Good or bad example for the commoners?
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Michael W. Hannon recently made an attempt at this in an article which was the immediate occasion of the debate on the political good as honest or useful with which I began this post. Hannon defends the idea of the political good as an honest good against an argument by Robert George. Hannon too appeals to De Koninck’s general account of the common good, but when it comes to giving a particular account of what the intrinsic common good of political community is, Hannons account is not very satisfactory. Appealing to Aristotle’s politics, Hannon suggests that the good of political community is the activity of political rule itself, in which all the citizens ought to participate. But I claim that participation in political rule cannot possibly be the primary common good of political community, though it might be an element of that good.
An indication that Hannon’s view can’t be quite right is given by James Chastek, who points out that the sort of participation that Hannon is thinking of is only possible in a very small community. If the political common good is a prime example of a common good, it would be strange indeed if it could be destroyed merely by increasing the numbers of those in the community. De Koninck recalled that the very essence of a common good is its capacity to to be comunicated without diminution, as Augustine famously wrote: “the possession of goodness is by no means diminished by being shared with a partner either permanent or temporarily assumed; on the contrary, the possession of goodness is increased in proportion to the concord and charity of each of those who share it.” (City of God, XV,5)
Let us agree that the nation-state, in whatever configuration it happened or happens to be (Federalist or Anti-federalist level of centralization, libertarian-market or welfare state, Republican or Democrat controlled, lower or higher taxes, Tea-Party or Occupy Wall St. ethos, Bush or Obama, Obamney), is what it is, that is, an alliance, not a common-good institution, suitable for and capable only of providing goods and services to those polis organizations that can (but only with the Alliances’s instrumental help, as George insists) embody and keep common goods. Thus, it is just good philosophy to recognize what is and must be the case, and to act upon it. This, to me, is where George is coming from.The original [con-]federation of States was indeed an alliance and intended as such. Thus the good of the alliance was an instrumental good, subordinate to the good of each individual state. If a state no longer wished to live in alliance with the other states, it could separate, that is secede. Given the scale of the federation, it does not make sense to say that living with the peoples of other states is equal to living with one's fellow citizens in one's state. (And yes, that does raise the question of whether certain states were too large in themselves.) The unitary nation-state that arose from the War to Prevent Southern Independence may pretend to be fostering the common good as it is understood within classical or Thomistic political theory, but it cannot bring this about because of the disparity in scale. And so the power of the National Government must be checked lest it become unjust.
This is why false accusations are so harmful. Going in a slightly different direction, there are groups of people – Scotch-Irish come to mind – who were once said to be very protective of their honor. Any accusation of a lie or a deception was grounds for a duel or a fight of some kind because even an insinuation was thought to be enough to impact how others viewed the person. We can’t completely rid our minds of sneaking thoughts that even lies carry some truth. There’s the thought that “truth will out”. While that’s 98% correct, it’s that 2% that’s the problem.