DRAFT VERSION – DO NOT QUOTE WITHOUT PERMISSION
Wm. Travis Coblentz and Joel A. Schwartz
EPS Presentation – November 21, 2013
The common good is a popular term today in discussions concerning politics. The common good is held up as the ideal for which we should strive, and is often framed in ways of saying that if we all focused on the common good, then the political system would be so much better, so much more would get done, and conveniently, it would look a lot like I think it should. Instead of saying that it is a good thing for people not to starve, we think that our particular solution to that problem is the common good. However, while our particular solution may work in particular situations, it is very unlikely that the solution will best apply to all situations, and may actually be detrimental in certain situations. While we want to admit that the common good has authority, we also want to admit the complexity of the common good, particularly with regard to the situation we’re in. In this paper, we will offer, not so much an account of the common good, as much as an account of how we work toward the common good, looking at the role of dialogue in coming to understand the common good.
The authority of the common good is not something that is easily discovered. Karol Wojtyla frames an important part of the experience of being a human in terms of being a we. A we is a collection of individuals striving toward the common good in a similar way. In order to discuss the common good, we have to look into the we, as each we is going to have a different common good depending on the composition of the we.
Two important factors about any formulation of the common good: 1) the common good never is achieved at the cost of the individual telos of a member of the we, 2) the common good is not merely a matter of the collection of goods of the individual members of the we. It is worth explaining these in more detail. Sometimes in discussions of the common good, we get so focused on a conception of the common good that we become willing to sacrifice particular individuals (or all individuals) in order to achieve that common good. We start to see individuals as interchangeable pieces of bringing about the common good. To appeal to the sci-fi fans out there, the Borg in Star Trek is a great example of this kind of picture. Each individual is not really concerned about his/her well-being, but only about the well-being of the collective. Additionally, Ray Kurzweil’s understanding of the Singularity is another picture of this misconception of the we. The common good will respect the good of each individual that makes up the we, refusing to require any single individual to sacrifice his/her own good for the sake of the whole.
As a side bar, it is worth noting that an individual may willingly make sacrifices for the common good. However, these sacrifices are not contrary to one’s own good, nor are they necessarily forced by the common good in the sense that one is begrudgingly forced to do them. Rather, if one is committed to the common good, one may be willing to make sacrifices, but it is not because one is forced, but that one sees that this common good is intimately connected with his/her own good, and is acting in a fitting way.
The second factor is one that seems common sensical, but is often how we think of the common good, particularly in a liberal democratic society, like the United States. We think that if everyone is enabled to achieve their own individual good, then something like the common good has been achieved. However, this is not what is going on with the common good, although it is a part of it. The problem with this picture is that it ignores the reality of the connectedness of individuals in order to reach their own goods. To think that as long as I am achieving my good and so are you the common good is reached misses that part of being human is not the reluctant need I have of others to get what I want, but the essential inclusion of others in the fulfillment of who I am as a person, and not just their inclusion, but the fulfillment of their good as well. Reducing the common good to the good of separate individuals is incorrect as well. We need to understand that we are meaningfully connected to one another, and that we want the we’s of which we are a part to grow and reach their fulfillment as wholes as well as individuals, as the we is more than just the sum or the individuals in the we, yet it does not come at the reduction of any of the individuals of the we.
So the common good must recognize that the we is both a collection of individuals, but these individuals have meaningful connections to one another, as they are working together to bring about this common good that is related to them. The most basic example of a we is the family, as the members of the family are all committed to the good of the family which cannot be reduced to each member reaching his/her own good unless that good is connected to the good of each other. This connected good does not look like a focus on any particular good, but the good of the whole, as everyone is working for the good of everyone else.
In this sense, the common good is not merely concerned with correct action at the end of the day, but about forming people in a way that helps them develop toward their good. While it is possible to get people to do all the right actions, this may seem like a good, but if people are not being formed in a way that moves them toward their good, it is possibly detrimental to them actually becoming good.
When parents are raising children, they have a picture of the common good from which they are working. The goal of this parenting is not to merely produce right action, but to help the children see and understand the good themselves so that they can act in accordance with that good toward the fulfillment of that good. The question is two fold: 1) Is the common good of the family something the parents can dictate to their children, or is it something that the parents are also seeking to understand? 2) How do parents help their children understand the good?
These questions do not merely apply the parent/child relationship but to any relationship of a we when it comes to understanding the common good. In many we relationships, there appear to be certain people who are likely to have a better understanding of the common good than others. When talking about the common good, is it something that can be dictated to others or are all continually seeking to understand it? If it is something that we are all continually seeking to understand, then no one stands in the position to have complete understanding of the common good. This does not mean that some do not have better understanding of the common good than others. For instance, we would claim that more often than not, parents are in a better position to understand the common good of the family more than children are. This does not mean that the parents have complete understanding of the common good, rather, that they are able to move toward that good more easily because they have a fuller understanding of it. However, they cannot have the complete and final say of that common good because the good of the children and of the entire family must be factored into any decisions about the common good. The parents must carefully consider the complex relation of the good of the whole, the good of each parent and the good of each child in moving toward that good.
