new book, The Common Good and Christian Ethics
(Cambridge, 2002), the good is by definition common. One accepts
Aristotle's point, and yours, that the more common the good, the
better. But is there any stand-alone sense of the good to which
common adds something useful and distinctive? Is individual good
I'm trying to make the case that conceiving of our lives as
fulfilled in privacy is a bad idea; that our fulfillment as human
beings comes in our relationships--our relationships with one another
and as citizens in the larger society, and, I want to argue, ultimately
in our relationship with God. If we understand the good as that
which is fulfilling for human beings, it is profoundly imbedded
in our relationships with one another.
You argue that individual freedom, the freedom to be self-determining,
is not an absolute right, as libertarians allege, but is always
situated. As you write, reworking Paul, the situated self lives
and moves and has its being in community. It's such a basic point,
I wonder how we have lost track of it today.
I would say that self-determination is something that has profoundly
social dimensions to it. I really can't be self-determining unless
I am given support by and sustained by a whole series of interrelationships
and interconnections with other people. So a sense of being self-determining
on my own, it seems to me, is illusory. Now, why have we come to
stress individual self-determination as strongly as we do in our
society? I think it's because notions of communal responsibility
or the presumed good of the community have been used in repressive
ways. For example, it's been thought that the good of the community
demanded the repression of minority religious beliefs. We have over
the course of centuries rebelled against the idea that society or
authorities or the government or whoever can tell me what to do.
A deeply ingrained fear of tyranny?
Yes, we're deeply in fear of tyranny and we're deeply skeptical
of the notion of community as something that can stifle freedom.
My argument about the common good is certainly no argument for stifling
freedom. It's rather to say that there's a kind of freedom that
we can only achieve if we achieve it together. For example, the
freedom of a democracy can't exist if everyone stays home on election
day. We all have to work together to create that democratic freedom.
So I'm trying to give a new orientation to our thinking about freedom
that is more social and more communal.
What worries me is the emphasis that one encounters today on freedom
as meaning being left alone. That idea doesn't have the power to
address important issues we face in our society today. The book
deals with some of these issues—the split one often finds
between cities and suburbs, an example being the contrast between
public schools in an affluent place like Wellesley and those in
Boston. Or the way healthcare is delivered, or not, in the United
States. And there are global issues, like environmental degradation.
We have to deal with all of these in some manner together. If we
stress being on our own, what resources do we bring to protecting
the environment? How are we going to reduce the economic dislocation
caused by global competition? How are we going to build fruitful
interaction between the inner city and the suburb? If we leave each
other alone, we're saying the status quo is fine. That's just not
If you had to fit a definition of the common good on a postage stamp,
what would it say?
My short definition of the common good is the good of being
a community at all, of being a community of people working together
and making choices together about the direction in which our lives
are going to go together.
I like the analogy of friendship. When two people are friends, something
happens between them that isn't in each of them separately. Friendship
is something that happens in interaction. You can't have a genuine
friendship between a master and a slave. You might have coexistence,
but it can't be friendship. Friendship has to be on the basis of
some kind of reciprocal equality.
Nor can you have friendship between two people who are totally isolated
from each other. There's something about friendship that demands
reciprocal respect, interactive freedom, and decision-making that
takes place together. The common good is like that, as well.
To what extent is your book a reply to the philosopher John Rawls's
assertion, in A Theory of Justice, that the tolerance of
difference is the highest aspiration a society can have?
I wouldn't want to bill my book as a response just to Rawls.
I have great respect for Rawls and I admire his work immensely.
My book is, however, a response to a larger cultural trend of stressing
the acceptance of difference almost to the exclusion of searching
for what we hold in common, a trend that Rawls's philosophy expresses
and endorses. I don't want to deny the importance of tolerance and
respect for difference, but I think we can go beyond what Rawls
thinks we can. As a matter of fact, I think we must.
You mentioned in your book the 17th-century religious conflicts—the
strife in England between Anglicans and Catholics, the Thirty Years'
War in Europe—that gave birth to the modern conviction that
common values are impossible to achieve and that therefore tolerance
is the highest good. And you say that these were unique historical
circumstances and should not deter us from searching for the common
good today. But don't the contemporary political conflicts with
religious roots belie your argument?
I don't believe so. My argument is that the diverse religious
communities of the world are compelled by economic interconnections
and the new dynamics of communications— the Internet and all
that sort of stuff—to bang shoulders. We're rubbing shoulders
against each other all the time. This is certainly true in the United
States today. There are more Muslims in the United States now than
there are Episcopalians. This interaction calls for something more
than just leaving one another alone, I think. We need to find ways
to understand each other.
You're asking us to move past the religious conflicts of the 20th
century, and yet we see similar conflicts emerging in our time.
Aren't we sunk in the same pit?
