Together for the Common Good: Towards a
Edited by Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail
The “common good” is perhaps the holy grail of political and social policy. The latest quest, building on the legacy of Derek Worlock and David Sheppard, is a movement that combines contrasting visions and methods to bestride older divisions and move us “towards a national conversation”. Running through this book of 13 essays is the assertion in the Catholic catechism: “A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good – the good of all people and of the whole person – as its primary goal.”
Anna Rowlands – a theology lecturer at King’s College, London – and Andrew Bradstock – the United Reformed Church secretary for church and society – kick off: Which takes precedence, individual or community? The main section, “Traditions of the common good,” has two central contrasting essays: the “god-less” Jon Wilson writes: “The danger is that the common good becomes just another set of prescriptions with no relationship to real action … my anxiety is that a theological orientation might assist in that evasion”; the evangelical Jonathan Chaplin is keen to uphold a more confrontational (Protestant) tradition which may “produce intellectual and spiritual splintering rather than a tendency to convergence”. Despite these criticisms, there are substantial essays from historians and activists in support of the undertaking: Patrick Riordan reclaims the insights of Aristotle concerning a good society; Esther Reed revisits the radical teaching of Jesus; Samuel Burgess commends the subtle conservatism of Edmund Burke on nation-building; Tehmina Kazi contributes a Muslim perspective on shared human values and perceptive comments on her vulnerable faith tradition; Malcolm Brown surveys the mood swings on these matters within the Church of England.
Finally come three eminent economists on “Markets and the common good”. Brian Griffiths, while defending the free market traditions of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, concludes: “When a market economy becomes a market state it can undermine the common good,” a sentiment from which Philip Booth and Maurice Glasman would not dissent even though they approach the theme from different positions. As Clifford Longley says in his concluding essay: “All economic choices … have a moral dimension, often far greater than an individual may have bargained for,” (presumably no pun intended?)
No conclusions, but a stimulating start to a national conversation that needs to be had – and is sadly not taking place during this election campaign.
Peter Brain is a retired church minister living in Exmouth, Devon