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Commentary

The meaning of the public good

Aristotle wrote that the city-state is composed of citizens who constitute a community of individuals who are governed by a constitution. He thinks of the state constitution as one that is analogous to the soul of a living organism. It is the immanent principle that organizes the way of life of the people.

For the state to function well, a ruling authority acts as a lawgiver, who will govern the city-state the way a good craftsman would fashion his product. For Aristotle, the establishment of the state must aim at some good. In “Politics,” he writes that the good life is the goal of any political community.

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Kant objects to Aristotle. For him, even the welfare of citizens cannot be the basis of the authority of the state. The good life, fashioned out of a political arrangement, will only serve as some form of imposition on citizens. “There is only one innate right,” Kant argues, and that is the freedom “from being constrained by another’s choice.”

Kant thus thinks that it is wrong for the state to formulate any particular meaning of the good. To do so means that a ruler is simply taking away from citizens the capacity to make rational judgments about their own lives.

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Freedom in the political sense is not about the freedom of the will. Rather, it is about the independence of the human being as an actor in the state. Kant is not concerned about the choices that individual subjects make, but by what others decide for their fellow citizens. For Kant, the use of human freedom must be properly guided by rationality. As a free and rational being, every person must be respected and not precluded from making his or her own decision. Yet Kant does not say that the state acts as some kind of an impediment to human freedom.

The existence of the state is based on a social contract. The citizens give the state the consent to be governed. As rational subjects, each individual possesses the ability to agree to the social contract that binds him or her to the agreement. The individual as a subject, however, cannot be coerced to become part of the social contract. The social contract exists because it guarantees the protection of the rights of the parties. It is not about the benefit that one stands to get, but the guarantee that one’s dignity as a person is respected.

In response, Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue” endorses the Aristotelian ideal of shared ends. He criticizes the inability of the liberal tradition to go beyond the shackles of the Enlightenment. MacIntyre believes that it was wrong to abandon Aristotle’s ideal of the state. In particular, he attacks Nietzsche’s conception of the superman. The superman is a man with no history, not bound by values, and whose idea of individualism leads nowhere.

A problem now becomes apparent. There appears to be an obvious conflict between the values of the community and the idea of liberty. The meaning of the public good, indeed, can only be derived after we, as citizens, resolve this conflict.

Humans are self-interested beings. However, building a society often entails the sacrifice of our personal lives in order to promote the good of all. While it is important to actualize individual wellbeing, a more fundamental requirement is for citizens to recognize the primacy of the public good. When a worker performs his job well or when a public official is honest, he or she becomes faithful to the public good.

Beyond the benevolence that we show to the least of our neighbors, the dedication and commitment of every citizen to his or her clearly defined task as a part of society is what is necessary to effect lasting change.

But our problem is not easy. While those who possess the means and ability to contribute to the understanding and realization of the public good will insist on the priority of their personal lives, the cabals among us will continue the corruption in our basic institutions with moral indifference.

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, teaches at Ateneo de Davao University.

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TAGS: Aristotle, Christopher Ryan Maboloc, freedom, Immanuel Kant, Inquirer Commentary, public good
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