The Common Good: Individual Rights and Community Responsibility

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This essay was delivered at St. Paul’s University, Ottawa, November 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Our shrinking planet cannot afford the continuation of the view of individual people or individual nations competing for scarce resources. It can only survive if the movements toward cooperation for the common good gain dominance.

The title of this discussion points toward the need to clarify what we mean by the common good. Is it the greatest good of the greatest number? I think not. But do we, then, think of it as describing a situation that is ideal in some independence of the people who participate in it? For example, is the good of the United States something other than the good of its inhabitants, so that all of its inhabitants may be called on to sacrifice for the common good? Is there a tension between the rights of individuals and the common good?

In my view a useful understanding of the common good depends on a clear understanding of community. But a good understanding of community is difficult to attain when we begin with modernist assumptions about human beings. For this reason I feel the need to make some points that I will repeat from a different angle tonight. We need to overcome the dominant modernist habits of mind.

We "process" thinkers like to blame much of what is wrong on substance thinking. Few people today consciously adopt substance metaphysics, but just because they do not think metaphysical issues are meaningful, they continue to reflect deep-seated metaphysical habits. Please forgive me if I take a few moments to explain what I mean by substance philosophy and to show how it has informed so much of modern thinking about human society. My point here is that it blocks adequate understanding of community and therefore also of the common good.

The philosophical idea of substance arises from reflection about the kinds of objects with which we are surrounded: houses and cars, sticks and stones, planets and stars, chairs and tables. These objects remain much the same through considerable period of time. They occupy definable regions of space and are contained within these boundaries. They may move through space without suffering significant alteration. What changes are the spatial relations to other substances, but these relations do not affect the substances themselves. A chair can be moved from one room to another while remaining the same chair with the same characteristics.

The chair as such can also be distinguished from its characteristics. It may be repainted, for example, without becoming a different chair. In this sense, at least, there is an unchanging substance underlying changing attributes. Much of our language refers to objects as the subjects of sentences and then to their attributes or actions. The carpet is blue. The cat walks around the room. This expresses and supports the emphasis on objects, understood as substances.

We may also think of ourselves as substances. "I" seems to name an entity that remains the same in many different contexts and with changing experiences and feelings. I am sometimes talking and sometimes listening. I am sometimes sad and sometimes joyful. But "I" seem to remain the same "I" through these changes.

Of course, the substances of which I have spoken thus far come into being and decay. Hence they are not quite satisfactory as fulfilling the metaphysical idea of substances as the unchanging reality underlying the changing attributes. Distinguishing them as composite substances from the simple substances of which they are composed can solve this problem. Compound substances can be broken up into these simple substances. It is these basic components of the larger objects that are the true substances.

This type of reflection led to the dominance of atomism in modern thought. An atom is a simple substance, that is, a substance that cannot be broken up into smaller substances. Because it cannot be broken up, it is everlasting. It does not change in any way except in its location. Modern thought supposed that the deepest truth about the world is that it is composed of material atoms in motion relative to one another. The goal of scientific explanation is to show how, following the laws of motion governing the movement of atoms, all the phenomena of the natural world can be explained. Although the course of physics has required many changes, the reductive program inherent in this metaphysics still guides most scientific work.

Our interest here, of course, is with human beings. Some moderns have supposed that the movement of the atoms can explain us, too. Much physiological psychology shares this program of research. Nevertheless, the more common form of modern metaphysics is dualism. Dualists exempt the human mind from the laws of physics. It is of a fundamentally different nature. The founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, held that whereas the primary characteristic of the entities making up the physical world is extension, the primary characteristic of minds is thought.

What is striking, however, is that Descartes and the modern thinkers who followed him, believed that the thinking minds are also substances. That means that they are self-contained entities, underlying the flow of changing experience. The relations among them, like the relation among atoms, are external to them. These relations do not affect the mind as such. The philosophical implication is a radical form of individualism. This individualism dominated thought about society throughout the early modern period and has shaped much of late modern thought as well.

The most obvious examples are in ethical, political, and economic theory. I will be speaking of economic theory this evening. I will now speak briefly about ethical and political theory.

In ethical research, one asks about the situation of the individual. Since individuals remain what they are through time, their desire to achieve what satisfactions they can over the course of their lives is understandable. For some ethicists, a prudential hedonism must describe human behavior. The problem is then that in our ethical heritage there are many teachings that suggest we should seek the good of others. Such altruism is sharply distinguished from concern about one's own future, and there has been a strong tendency, continuing to the present, to explain apparently altruistic behavior in terms of a subtler or more indirect form of self-interest.

Christian theology often adapted itself to this egocentric view. The church called people to act in ways beneficial to others, promising that the rewards they would receive for such behavior after death far exceeded the costs in this life. Even persons who broke with much of the Christian tradition were inclined to think that the teaching of rewards and punishments after death was necessary to support socially constructive action here and now.