Many children are incapable of such a complex approach to the world and are usually able to focus, at least initially, on only one of those goods, often the good of themselves. The parents must have all those goods in mind, while also acknowledging that the individuals within the we are all developing and growing such that the specific responses to the good will vary over time, such that there is no way to conclusively articulate what that good is. The common good is guiding them in their understanding, such that they cannot stand above the common good and dictate it to the children, rather, they work with the children, leading the way.
So if parents are unable to conclusively speak to the good of the we, how can we expect children to learn the common good for themselves? An explanation of the common good may be a starting point, but the explanation is that which is incapable of complete explanation. Using the idea of perceiving the good, we can talk about sharing perceptions of the good, even if we cannot articulate precisely what that is. Instead, we must learn to see what the other sees when perceiving the common good. We must learn to shape our perceptions so that we not just see the common good in the same way, but see it correctly together.
In that sense, those with a better understanding may be able to offer others ways of acting toward their own good, but the good is found in the other actually seeing the good as good for themselves and acting accordingly. In the family, the parents could decide what the good of the family is going to be without consideration of the children, but that would fail to be the common good because it would not be concerned with the good for each individual in that we, but would be concerned with how the parents wanted the we to look. It is possible that those could line up, but very unlikely, as each member’s own good must play a role in the discussion of the good of the we. Additionally, there is something about the common good that is beyond any individual’s good, and so reducing it to what any individual human wants is difficult for it to be an actual good and one that is truly beyond any individual’s good.
How can we shape our perceptions in this way? How can I come to see what you are seeing? Recently, there has been a renewed discussion of the moral psychology at work in our understanding of the good, from thinkers like Anscombe and Murdoch to Wojtyla and Brewer. However, we can go back much further and see this moral psychology at work. Many of Plato’s dialogues are asking these questions just beneath the surface. Let us now consider how Plato explains the way we come to see that which cannot be said together.
Plato is not one to go on long rants about the common good, though we see questions of justice and virtue as holding a central position in his works. In fact, we see entire works, such as Laws, Crito, Republic, and so forth that are dedicated to questions about the good of society, and so also the good of the individual in relation to society. But we are not looking to Plato for an answer to what the common good is. Primarily, because that would involve a pretty serious inconsistency with the first half of this paper, but also, only slightly less importantly, because this, as we will argue, is inconsistent with Plato’s goals in his works.
In this part of the paper, we will be attempting to show first that Plato is less concerned about passing on doctrine than he is about passing on the desire and activity of philosophy. And, second, we will be attempting to flesh out the nature of this philosophical activity that Plato desires to show us. Then, we will show how Plato’s pursuit of philosophy, that is, Plato’s dialectic, relates to the pursuit of the common good.
So, first, Plato did not want to convince us of a set of doctrines, but rather is encouraging us to become philosophers. Likely, most would respond that this disjunction is not exclusive, but inclusive. I believe Plato sees it as exclusive.
Let us get some throat-clearing out of the way. The classical approach to dating Plato’s texts as early, middle, and late has been an important corollary to discerning a Platonic doctrine. But the attempts at dating Plato’s dialogues has found strong, I think even fatal, criticism in a variety of works, most notably the article by Jacob Howland entitled “Re-reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Dating Plato’s works has allowed interpreters to take the dialogues that end in aporia, that is an awareness of one’s ignorance, and move them to the early, still kind of naïve, Plato. And then move the more constructive works, like the Republic, Timaeus, Laws, etc., and move them to the late-middle and late works. But since the process of dating is essentially circular, we find that we are looking back down the well of history of philosophy and seeing our own reflection.
It may be that Plato saw all of his works as integral pieces of a whole. How then shall we interpret them? There have been a variety of approaches, the most intriguing perhaps being that of Catherine Zuckert, which involves reading them in their dramatic order, which ironically takes the Laws, which according to the general view has been considered the latest, and makes it the first.
But no matter our approach, we cannot simply write off the aporetic dialogues as a kind of prolegomena, clearing out the trash before Plato gives us all the right answers. Rather, given that aporia appears throughout the time line and even throughout the various dialogues in a multitude of ways, we should be perhaps see the experience of aporia as a key part of Plato’s goal in his writings.
