Drinking deep from a common well

What exactly is the common good and how can it be achieved? Dr Margaret Atkins of Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds recommends streams of community spirit and sharing
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The Independent Online
Every thoughtful citizen, whether Communist or Conservative or Communitarian, ought to be grateful. The Catholic bishops' document, The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Social Teaching, is lucid, principled, nuanced and courteous. The bishops are inviting us to think, slowly, with care and detachment, about practical policies and the principles that underlie them.

They are also offering us a language with which to think. "The common good" is no slick New Labour slogan. It has been fundamental to serious discussion since Aristotle. While his pupil Alexander the Great was busy absorbing free city-states into a vast empire that stretched to the edges of India, Aristotle was writing this: "Constitutions that aim at the common benefit are correct, according with what is strictly speaking just" (Pol III.6). The common good is the good we share by being part of a community. We may differ drastically about how to achieve it; but what else could sensibly be the focus of debate about how to live together?

The common good is the flourishing of our community, which allows us as members to flourish within that community. It embraces specific goods: material needs, personal freedoms, education, a just and peaceful order. Christians believe that it is underpinned by a greater and ultimate common good, the shared life with God that we are finally promised. For we were made to be happy when we live socially, when we care for one another, when we share our goals, our activities, and our goods.

So fundamental is the notion of common good that some discussions become almost meaningless without it. Take the environmental debate. Water, earth, air, fauna and flora, the basics of our survival, make no sense as private property: for they function as systems. If I destroy "my" rainforest, "your" weather is damaged; if I pollute "my" spring, you will be poisoned. Hence "the environment is one of the `common goods' which are the shared responsibility of the human race".

Thomas Aquinas, the favourite Catholic theologian, would have been more radical even than the bishops. To him, all private property seemed problematic. How could we own anything? Surely everything created belongs to God. Aquinas appealed to Genesis to argue that God has allowed us a limited control over the earth to support human life. But even so, how can we own anything privately?

Aquinas's response is pragmatic: private ownership is often more responsible and more competent, and tends to make for peace. But it is allowable only insofar as it works towards its proper end, which is for the sake of common use. Not for personal gain, not for security, not for status, but to serve the common use.

Even Yorkshire Water have just circulated a letter which could have been based on Aquinas's principles. Not a word about profit. Instead, an account of the many measures they have taken to preserve the common water supply, in both our homes and our rivers. But we could make their job still easier by defining them not as a business primarily designed to make money, but precisely as a public servant, delegated to serve the common good. For private companies, if they have no natural ties with the community, are constantly tempted to care only for the appearance, not the reality, of public service. Why should they do anything else, when we ourselves tell them that their goal is profit? "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters" (Isaiah 55.1).

Aristotle confined citizenship to the privileged few. Contemporary democracy insists that all are citizens. The Catholic bishops have reminded us that "all" must include the poor and marginalised, those most likely to be forgotten by the powers that be.

Perhaps the most striking image of our private attempts to appropriate a common resource is the ubiquitous bottle of mineral water. Expensive, throwaway, energy-squandering - yet so rapidly has it become essential to everyday life. And when we, the affluent and influential, draw our water only from favoured and distant streams, what then? Who will care enough to protect the purity of our common supply, the water on which our poor depend? A society's attitude to water is deeply revealing: for water is both the substance and the symbol of life: "Those who are thirsty shall drink - it is my free gift - out of the spring whose water is life" (Revelation 21.6).