has no “closure.” He or she receives a unique kind of moral “satisfaction” when the criminal is caught and tried and duly punished. This is not just the satisfaction of getting revenge; the victim wants to see a certain kind of order restored in the interpersonal world of the political community as a result of punitive justice. This restoration is in fact experienced with satisfaction by everyone in that community, and not just by the victim and his or her family. The question for us is this: Is the good of punitive justice a merely instrumental good?
If you hold a utilitarian deterrence theory of punishment, then punitive justice does indeed seem to be an instrumental good: it is good just insofar as it produces the effect of deterring future crimes. If they could be better deterred in some way other than punishment, then that other way would replace punishment. The task of the law would simply be to find the most efficient means of deterrence. But I was just speaking of punishment in an entirely different, non-utilitarian vein. I was not looking forward to future crimes, but looking back at the crime committed. I was not talking about deterring criminals, but about giving them their due. I was not talking about maximizing results, but about achieving justice. And I fully expect that George and Hannon will agree with me in taking not a utilitarian but a “retributive” approach to punishment. But then I ask: is not the achievement of retributive justice an intrinsic good? Do we not rest in it as an end when we feel moral satisfaction in it? Is it not intrinsically good to live in a political community in which the order disrupted by crime is restored by appropriate punishment? Whether just punishment also makes the community “safer” or not, it in any case orders the community in accordance with a certain justice, and this is good simpliciter, as such, prior to the assessment of long-range danger and safety.
There is another aspect of justice that comes up in connection with punishment. Suppose that a disadvantaged social class, say the descendants of former slaves, is subject to disproportionate punishment. Suppose that a member of this class is much more likely to be punished for a crime than a member of a more advantaged class who commits the same crime. We would all agree that a great good is achieved when this disproportion is removed, so that from now on whoever in the community commits a crime is subject to the same prospect of punishment. Is this fairness merely an instrumental good? In other words, is it good only because certain social goals—goals that can in principle be achieved apart from punishment—are more effectively achieved when this fairness is realized? No, it is simply fitting and right to realize this justice; it is simply better to live in a community ordered by this justice than to live in one that is disordered by its lack. One could almost appropriate for our present discussion the line from the Psalms, “how good it is and how pleasant where brethren dwell as one,” which expresses nothing if not an intrinsic good. It would be quite natural to see an instance of this intrinsic goodness and pleasantness in the establishment of fairness in punishing.
I am inclined to go farther and to say that wherever justice is realized by the authority in a political community, there some intrinsic good is realized. Though legislative and judicial acts typically aim at averting social harms and promoting social benefits, still we can say that insofar as they are wrought in justice they also achieve an intrinsic good.
Of course, even in the setting of the commercial business firm, fairness and justice should be observed. The less capable worker should not be advanced over the more capable one for nepotistic reasons, and this apart from the question whether nepotism makes for good business. Thus a certain intrinsic good is realized even here. But the great difference between the business firm and the state is that the realization of justice is constitutive of what the state is, and this in a way in which it is not constitutive of the business firm. The raison d’etre of the state is to establish justice in the public sphere. This is especially clear in the case of punitive justice. Here the state undertakes a work of justice that no “private person” is entitled to undertake. A private person is entitled to self-defense, but not to impose punishment on those who have wronged him. It is not as with childcare, which is something that should be provided by parents and which is provided by the state only as an emergency measure in response to missing parents and missing relatives. When the state imposes punishments it is not just doing what individual citizens can and should be doing but are failing to do; the state is doing what only it can do. It gives evidence of being a kind of community all its own, and not just a community based on the “leftovers” of other communities.
If, then, I am right that punitive justice is an intrinsic good, and also right that punitive justice is constitutive of the political community, it would seem to follow that participating in this community is intrinsically good, and not just instrumentally good.
If I were to speculate on why George insists that the common good is instrumental, I would venture to say that he, like his teacher John Finnis, thinks about the common good mainly in terms of “coordination problems,” that is, of finding a common way in matters where unanimity is hard to come by. Here it is indeed plausible to say that the state brings to completion what individuals and primary communities living in an ideal world could complete on their own, but in this real world cannot complete. Here the state really does seem to be auxiliary to individuals and to the primary communities, and hence to have the character of an instrument. But I am suggesting that these coordination problems do not represent the whole of the common good. Crime and punishment represent a realm of the common good that cannot be reduced to coordination problems. Suppose that everyone agreed on the appropriate punishment for a crime; if they did not constitute themselves as a political community having a center of authority, if they just remained a collection of individuals and of families, no one would have the right to punish criminals. The coordination problem would be solved, but an urgent need of the common good would not be met.
It is important to add that, if there is any merit in my position, George’s larger project of making the case for limited government is in no way compromised. I think that both he and Hannon are agreed on this point. One can reinforce their point of agreement like this: though the body ought to serve the spiritual soul, it does not follow that the body represents only an instrumental good for man. As George has well argued elsewhere, our bodily being is an intrinsic good; but this in no way interferes with Christians preaching the subjection of body to soul. In a somewhat similar way, the fact that the common good of the political community is also an intrinsic good, in no way interferes with us saying everything that has to be said about the limits of state power and about the principle of subsidiarity.