I don't think so. The reaction that we are seeing from the radical
Islamists is a reaction, in large part, to Islam having been marginalized
by colonialization and the rise of Western secular culture. One
of the ways to define fundamentalism is as reactivity to modernity:
a rebellion on the part of Muslims and others—there are Christians
like this, too—against a purely secular view of how society
should be organized; against the idea that religion is a private
affair and doesn't effect public life.
Rather than try to put religion back strictly into private life,
we have to find a way for these religious communities to come into
a more fruitful interaction with one another in the public sphere.
Now, that's a big, big challenge. It's what we're trying to do here
at Boston College—getting students to take interreligious
issues very seriously. You don't say, Well, it doesn't matter what
anybody believes, it's all private anyway. You say, Let's look at
our religious beliefs; let's argue about them; let's think about
them; let's have serious grappling with them in public, right here
in the middle of this university, where these issues are taken seriously,
in the way that I think our culture should take them.
In describing how Christians can contribute as Christians to building
a common morality, you note that the Second Vatican Council affirmed
both the notion of interreligious dialogue and the distinctiveness
of Christian truth. It said that human dignity resides in all human
beings but can only be known "in its full depth through Christian
revelation." How do you get beyond this wanting to have it both
Well, I'm not sure I do. I want to affirm two things about religious
truth in the book. One is that Christianity provides a privileged
insight into what God and the universe are ultimately all about.
In other words, I'm a Christian. I want to make a truth claim about
Christianity. But I do not want to say that Christianity possesses
the whole truth. I think Christianity has a lot to learn from interaction
and serious dialogue with other religions. Does that mean I think
all religions are equal? No, it doesn't. Does it mean that I think
Christians ought to take other religions with deep seriousness?
Yes, it does.
You introduce a new "ism," nonjudgmentalism, which captures perfectly
our societal obsession with recognizing and accepting difference.
Are you saying that we need to judge more?
Yes, but I'm not saying we need to be more judgmental about
the goodness of individuals. I am saying we need to make judgments
about the kind of life we want to share together. Do we really want
to live in a city where a large number of people in the center are
hungry, unemployed, hooked on drugs, for generation after generation?
We ought to be able to reach a judgment that there's something wrong
with that--with what the philosopher Cornell West calls the "institutionalization
You note that one of the challenges arising from globalization
is that it changes the scale of community to a size that is hardly
tenable for community at all. How big a world can we live in while
aspiring to live communally?
I think the bonds have to be worldwide, but there are different
kinds of bonds. One way to look at it is as a series of concentric
circles. There's me and my family or immediate friends, the people
who are closest to me. That's the inner circle. The circles get
bigger and bigger, all the way out to the level of global interaction.
This doesn't mean that the relationship I have with somebody in
Bangladesh is necessarily going to have personal intensity, but
that there is some kind of solidarity, some kind of concern that
gets mediated through a series of political or economic interactions.
For example, something that means a lot to me is what happened in
Rwanda. In 1994, genocide took place there. Some 800,000 people
were killed in 100 days. The United States made decisions that had
a major impact on what we, other countries, and the United Nations
didn't do. In truth, we should have supported U.N. intervention
to prevent that genocide from happening. We stood up and swore,
in the light of the Holocaust, never again. We'll never let—well,
the hell with that language. We did let it happen again, and we
shouldn't have. Now, there are those who would argue that we can't
be concerned about all those sorts of things, that it's beyond our
national interest. That is George W. Bush's position. Bush was asked
during the campaign, if there were another Rwanda genocide, should
the United States intervene? His answer was no. Well, I think that's
wrong. Why? Because I think there is a shared good that cuts across
national boundaries, and it won't do to say we're only concerned
The religious life, which you've chosen personally, is both highly
communal and highly solitary. In your book, you explain that members
of religious orders, even when silent or alone, are never out of
connection with others in a spiritual sense. Would you elaborate?
Well, I think that monasticism makes sense from a Christian
theological point of view and spiritual point of view if you see
it as a school of love, as a form of life in which love for God
and love for one's neighbors can be encouraged to grow. If somebody
went off into solitude as a hermit, and did not grow in love for
God and his or her neighbors, I would say that person is moving
toward hell. A classic definition of hell, from a Christian point
of view, is a state of radical isolation. Being cut off, ultimately,
from any contact with God or one's neighbors. The opposite of that
is what heaven is about.
I was at the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, for Easter,
and they had special vespers. The place was filled with a sense
of joy, interaction, communication. It wasn't a bunch of people
just looking inside themselves. They were doing something different
than that. The common good was very much alive.
Is there a place or country in the world where you believe the notion
of the common good is being lived out? Has there ever been such
there have been places in the past where people worked together
to build a community that realized the common good, such as early
New England towns and villages, or countries that have come together
in times of war and conflict, as the United States did in World
War II. But the challenges we face today will not be met by defining
the common good simply for a town or even for an individual nation.
The challenge we face is that of attaining a broader and deeper
realization of the common good, because the world in which we live
is more interconnected than was ever the case before.
Richard J. Higgins is a freelance writer based in the Boston