The judgment that this was needed was lessened by the discovery by advanced thinkers in the eighteenth century that when all seek their individual benefit, the result produces benefits for the whole society. The implication is that altruistic behavior is not needed and may even damage the society.

Nevertheless, the weight of Christian tradition remained strong through the nineteenth century. The most widely accepted ethical teaching in that century was utilitarianism. One should act so as to produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the largest number of people. This teaching is as fully based on individualism as is the assumption that self-interest reigns. But the individual is held to have a moral principle or intuition directing each to the well being of others generally.

The Kantian alternative in terms of duty is equally individualistic. For Kant moral reason requires that we act according to universal rules. We should act in the way that we can will that all act. It is contrary to reason to make an exception in one's own case.

It is significant that the major political theorists based their understanding of how the state came to be on the principle of self-interest alone. Individuals were willing to pay a price in freedom for the sake of security. Hence they entered a compact with one another and with someone selected to rule them to obey his rule as long as this rule provided security. Locke thought that somewhat more than security was required from the ruler.

The traditions of German romanticism and idealism could give rise to a different kind of political thinking. It could reify a nation or a group. Its most influential product was Karl Marx. Marx tended to reify classes. This was certainly a sharp break with individualism. But it did not break with substantialist thinking. It simply shifted the substances from individuals to nations or classes.

Now my point in all this is to note that the idea of community is missing from substantialist thought. This is because for substantialist thought relations are external to those who are related. They remain individuals, whether individual human beings or individual classes. This is true whether their relations are altruistic or competitive.

Hobbes and Locke explain how, given that human beings have this character, they nevertheless form societies. But a society is not a community when it is based solely on the agreement to obey a ruler in exchange for security and other possible services. Similarly, a collective in which individuals participate without distinction is not a community.

When there is no concept of a community, the idea of the common good is inevitably truncated. For utilitarian ethics, it is the largest total aggregate of individual pleasures. For those who reify groups, it is the well being of the group as a group. Individuals participate in the group, but their individual well being is not in view.

The most valuable development in the context of substantial thinking of the individualist type was in the field of human rights. When one reflects on the individual and attributes intrinsic value to each individual, one may also think of how that individual can be protected from the caprice of the ruler or the prejudices of neighbors. Especially in the eighteenth century, the focus on the individual gave rise to impressive ideas about the rights of individuals, rights that properly restricted the behavior of rulers and of fellow citizens in relation to all individuals. Although the declaration of individual rights does not guarantee that they will be respected, it has certainly made an important difference in a positive direction. One reason for hesitancy about criticizing individualism is that it is not clear what other basis there can be for strong assertions of human rights.

Nevertheless, the assertion of rights is not an adequate basis for a healthy society even when it is combined with a social compact. A healthy society must be a community, and rights by themselves may even inhibit community. I will move now to a discussion of the metaphysical ground of community thinking and return later to the way rights fit into authentic communities.

Let me make clear that I am by no means saying that there were no communities during the modern period. Quite the contrary. Down to the industrial revolution, the great majority of people lived in rather tight communities. Many no doubt found them oppressive. The emphasis on individualism is partly at expression of metaphysics but it is also a reaction to societies in which greater freedom of self-expression and personal autonomy was a real desideratum. Although the rise of industry initiated a sustained assault on traditional communities, community in general gave way only slowly.

Today we need a metaphysics to undergird community partly because the erosion of community has gone quite far. We might say, ironically, that in the modern world there was plenty of community and very little theory to support it. In the postmodern world we have the theory to support community and a great dearth of actual community.

The idea of substance has had great difficulty maintaining itself in philosophical circles. This has been one of the major reasons for the rejection of metaphysics. It is my view, however, that abandoning the discussion of what a substance is and of whether there is anything that fits this requirement has not removed substance thinking from a dominant role in academia as well as in much of our society. It can only be overcome by an alternative that will gradually reshape habits of thought and language.

The metaphysical alternative to substance is event. The world confronts us with objects that are easily thought of as substantial. But the world in which we live is also a world of occurrences, happenings, and experiences. There are conversations and games and wars as well as houses and cars. The dominant philosophy of modernity has analyzed events in terms of matter in motion. But contemporary physics, as well as rigorous philosophical analysis, suggests that what we call objects are ultimately better understood as complex patterns of energy events. In this case, we do not require a dualism between matter and mind. Events of human experience and quantum events are very different, but they share the same basic structure. Both internalize their worlds, that is, both are constituted largely by their relations to other entities in their worlds. They are both themselves successions of discrete events, each including much of their predecessors and adding something to what they have inherited from them.

Human experience is constituted largely by its relation to past personal experiences, events in one's body, and events in the wider world. Among the most important relations are those to other people. I am what I am in this moment as an expression of the relations I have to other people in the past and present. They are part of what I am.

