The Common Good & The Individual
Moving out of the Autonomous Self
Radical Individualism situations a human person as an autonomous person subsisting in an artificial and existential relationship with others. There is no real sense of communion, commitment, or the common good. Radical individualism can be understood ideologically, but can also practically manifest itself in our own spiritual life, even while we may dismiss it ideologically. That is, there can be a dissonance between our practical intellect and speculative intellect, whereby we live by one standard that contradicts our own principles. This isn’t necessarily hypocrisy since we may not be aware of the interior contradiction, but this is the case with many of our faults. Those who tend to be heavily cerebral will become so immersed in their principles and become absent-minded of how they are called to live those things out practically. How do we practically live something contrary to radical individualism? By ordering our will in our daily activity, toward the common good!
First, in order to generally orient our will toward the common good we do need to examine it philosophically. Now, when I use the term philosophically, I do intend that to be different than “ideologically.” It’s my own particular distinction, but one that I feel fleshes out the notion that philosophy is not merely something that speaks to the speculative dimensions of our lives, but has real-life application. In fact, as Aquinas would suggest, wisdom is mediated through experience, not merely pure rationalistic type of pondering.
When examining Radical Individualism I see it as a symptom to a type of materialism that exists in the mindsets we have around the good. What I mean by materialism here is simply the notion that the common-good does not exist, and all that does is the private-goods of individuals. Such a view here tends to place each human person into a type of unhealthy competition with one another. The reason for this is due to the fact that the private good is always something material, limited. We might define it as others have as follows: one persons’ private good deprives another of that same good. Private goods are not evil, they are called goods for a reason. But they are only considered good in reference to the common good. The common good may be defined as “One person’s gain, is not another person’s loss.” In such a case, when private goods contribute to this type of shared-good, in something universal, or immaterial, the material or private goods that are owned, and used are at the service of the whole community.
But let me be clear on a point here: I do not intend to imply that the mere trade of private goods ipso facto leads to the common-good. The market is not some spiritual landscape Immaculately immune to greed. When we consider greed and many other sins around possessions that naturally arises from our fallen-nature we come to understand that it would be naïve to suggest otherwise. Rather, man ought to rationally or discernably trade and utilize such private goods in reference to the common-good, not merely in developing a system of trade, but in the practical act of trading itself.
Let’s examine a minor but common example. When one expresses a complaint against another, what is the object of that person’s will? Is it to vindicate himself? Is it to only help the other? Or is that concrete act of correction good for both and perhaps even more? Sometimes when we complain, the object of our will is ordered principally toward our own good, but this is a problem. It is not manifesting a love for the other, for their own sake, then it would seem to be an act of the Radical Individual, rather than the man or woman of communion.
Sometimes the external act tells others that we are doing it for the common-good. But the actual will itself is still ordered to one’s own private good (be it honor, wealth, power, or pleasure). Bishop Barron calls this indirect-egotism. This is where the service of another is merely a façade, but the real object of the will is to serve one’s self. So how do we resolve this? We cannot say that both ought to simply use each other in a complimentary way. Using others is never good, given that we are subjects and not objects. So, while both benefit from what they are preoccupied with, both experience an assault on their own dignity in being mutually used. So what then is the alternative?
St. Thomas Aquinas would suggest that we look to the common good, and will that. It may be the case that we find something that is good for both ourselves and that other person, but we ought to will it for their own good, and indirectly for our own good. In cases, for instance, where there is abuse, when a boundary is established, or when law enforcement is called, it serves the protection of the victim, as well the abuser. In such a case, one can will that a decision be made that does not enable the abuser, and forces them to get help by outlining the crossing of a boundary. This means, to be clear, that one doesn’t become a pushover, which is sometimes the erroneous reading of turning the cheek. The point I’d stress here, since every situation tends to require its own unique discernment is that, while we live in a man-eats-man world, we ourselves do not need to play that game. We do not need to buy into the notion that we must look out for number 1. We do need to take care of ourselves, but in such a way that we are seeking our own good and the good of all in particular and concrete acts - and that its possible to do this.
It is possible to defend one’s self, but we might do it by having God in mind. That is to say, that we are not defending ourselves principally for our own sake, but for the glory of God, to whom we are made in the image and likeness. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” Therefore, if we internalize this teaching, we realize that when we are persecuted for the sake of Christ, we ought to be more offended on behalf of the Lord than ourselves. It is His image that others are spitting upon. And even in that offense, we must look to Jesus and seek to imitate how he dealt with it, and teach others to love Him more deeply.
Jesus never really defended Himself or sought his own glory. Rather He sought the Father. Look to how He responds to those who offend His Father’s house, or those He has come to save, and then examine how in contrast he responds to harsh and violent acts against Himself. God ultimately is the Common Good for all humanity. Nothing is good without some reference or connection with Him. For Jesus, even when he sought to direct people to worship Him, it wasn’t for His own sake, but for the glory of His Father, and for our salvation.
This type of mindset needs to practically manifest in our interactions with one another and in our private lives. How does our private life benefit others? I consider my own vacation time as a service to the community - and not because I’m absent! Ha. No, because if I am well, then I can serve them well.
Aquinas explains that when it comes to the spiritual life, we must put God first, ourselves second, and then others third. But his reasoning for this is quite interesting. He suggests that we ought to put ourselves prior to our neighbor so that we can give to them what we already possess. Hence the phrase, “You cannot give, what you do not have.” In other words, even in the practical act of taking care of our own spiritual life, we are putting others ahead of ourselves, generally. When it comes to material goods, however, Aquinas would add, we ought to always put others before ourselves.