Sunday, September 01, 2019

Partial interest & the common good

I listened recently to a very interesting lecture by Professor Patrick Deneen on the topic of "Aristopopulism". In this lecture, Deneen mentions that a basic problem in politics going back all the way to the ancients was how to overcome the conflict between the few at the top and the many below. The solution was to look for a common good, particularly one that might restrain the behaviour of those with power.

It is clear that the commitment to a common good is weakening in Western societies. The elites no longer see their own fate bound together with that of their co-nationals. At the same time, there is an emerging unease within the majority about their appointed role in society. Below, for instance, is an image from a yellow vest demonstration in France. The placard reads "Work, consume and shut your mouth" - a complaint about what is expected of ordinary French people.

We seem to be replacing the traditional commitment to a common good, that all were duty bound to uphold, with an understanding of society as being made up of a whole series of partial interests, each set against each other, but each needing to be balanced to achieve a state of social justice.

Liberals often just assume this model of society, whilst traditionalists are more likely to still have in mind the notion of a common good. For instance, a liberal woman will assume that men have always acted out of a partial interest to press their own power in society against that of women. Therefore, if men express unease or discomfort about some feminist initiative, a liberal woman will understand it to represent a psychological difficulty of those men in giving up power for the sake of equality.

Similarly, imagine a situation in which a husband has worked for decades for the good of his family and ends up with a larger amount of superannuation than his wife, who perhaps stopped work for a period of time to be with her children. If you think in terms of people acting dutifully to uphold the common good of their family, then you will think of the husband and wife sharing a joint interest and benefiting together from their combined superannuation. A liberal woman, though, might be so used to thinking in terms of men and women having separate and distinct partial interests, and the notion of a common good might be so absent, that she will see the husband and wife as having separate financial interests, and therefore she will see the difference in superannuation as harming rather than benefiting the wife.

You can see all this playing out as well when it comes to race relations. In a traditional society, there was a common good represented by the continuing existence of a people, its culture and tradition. It would have been thought not only normal but also highly desirable for this culture and people to dominate within its own country.

But if there is no common good, but only competing partial interests needing to be balanced out, then the existence of a dominant majority people and culture becomes highly problematic. White nationalists sometimes claim a place within the field of modern politics by asserting the right to promote the partial interests of whites. As understandable as this is, it doesn't work well when the notion of a common good has been rejected in favour of partial interests. If the majority people and culture assert their rights, then this will be seen to be favouring an "unequal" situation, of the majority wanting to continue as a dominant majority and therefore favouring "supremacy" rather than being balanced out by everyone else.

Can a society that lacks the notion of a common good prosper? I don't think so. First, there will be a widening sense of incompatibility between those at the top and the rest of the population. The discontents that gave birth to the yellow vest movement in France are likely to build up in force elsewhere. Second, the absence of a common good will, over time, erode the conscientiousness and sense of duty that once helped motivate people to make and to keep their commitments to others. Third, it will be more difficult to persuade people to make lifelong commitments without the sense of meaning and purpose provided by a common good.

Finally, when people stop thinking about how interests can be harmonised within a common good, then even our own partial interests are likely to suffer. For instance, feminists often make the mistake of thinking that they can push the partial interests of women without thinking of the larger harmony of interests necessary for things to work out well. As an example, feminists have been very successful in enrolling women into higher education, sometimes with the help of quotas and the like. There is now something like a million more women than men in higher education in the U.S. But where then do these women find husbands with a similar or higher standard of education? Feminist successes in education lead to failures in family formation. So are women really any better off even looked at from the point of view of their own partial interests?


  1. But if there is no common good, but only competing partial interests needing to be balanced out

    From the point of view of those who are interested only in power it's a very favourable situation indeed. It makes a divide-and-rule strategy so ridiculously easy to implement.

    So the elites will fight tooth and nail against any return to the concept of a common good.

    1. Yes, Deneen in his speech suggested that it would take rank and file revolt to get them to reconsider.

      As for divide and rule I see this at work often. My female colleagues are stressed out of their minds because of work demands but if you raise the topic they are ideologically stuck in a "if only men would do more, but they refuse to give up power" mindset. I once brought up the role of the elites but it drew a complete blank - one asked me what I meant by elites.

      So it's working for now but there is not much to apply a brake on it. If people get pushed too far, who knows.

    2. I once brought up the role of the elites but it drew a complete blank - one asked me what I meant by elites.

      Yes, exactly. The elites have been so successful in their divide-and-rule strategy that most people have no idea that they are actually being ruled by an elite class.

  2. Mr. Richardson

    A continuation on your theme:

    Mark Moncrieff
    Upon Hope Blog