We will not cover the whole gamut of Plato’s works. Others have made similar arguments for a variety of Plato’s works, including Francisco Gonzalez, Anne-Marie Schultz, Drew Hyland, as well as Howland, Zuckert, and others. For this paper, we will be focusing in on one dialogue, the Meno, in order to better show what is taking place in the interaction.
The Meno is a dialogue about virtue. It begins with Meno asking Socrates is virtue can be taught. It ends with the conclusion that virtue is not knowledge, it seems to lack the warrant piece of knowledge, and so is simply right opinion. And teachableness and warrant seem to be in a bi-conditional relationship. Being virtuous is a gift of change or of the gods. Of course, immediately after coming to this conclusion, Socrates says essentially the following, “But if someone could teach virtue…” Casting us into aporia right at the end. Is this really the correct conclusion?
Though the beginning and end of the dialogue relate to the teachableness of virtue, a good portion of the dialogue deals with the nature of virtue itself. True to his form, Socrates demands to know from Meno what virtue itself is—the (in)famous Socrates question: “What is X?”. And true to the form of most of Plato’s dialogues, Meno haughtily sets forth his erudite answers and Socrates handily exposes their failure.
But a couple situations arise that are of particular note. The first is that Socrates gives us the kind of answer he wants to the “What is X?” question. Socrates does not give us this proper kind of answer to the virtue question but to the question: “What is shape?” Socrates prefaces this by talking about how we might answer someone who asks us what shape is. We might say “roundness is shape.” And our interlocutor would likely respond, “Is roundness shape or a shape?” We’d say “a shape” and our interlocutor would sagely declare that we have not said what shape itself is. This whole discussion is, of course, a criticism of how Meno was answering Socrates’ “What is virtue?” question.
So, Socrates says what shape itself is in 75b: “[S]hape is that which alone of existing things always follows color.” He immediately follows this with “I should be satisfied if you defined virtue in this way.”
Meno is quick to criticize Socrates’ answer, and rightfully so it seems. Socrates is not defining what shape itself is. He is describing an attribute of shape, if I may torture language a bit, he is simply saying what shape does, not what it is in itself. Meno’s criticism though is slightly less to the point. He calls the answer foolish and says, “Well then, if someone were to say that he did not know what color is, but that he had the same difficulty as he had about shape, what do you think your answer would be?” (75c).
Socrates’ answer is telling. He says, perhaps ironically at first
A true one, surely, and if my questioner was one of those clever and disputatious debaters, I would say to him: ‘I have given my answer; if it is wrong, it is your job to refute it.’ Then, if they are friends as you and I are, and want to discuss with each other, they must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion. By this I mean that the answers must not only be true, but in terms admittedly known to the questioner. I too will try to speak in these terms (75c-d).
Socrates suggests first that Meno is speaking like a “disputatious debater” and that they should speak in terms admittedly known to one another. Meno asking what color is is the act of a debater, not someone seeking knowledge. But this is a strange thing for Socrates to say. For, though Meno does not sound particularly intelligent in his critique of Socrates, his question is beginning to get to the idea that Socrates has not really answered the “What is shape?” question. For whatever shape is, it must be something beyond or beneath these secondary properties. And if anything is a secondary property, it is color.
Socrates gives a second answer to what shape is, which does not really fare much better. Meno allows him this second answer and moves on to ask Socrates what color is. And Socrates offers him an answer that is more to his taste: “[c]olor is an effluvium from shapes which fits the sight and is perceived” (76d). Meno praises this answer, and Socrates responds: “It is a theatrical answer so it pleases you, Meno, more than that about shape…It is not better,…but I am convinced that the other is.”
But clearly, depending on how you define “effluvium,” this definition of color is far superior to that of the definition of shape. Primarily, because it seems to be describing what color itself is. It answers the “What is color?” question.
Why, then, does Socrates offer his answer about shape as the better way to answer the “What is X?” question? Perhaps because his goal is to show that the “What is X?” question cannot be answered propositionally. It is something one must perceive in some way that cannot be described wholly in language. And in reading the definition of shape and that of color, we can envision what he means when he talks about shape, but the definition of color is less a recognition of color itself, and more a recognition of fancy words that make one feel particularly smart in hearing them. But the goal is not to recognize words, but to recognize the thing itself.
Evidence abounds in the dialogues that gives warrant for this interpretation. But we will look at this second episode of note in the Meno to see if there is evidence: the famous interaction between Socrates and the slave boy. This scene is famous for serving as evidence of the doctrine of recollection. But there is an important failure in this discussion that shows that perhaps the “What is X?” question is unanswerable in language, but must involve some sort of perception. Socrates begins by asking the boy the length of the side of a square that is double the area of a two by two square. The boy immediately gives what seems the most rational answer: Four. This is shown to be wrong. Having reached a state of mild aporia, he then answers in the only rational way he can think of: Three. Socrates once again shows this to be the wrong answer. The boy has reached full aporia. Socrates asks Meno: “Have we done him any harm by making him perplexed and numb as the torpedo fish does?” (84b). Meno agrees in this case that aporia is not a bad thing.