Note how this changes the categories of ethical thought. Modern ethics took for granted that the ethical agent is a self contained individual remaining self-identical through time. Prudential concern for one's own future seems rational in this view but real concern for anyone else is problematic. Self-interest and altruism are sharply differentiated.

But if a human person is a flow of experiences that are socially constituted, the question is quite different. Each momentary experience is what it is by virtue of the way others have been in the immediate past. It benefits or is harmed by them. In turn it constitutes itself so as to flow not only into successor experiences in the personal stream but into other streams also. There is no reason to be interested only in what happens to one's personal future. The immediate influence on those around one may seem considerably more important than the effects on one's personal more distant future. That this is so requires no special explanation. Exclusive concern for one's personal future would be expected to be a rarity, just as would neglect of the importance of that future. Total indifference to the effects on others would also be expected to be rare.

We have here a metaphysics of community. A community is distinguished from other social forms by virtue of the ways in which people enter into one another's lives. For most people the strongest community is the nuclear family. One internalizes one's parents and siblings. Their influence is inescapable. Influence means flowing into, and in this metaphysics this is taken quite literally. The mother's experience flows into that of the child in infancy. So do those of the father and of other family members. The child does not first exist independently and then enter into relations. The only child there is is one who is largely constituted by these relationships.

This is clearest with the nuclear family, but of course it is not limited to that. Families are part of larger communities. Patterns of thought and behavior current in the community largely determine the thought patterns of their members. Of course, at least some of the members subtly reshape these thought patterns. The community does not exist except as the community of people who are influencing one another.

This is important. If we think that the community has an existence of its own independent of the individuals who make it up, we are likely to have little place for either rights or responsibilities. A human community is nothing if not a community of persons. But equally persons have no existence apart from community. We think as we think, feel as we feel, behave as we behave largely as we are led to do these things by our relations with other members of the community and with the institutions that express the community life.

In a community the idea of the common good takes on a far richer meaning than in a society understood as founded only on a compact and made up of atomic individuals. Because the good of each is bound up with the good of others, we can consider which changes in the society as a whole conduce to the good of those who participate in it. This will rarely be a change that benefits of a few at the expense of many others. The change may occur directly among some, but it will be the kind of change that through their influence flows into the lives of others also. Usually it will be a change that is decided on only after the insights and desires of diverse individuals have been heard and considered.

To clarify further how the common good functions in a community, the essential characteristics of a true community can be further analyzed. A healthy community is one in which all participate, to whatever varying degrees, in determining the nature and actions of the community. If some segment of a society is excluded from participation, it is not part of the community. A society in which only some of its people belong to a community falls sadly short of community status.

In a healthy community, the community as a whole takes some responsibility for all its members. That is, in a society that is a healthy community, the society as a whole will not be indifferent to the extreme poverty, resulting, for example, in hunger and homelessness, of some of its members. When hunger and homelessness are allowed to exist and increase, as in the United States today, it is clear that the nation has lost any character of community it may once have had.

In a society that is a healthy community, participation in the society contributes to the self-identification of its members. To whatever extent Canada is a community, individual members of Canadian society identify themselves as Canadians. This identity informs the way they think about themselves, about other Canadians, and about the world as a whole. If many members of Canadian society are alienated from their Canadian identity, Canada ceases to be a unifying community.

Now, how are we to think of human rights in a community? They include what human beings must have in order to participate in the decision-making of the community. To deny these powers to the individuals is to fail to be a community. One set of rights then constitutes the requisite conditions for participating in the political life of the community. The accompanying obligation is to exercise these rights responsibly and to make sure that all share them.

Other rights are the conditions below which other participants in the community will not let any member fall. These will include sufficient food and clothing and shelter and health care and education to function within the community. For those able to work, these rights will include the opportunity to do so, so that functioning within the community is also contributing to the community. The accompanying responsibility is to take advantage of opportunities to work and to find other ways of contributing to the community. There is also a responsibility to insure that other disadvantaged members of the community also share these rights.

Although all members of a true community have both rights and responsibilities simply by virtue of being members, there remain great differences among them. Communities are not homogeneous. Members vary greatly in their abilities and their interests. They allow great diversity in the behavior of their members. Some will focus attention on the strengthening of community. Others will take the existence of community largely for granted and immerse themselves in their scholarship or art. The interests of others will be personal relationships or getting ahead in their work. It is important to avoid laying out responsibilities shared by all beyond the minimum of what is entailed in being a participant in community.

Finally, a healthy community will also understand itself to be in community with other communities. The atomistic vision tends to place political units in competition with one another, especially at the level of nations. The relational vision growing out of this postmodern metaphysics of events sees nations as well as individuals as needing one another and gaining from one another's well being. Our shrinking planet cannot afford the continuation of the view of individual people or individual nations competing for scarce resources. It can only survive if the movements toward cooperation for the common good gain dominance. A changed metaphysics will not by itself change the world, but without the continued spread of a changed vision, it is difficult to find much basis for hope.