General Justice and the Common Good

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.  Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame and scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Porter will present the Keynote for our June 2017 Working Group Meeting, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on June 5, 2017. Click here for more information and to rsvp.
According to Aquinas, the common good is the formal object of a virtue, namely, the virtue of general justice.  It is initially difficult to know what to make of this claim.  We are accustomed to think of the common good as a political or social ideal, to be pursued through collective political actions.  Aquinas himself, together with most of his interlocutors, regards the common good as a principle of legitimation, which justifies political rule and legislative authority.   It is difficult to see how a virtue-oriented analysis of the common good can add to our overall understanding of a social ideal or a juridical principle. There is something admittedly attractive in the ideal of the virtuous ruler, reliably guided in the exercise of rule by wisdom, informed by good and honorable motivations.  But wise and virtuous sovereigns are not so common these days, and at any rate, this seductive ideal can easily be abused.  At any rate, Aquinas himself does not claim that virtues are sufficient, or indeed necessary to guide public officials in the exercise of their duties. I want to suggest that when Aquinas identifies the common good as the object of a particular virtue, he is not so much making a point about qualifications for rule – rather, he is making a point about the presuppositions and possibilities for the morally legitimate exercise of power.  The point at stake is not so much that a good ruler must be morally good,  but rather, and more fundamentally, a good ruler can be morally good.  Aquinas’ claims about general justice and the common good presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the possibility of living a virtuous life in public office.  At the same time, his analysis of the common good as the object of a virtue is intertwined with his analysis of the common good as a principle of political legitimation.  The moral possibilities for political action and public service presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the institutions set up to carry it out.   For this reason, reflection on general justice and its object, the common good, has something to teach us about the moral legitimacy of political authority and the conditions for exercising power in a morally admirable way.