The Common Good



Copyright © Amitai Etzioni 2004

The right of Amitai Etzioni to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2004 by Polity Press Ltd
Polity Press

Reprinted 2006, 2007

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A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Etzioni, Amitai.

     The common good / Amitai Etzioni.
       p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

     ISBN: 978-0-7456-3266-7
     ISBN: 978-0-7456-8647-9 (ebook)

   1. Common good. 2. Communitarianism. 3. Social values. I. Title.

JC330.15.E866 2004


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1     Are Particularistic Obligations Justified?

2     Privacy as an Obligation

3     Children and Free Speech

4     Privacy and Safety in Electronic Communications

5     DNA Testing and Individual Rights

6     What is Political?

7     On Ending Nationalism

8     Cyberspace and Democracy




I am indebted to Marjorie Heins, Peter Swire, Orin Kerr, Andrew Volmert, Jason Marsh, Shlomo Avineri, Henry Nau, Joel Rosenthal, Simon Serfati, Nancy Willard, and Eugene Volokh for critical reading of one or more chapters of this book. I am greatly indebted to Mackenzie Baris for extensive research assistance and editorial suggestions, as well as to Elizabeth Jarvis, Deirdre Mead, and Amanda Roberts. Emily Pryor prepared the book for publication.

“Are Particular Obligations Justified?” was published in The Review of Politics 64, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 573–98.

“Privacy as an Obligation” has not been previously published.

“Children and Free Speech” is forthcoming in the Chicago-Kent Law Review 79, no. 1 (Fall 2003).

“Privacy and Safety in Electronic Communications” was published in The Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 15, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 258–90.

“DNA Testing and Individual Rights” is forthcoming in David Lazer, ed., The Technology of Justice: DNA and the Criminal Justice System (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

“What is Political?” was published in “Der Begriff des Politischen,” The Social World (special edition) eds. Armin Nassehi and Markus Schroer (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2003).

“On Ending Nationalism” was published in International Politics and Society, no. 2 (2001): 144–53.

“Cyberspace and Democracy” was published in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn, eds., Democracy and New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


For people not conversant with political theory or libertarian ideology, the common good (or the public interest) is a self-evident concept. It connotes those goods that serve all of us and the institutions we share and cherish – for instance, national defense or a healthy environment. The common good is much more than an aggregation of all private or personal goods. It includes things that serve no one in particular, like preserving our national monuments, and it serves members of generations not yet born, as for instance does basic research. Contributions to the common good often offer no immediate benefits, and frequently it is impossible to predict on whom such benefits will fall in the long run. Still, we invest in it not because it will necessarily or even likely benefit us, or even our children, but because we consider it a good to be nourished. In plain English, we consider it the right thing to do, by itself, for itself – which surprises only those who claim that we always have an ulterior motive.

Why would anybody be troubled by a concept such as the common good, rather than recognizing its importance, celebrating its value? Libertarians, and a fair number of those who adhere to the contemporary version of liberal political theory, hold that individuals should decide for themselves what is good, and that shared goods will arise out of the aggregation of such choices, not out of communal moral dialogues that lead to collective decisions with public policies based on them. They also fear that once there are shared formulations of the good, governments will be tempted to coerce people to serve these formulations, thereby diminishing people’s liberty and autonomy, which libertarians and many liberals consider to be the goods that trump all others. It should be noted, though, that even neoclassical economics, a social science that is ideologically compatible with libertarian philosophy, recognizes that there are some goods that the market fails to provide, and therefore it is kosher to serve them collectively – basic research for instance. Economists are keen merely to keep the list of such goods as short as possible. Communitarians, who recognize liberty as merely one very important value among others such as caring and sharing, have a longer list of common goods.

Still other liberals fear that even if there is no reason to be concerned that shared formulating concepts of the common good will open the door to government enforcement, doing so will still lead to moral judgmentalism. People will chide, socially pressure, and stigmatize those who do not do their share to serve the common good – those who do not voluntarily recycle, make donations to a good cause, and so on. These fears reflect a misunderstanding of the way societies work. Societies cannot rely on people to automatically do of their own free will all that must be done, without their being encouraged by their fellow men and women. Indeed, it is these informal social forces that carry a good part of the work that must be done in society. If these forces slacken, often the government must step in. The social undergirding of the common good is the best way to limit government; to undermine the common good, in effect, fosters government intervention and expansion.

One should not, however, confuse moral judgment with judgmentalism, with the pious, self-righteous waving of fist or finger in the faces of those who do not share our moral convictions. There is nothing inherent in the concept of the common good, or the sociological insight that it is best promoted by informal communal processes, that requires it to be enforced through harsh or obnoxious means. Indeed, informal social controls work best when they are subtle, individually tailored, and inviting rather than condemning.

No society can flourish without some shared formulation of the common good. It provides criteria to draw on when the interests and values of the various groups that compose the society pull them in conflicting directions. It provides a rationale for the sacrifices members of every society have to make sooner or later for their children, for the less endowed, and for the future, among other causes. It provides a vision that guides our collective effort, as the vision of a better Europe guides those who are thickening and expanding the European Union.