Socrates then helps the slave to “remember” the answer, the slave gets the answer right, and, voila, we have proof of recollection. Kind of. The primary problem with this is that the slave never answers the question. In fact, he really cannot answer the question. Because, as Socrates and Plato would have well known, the answer is an irrational number: the square root of eight. It is a number that cannot be reduced to a fraction, a number that is a non-repeating infinite decimal. “Square root of eight” is a shortcut. But the slave does not even give that answer. He simply recognizes which line is the right line. All the rational, sayable answers end in failure, in aporia. But the goal is recognition.
If the “What is X?” question concerning the most important matters of life, like the Good, the Beautiful, the Noble, the Virtuous, even the common good, cannot be answered propositionally, but only recognized, then we can have no knowledge of these things. At our best, we have true belief, and these things cannot be taught.
But, just as Socrates hints at the end of the Meno that perhaps someone can teach it, so we are not left in perpetual aporia. What must take place is that first our clear, rational answers must be shown to be insufficient, like the answers of Meno and of his slave. Then, because those rational signs have been moved away, we can come to recognize what really is. This approach by no means suggests a kind of deconstructionism, for we always see Socrates praising rational dialogue, and warning against becoming haters of rational argument.
Application to the Common Good
So, the characteristics of the method of philosophy as carried out by Socrates, as an example of Platonic dialectic, has at its core the non-propositional, and therefore unknowable, nature of ultimate reality. In Plato’s case, the forms, and the form of forms, the Good/Beautiful. Two practical implications arise out of this:
First, because no one can grasp what the Good is through propositions, one is always left in the position of pursuing it. Since no definition is ever sufficient to what the Good is, so no one can settle and feel as if they have finished the pursuit of this question. One can always learn, and arguably this takes place primarily through critical, yet friendly, dialogue, in which the goal is not to win but to learn. And the reason we can always learn from essentially anyone is because our propositions are never sufficient to what we are talking about.
The second practical implication relates to teaching. One can become enamored with erudite definitions and for that very reason become incapable of recognizing the Good. The goal in interaction with anyone is arguably an attempt to develop a shared conception of some good that undergirds any definition we can form.
When we come together with the purpose of recollecting together about that which everyone, even the lowliest, uneducated slave, is capable of recognizing, then we have set ourselves up for real dialogue. We can only pursue the common good, the good of the we, through this kind of dialogue. We must do this as friends, with the recognition that we are all seeking some good, no matter how confused we might be. This beginning assumption of friendship arises by granting the benefit of the doubt to others—specifically, to grant to even those who seem utterly evil that they have the capacity to recognize good when they see it. Like the slave, they simply have grasped after what seem to be rational answers. So, too, we when we grasp after what seem to be sufficient answers blind ourselves to the common good and so write off those who disagree as malicious and/or hopelessly evil. It is possible that this is the case, but that is something that must be discovered, not assumed due to disagreement.
The common good is modified in accordance with the modification of the we. And the we will always be changing. Further, it includes the goods of each individual in harmony with one another and the whole. Thus, pursuit of the common good requires dialogue, the necessary conditions for which we have outlined, but which can be summed up in a single commandment: We must speak with one another as if we are all under the authority of the good, and never its master.
 The following brief summary of Wojytla’s understanding of the we is developed largely from The Acting Person, (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), and these articles: “Thomistic Personalism,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays. Vol. 4 of Catholic Thought from Lublin, edited by Andrew N. Woznicki, (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 165–175; “Participation or Alienation?” in Person and Community, 197-207; “The Dignity of the Human Person,” in Person and Community, 176-180; and “Subjectivity and the Irreducable in the Human Being,” in Person and Community, 209-217.
 Howland, Jacob. “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Phoenix 45, no. 3 (October 1, 1991): 189–214. See also Catherine H. Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, 1st ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009), 3-5.
 Catherine H. Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, 1st ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009)
 Francisco J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998).
 Anne-Marie Schultz, Plato’s Socrates as Narrator: A Philosophical Muse (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).
 Drew A. Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).
 All quotations from Plato come from Plato, Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
 Francisco Gonzalez shows clearly the failure of Socrates’ answers about shape to answer the kind of question he asked of Meno about virtue. Specifically, Socrates asked Meno not to speak about virtue in terms of its attributes, but to tell him exactly what it is, and yet Socrates’ example of the right kind of answer does not answer what shape is, but rather only says something about how it appears. See Francisco J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 159ff.
 See, for example, Phaedo 89c-e and Meno 86b-c.