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The Secular Servants of AbstractionThe Secular Servants of Abstraction

The Secular Servants of Abstraction

As Advent leads us to Christmas, Peter Copeland and Fr. Deacon Andrew Bennett map Christian clarity of the common good against secular confusions of equity and equality. Part two of three.

Peter Copeland
Andrew Bennett
4 minute read
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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.

The good of family, for example, does not arise by treating the members as individual units who, when added up, make the good of the whole. The good of family – in selfless care, support, shared experiences, and lifelong bonds of love – is something that arises when people orient themselves, their activities, their talents and possessions to this shared purpose, a common good in life with others.

Where the secular progressive vision burns rightly with the passion for justice for the marginalized, defence of the weak, and the promotion of their dignity, they seek it by social antagonism and strife. Instead, the Christian is to organize her life and society in a way so as to give the ‘preferential option for the poor’, which is to say, strengthen the entire community by assisting the most vulnerable.

The Christian imperative is to always give of one’s own talent and resources for the good of others. This is qualitatively different from having them flow merely through taxes, and programs, the likes of which one never touches in a concrete, meaningful way. When we cannot care for others because those activities have been usurped by state or market functions, silos of isolation emerge, leaving people cut off from the greatest good of all – the opportunity to love. This love is to be found in willing the good of others, through relationships and mutual support.

Consider the example of caring for another, perhaps at a time of great suffering. Qualitative care is something that cannot be redistributed, engineered, or delivered by a professional worker, and is indeed suffocated by such attempts. In genuine care, one voluntarily invests understanding, shares a part of the self through compassion, and makes a connection with a person that is not contractual in nature. There can be no genuine gift, no warmth, no kindness if it is outsourced to a process in which one remains distant. The giving of one’s talent and resources ennobles both the giver and the recipient, who are to form a bond in the tangibility of charitable action.

Far from being a nebulous concept, the common good emerges in all its spheres when people live lives that are oriented a certain way, such that shared goods emerge from what might only otherwise be singular and private.

Part One: The Christian’s Progress

Tomorrow: The stories we’re part of.

Photos in order of appearance: Taylor Deas-Melesh, Unsplash; Cristina Gottardi, Unsplash; Rafael De Nadai, Unsplash


Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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