When it comes to the social and political spheres, the dominant secular vision of the social good is a utilitarian or egalitarian one. In the case of the former, the collective good is an aggregate of individual pains and pleasures. We ask – what does the greatest good for the greatest number? – where that good is thought of subjectively, in terms of crude and fleeting majority opinions. The good becomes quantified by indicators of wealth, health, and well-being, pursued by technocratic management focussed on outcomes.
Life loses its meaning as it becomes reduced to a set of input-output functions where all human actions are calculated, their worth determined merely by whether it meet the quantified abstract outcome. It is Charles Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind’s mechanized and monotonous world run amok. It is a world in which time and motion study experts are priests.
In egalitarian, or ‘social justice’ form, the collective good is an equality or equity among all groups of people. Equality being sameness along a particular measure, and equity being a type of proportionality, which is achieved when differences are taken into account and compensated for in adequate fashion, as the circumstances dictate.
As conceived on secular progressive terms, equity and equality are mutually exclusive. When equity is sought, unequal outcomes – defined as lack of sameness in possessions, wealth, status, recognition, opportunity, or power – result. The target then shifts to inequality, and equity in treatment must give way to the pursuit of more equal outcomes. What becomes paramount is to treat people not according to their uniqueness and diversity, but as servants of an abstract social goal. Now, equality of a type reigns, but equity falls out of the picture.
If equity were instead recognized as it ought to be, as the flourishing of the person in all their beautiful uniqueness and difference; and if equality were conceived as equal inherent dignity, not in wealth, possessions, talents, abilities, or interests, then a hierarchically differentiated society along numerous axes looks natural, inevitable, and good. For people are different in countless ways. Their flourishing demands that this be recognized, and their uniqueness be allowed to bloom.
The Christian understanding of the collective good stands in stark contrast. Against the sum of individual subjective pleasures of a vague and crude sort, and the abstract pursuit of outcomes by activism and social engineering, the Christian understanding of the social is that all activity should be ordered to the common good. Here, complementarity and community are emphasized over sameness and individuality.
The common good emerges from the right pursuit of many different goods in such a way that they are not confined solely to individuals, but are ordered to being shared.
For example, the Church teaches that private property is right and good, but that its use matters to both the flourishing of the possessor and the rest of society. As such, there is a ‘universal destination of all goods.’ Your property is not for you to enjoy in private, but for the sake of a family, or as a meeting place for friends.