Globalising the Common Good


bene comune

Responding to Covid-19 there is at once an affirmation and a privation of the global. On the one hand, Covid-19’s initial reach has been accentuated by the speed and ease of travel: the virus has been globalised. On the other hand, there has been a distinct lack of coordinated global political leadership in responding to the crisis. This article asks more broadly why a global view of the common good is necessary and what the obstacles are to its realization.

Two former British Prime Ministers have spoken publicly of their dismay at the absence of a globalised political effort. Theresa May, for example, observes how the virus has «been treated as a national issue for countries to deal with alone» and that while «researchers and scientists may work together across the world…there is little evidence of politicians doing so»[1].

Gordon Brown, similarly critical, insists that international political cooperation is vital for three reasons: «research for a vaccine», management of «capacity — the ventilators, the test equipment, the protective health equipment», and to protect the «poorest countries» to avoid a «second and third wave»[2]. As our borders are negotiated and begin to re-open, the limitations of national isolation become abundantly clear because the health and security of a nation’s citizens depend reciprocally upon other nations.

Stretching Common Good too much?

Can the Catholic principle of the common good burst this bubble of political isolation? How far does the common good stretch? This is the real test. David Hollenbach SJ is unequivocal that the common good «must take on a more universal definition»[3]. However, a global view of the common good is not without problems.

Hollenbach is cautious that in some quarters this debate represents something between an «appeal to historical memory» and a dream of a «“neo-medieval” way of organizing the world»[4] because finally a Christian idea can become hegemonic again. Yet, such cultural domination leads us outside of the very principle we are trying to envision and practice.

Another challenge is the association of a global common good with the perceived alienating effects of globalisation. Anna Rowlands is insightful here, arguing that «globalisation is experienced in subjective terms» and a sense of distance is keenly felt in the gap between «a package of individualism, relatively unrestrained free markets, increasingly free movement of capital and peoples» and «degrading and meaningless-seeming work… precarity in work and housing and a lack of intergenerational benefit»[5].

Clearly, the common good cannot become a universal principle for human flourishing if it does not engage with this subjective dimension and its externalized form through rhetoric and popular imagination. It cannot be interpreted or practiced by stimulating the growth of institutions in a way that increases the sense of distance between cosmopolitanism and daily concerns such as income, housing, and intergenerational investment. Putting it simply, the common good must not lose sight of the domestic scene where we all, ultimately, live, move, and have our being.

Rooted Cosmopolitanism

Gaps between the micro and macro level are widely studied and the common good is always articulated in relation to other social teaching principles (solidarity, subsidiarity, universal destination of goods) — and this is a crucial safeguard. Perhaps Kwame Appiah’s «“rooted cosmopolitanism”»[6] brings us nearer to closing the gap by simultaneously asserting that we have roots that are «embedded in a specific history, nation or people»[7] and we are also citizens of one world.

In my view, the common good, as a universal principle must never float above our grounded reality. Hollenbach states that we must not «neglect the moral significance of local and particular relationships. If one is not at home in some concrete, particular place or community one cannot be said to have a home at all»[8].

We find ourselves in a strange tension: mourning the absence of international political coordination while criticising a globalism that distances political agency from perceived local benefits. Hollenbach is right, almost prophetically, that «national interest as understood in traditional realism does not correspond to the way the threats of environmental degradation, disease transmission, and weapons proliferation cut across national boundaries»[9], but for a universal common good to be convincing (and put into practice) it has to go beyond a problem solving rhetoric and find a positive expression that understands the intricacies of daily life without losing the global picture.

The good news is that we do not have to wait for political leaders to start this process. It starts with us.

[1] J. Johnston. “Theresa May slams ‘incoherent’ global response to coronavirus pandemic”, Politics Home, 6 May 2020.

[2] I. Chontier. “Gordon Brown’s Case for Global Cooperation during the Coronavirus Pandemic”, The New Yorker, 18 April 2020.

[3] D. Hollenbach. The Common Good and Christian Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press 2002, 212.

[4] Ibid, 240.

[5] A. Rowlands. “An uprooted nation? Brexit and a Christian Vision of the Common Good”, 2019.

[6] D. Hollenbach, 221.

[7] J. Freedman. Book review. “The Ethics of Identity: A Rooted Cosmopolitan”, 12 June 2005, The New York Times.

[8] D. Hollenbach, 221.

[9] Ibid, 216-17.

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