The common good needs to be seen “within history.” Its standing differs greatly from age to age and from one society to another. Some societies, especially those that are totalitarian and authoritarian, use their view of the common good to demand that citizens set aside their preferences, agree to severe limitations on their autonomy, for the greater whole. They demand that their citizens find satisfaction first and foremost from doing service for whatever causes the state promotes. In such societies, one needs to curtail the demands advanced in the name of the common good and make room for greater recognition of individual expression, preferences, and choices – in short for individual rights and liberty. Most societies in earlier periods, and many today, erred on this authoritarian side of the delicate balance between the common good and autonomy that, in the judgment of this communitarian, makes for a good society.1

Societies can and do lose their balance in the opposite direction. As Robert Bellah and his associates showed in a widely known book Habits of the Heart,2 American society has suffered from excessive individualism, a grand loss of commitment to the common good. In the 1960s, expressive individualism spread, which encouraged people to walk away from their societal obligations in order to “find themselves,” to develop their identities and heed their innermost desires. In the 1980s instrumental individualism added insult to injury as Reagan, like Thatcher, made a virtue out of watching out for oneself. On top of these two waves of individualism came an explosion of a sense of entitlement and litigiousness, in the name of what was due to the individual, with precious little concern for the effects on others and the common good. In this society it was necessary to rein in excessive individualism and to shore up the common good.

As of 1990 a reaction set in, led by a group of new communitarians who should not be confused either with Asian communitarians, who are in effect authoritarian, or with the academic communitarians of the 1980s. The new communitarians included Robert Bellah, William Galston, Mary Ann Glendon, and myself, among many others.3 The main thesis of this group was that strong individual rights presume respect for strong obligations to the common good. Since then literally thousands of groups have amended their statements of purpose to include not only rights they bestowed on members, but also responsibilities they expect their members to embrace.4 One exception: despite concerted efforts, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights has still not been amended to include a declaration of responsibilities. Also, since the 1990s, similar themes have been embraced by other societies, especially Anglo-Saxon societies, which feared that they were leaning too far in the individualistic direction. For instance, community, and the slogan “responsibility for all, responsibility from all” played a key role in Tony Blair’s first election.5 Many Canadians found the approach attractive as their commitment to public order has strong communitarian overtones.

In this book, I assume that the reader has some basic sympathy for the notion of the common good, and focus instead on the many issues raised once its basic merit is recognized. The first chapter concerns the scope of the common good, the question of to whom we have moral obligations. There is a strong human tendency to include only the members of one’s community, be it defined as family, village, or nation. However, justice may compel us to treat all human beings equally. Can particularistic obligations be justified in the face of such universal claims?

In chapter 2, the deliberations turn to a specific common good, one almost never examined: privacy. In law, social mores, and common parlance, privacy is treated as a right rather than a good or obligation. However, the conception of the common good held in nearly all cultures leads us to believe that certain activities ought to be attended to out of sight and hearing of others.6 Over the last decades in the West, however, the notion of privacy as a social and legal obligation has declined. For instance, breast-feeding – once considered something one ought to do in the privacy of one’s home – is now generally accepted in public spaces. However, does that mean that relieving oneself or sexual intercourse in public will soon be viewed similarly? We do redefine the common good, but where should new lines be drawn? On what grounds?

The third chapter is concerned with a very highly regarded common good: the well-being of children. The same libertarians and select liberals who fear the common good are also opposed to limiting the free speech of minors. Here the issue regards the consumption, rather than the production, of speech. The issue is not whether a 17-year-old student should be prevented from making a political statement, but whether children in kindergarten should be exposed to all the violent and vile materials that flood the internet, the media, and video games. Oddly, this is a matter not clearly legislated in Europe, while in the US much attention is paid to pornography, but not to the depiction of gratuitous violence, which is much more damaging to the common good and to children.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with public safety, a common good few challenge, although most agree that it can be accorded too much weight. The issue is often framed in terms of where to draw the line between national security and individual rights. For Americans, the answer to this question was significantly altered after September 11, 2001; however, the question of where to redraw the line between safety and liberty remains. With an eye toward answering the basic question in a principled manner, I here undertake an examination of six specific measures. The often asked question of what should be tolerated or banned in the name of safety gives way to the true heart of the matter, the question of proper accountability.

I examine DNA tests in the context of fighting crime rather than enhancing national security and find that many of the criticisms leveled at DNA tests are unfounded. Indeed, if one accepts the liberal idea that it is better to let a thousand criminals walk free than to jail one innocent person, the use of DNA evidence should be embraced, celebrated, cheered, and fostered – especially by those who now criticize it, those who see liberty as the common good to be promoted even at the expense of other goods.

The final three chapters deal with the polity. There is a tendency to reduce society to the state. The state, to many, seems to be a clearly defined entity. It includes the head of state, the cabinet, the civil servants (or “administration,”) the legislature and the court, the police and tax authorities, and so on. In contrast, society has no address, organizational chart, nor any other clearly delineated features. No wonder there are those who argue that it is a fiction. However, if we consider society as composed of families, communities, national bonds of affection, identity, and shared values, we realize the importance of society in general, especially for the formulation and informal promotion of the good. Indeed, because society is the basis for the moral deliberations from which shared formulations of the good arise – the place where the polity’s claim for legitimacy is recognized or rejected – it is not merely important in its own right, but also important for the polity.

For centuries, millions of people all over the world have associated their well-being and the common good with the well-being of their nation. Indeed, nations evoke strong loyalties that often trump most, if not all, others. One tends to forget that nation-states are a relatively recent social construction, neither natural nor divine. Indeed, a strong case can be made that, in this day and age, the more we separate community from state, the more peaceful the world may become. However, for such a separation to occur, one’s identity and concerns about the common good, which now involve the state, must be invested somewhere else.

Lastly, in cyberspace we now face issues that have challenged us at least since the ancient Greeks. Critics argue that our growing involvement in cyberspace undermines our communal bonds – our ability to deliberate as persons and as groups, to formulate the common good, and to govern ourselves democratically. These are the questions I explore in the closing chapter of this book.