The Common Good

David Hollenbach, S.J.
Boston College

Date: September 11, 2001 
Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road


On the morning of September 11, the Boisi Center received a phone call relating the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. As the morning progressed, we watched in horror as news of the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon unfolded on our television screen. As the time for our lunch seminar approached, we decided to go ahead with our planned discussion of David Hollenbach’s forthcoming book The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2002). As David Hollenbach noted, the morning’s events made the need for a normative framework for a global community even more relevant. The discussion of the book also provided a way for us to gather as a community and think positively about the ethical challenges that lay before us as a nation, and as a leading member of a global community.

Hollenbach argued that the common good needs to be understood as something like the good of a clean environment: one person’s possession of it does not mean that there is less for others, and if one person has it, then everyone has it. The common good is also relational— it can be measured in a society in terms of the active participation of all its members. The real problem that Hollenbach sees in the U.S. and in the world today is not so much intolerance as social isolation, marginalization, and the inability of certain groups (or nations) to participate fully in society, both as beneficiaries of and contributors to the larger good. In addition, Hollenbach claimed that the pursuit of justice is an essential prerequisite for the realization of the common good. He is committed to the idea that there are universal norms of justice, as encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example, that ought to be pursued on a global scale.

Asked if he saw any hopeful signs in the world today of efforts toward building the sort of relationships and solidarity upon which the common good is predicated, Hollenbach offered both domestic and international examples. In the U.S., where he feels strongly that the funding of public education ought not to be linked to local property taxes, he noted that a number of states, New Jersey being a controversial example, have made efforts to restructure the funding of education to insure greater equity. Internationally, he noted the recent success of the grassroots movement in South Africa to convince pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of their AIDS drugs. That such drugs, even when sold at cost, are still too expensive for AIDS patients in many parts of Africa points to the persistence of the problem of distributing health care equitably throughout the world.