3.3.3 Directing society to the common good

Back to 3.3.2

Unit 3 Contents


On the last two screens we have seen the following: in a society characterized by distributive justice, government gives legal recognition to civil society bodies and so safeguards them, and it ensures by law that human rights are upheld.

Do these two elements give a full picture of government’s positive, ‘subsidiary’ role?

According to Catholic teaching, the answer is no. There is another important element.  In order to approach this, it will be helpful to see one way in which the first two are similar.



Can you suggest what the two elements in the role of government we have identified have in common?

  • recognizing/safeguarding civil society bodies
  • upholding human rights


Basically, the answer to that question is: government needs to act only when something has gone wrong, i.e. when some abuse or failing or lack makes it necessary.

To see this, think about human rights first.  If human rights were fully respected in people’s ordinary dealings with one another across a whole society, the state wouldn’t have to do anything to ensure that they are upheld.  Rather, the state has to act to do this only when they are not upheld.

Second, what recognition and safeguarding of civil society bodies requires is similar.  As we saw, the foundation of the subsidiarity principle is that civil society bodies are not creatures of the state.  This is why the state must not take them over.  Rather, most fundamentally its job is to let them be.

This means not actually doing anything proactively, unless and until this is necessary.  Legal recognition itself is only to enable such a response, in the event of such a problem.  Examples of things going wrong with civil society bodies include:

  • private companies operating in a culture of corruption
  • universities subverting academic freedom by prescribing in advance the results that research should show
  • hospitals making decisions about health care on the basis of either financial profit or bureaucratic incentives, not of patient need

In such instances, government needs to act so that legal provisions relating to these civil society bodies can enable them to be what they should be.  At the same time, subsidiarity means government has to hold back from taking them over (except in emergency – see 3.2.5).

In practice, then, both human rights and subsidiarity generate tasks for government that can be called remedial. They require action by government that relates either to failure to respect human rights or to mis-recognition of civil society bodies.

In light of this, we can identify a distinction between two different kinds of action that government can in principle take:

  • response to things going wrong
  •  positive action to generate the common good.

Recognition that part of the state’s role is remedial is uncontroversial.  This aspect of what government does is most obvious in the retributive justice system – which exists precisely to respond to abuses or failings of one sort or another.  Take human rights: a distributively just society in which people’s rights are upheld can only be sustained if there is an accessible judicial system in which alleged abuses of human rights can be tried.

But what about the second of the two kinds of government action just distinguished, that is: acting positively to generate the common good.

What does this mean?



If part of government’s role is to act positively to generate the common good in a society, what do you think this could mean in practice?  What specific tasks might this involve?


This positive part of government’s role can be trickier to understand than what it has to do to recognise civil society bodies and to uphold human rights.  A good way of getting at it is through a thought experiment.

If we try to imagine a perfect human society, one in which nobody wronged anyone else and everyone always acted justly, would we need government at all?

In other words, if there were nothing that government needed to put right – if civil society bodies all operated as they should and there were no abuse of human rights – would the state have anything to do?



To the extent that you can, try to imagine such a society – one in which no-one acted unjustly to anyone else.

Would there need to be government in that society, or not? Would there need to be the exercise of political authority?

Why, or why not?


If you think the answer is ‘no’, perhaps your reason (or one of them) is to do with coercion.  You might have picked up on the point made earlier in this unit that, in practice, governing always depends on possible resort to coercive enforcement of law across a territory (3.1.3).  Your argument could be this: government does depend on such coercion, but coercing people to do things isn’t good as it takes away freedom from them; therefore government could have no place in a perfect society.  In short, the very existence of government would necessarily make any society imperfect.

Maybe you gave a different main reason for a ‘no’ answer.  You might have caught a vision of society as a spontaneous order – that is, one in which different people freely do different things, without any direction by government.  In other words, if everyone always treated others well, we would all get along fine and work together fruitfully.  We simply wouldn’t need what government can do for us – which is only to protect us from our own failures to do justice to each other.

These two lines of argument for a ‘no’ answer have a lot going for them.  However, if your response to that Reflection was ‘yes’, your view corresponds to that in Catholic teaching!  Before we look at why, try to come up with responses to those two arguments by doing this Exercise.



In relation to that question of whether there would need to be government in a perfect human society, can you think of ways of responding to each of the two arguments for a ‘no’ answer I’ve just outlined.  We can call these two arguments:

  • The argument from coercion
  • The argument from spontaneous order




I’d like boldly to suggest that, after one has thought about it for a while, it is just common sense that there would need to be government even in a society in which there was no wrongdoing, that is, in a morally perfect society.  This is simply because there are some things that need to be decided for the society as a whole – which is to say, politically.  Examples are: Which route is best for a new main road?  Where should the city park be located? On such matters, the answer has to be, ‘Here and not there’.  So they have to be determined one way or the other, for the community as a whole – which means by those with political authority.  Deciding matters such as these is not in any way a response to something having gone wrong. Even a morally perfect society would need this.

Decisions of these kinds are basically about co-ordination.  Another, rather clichéd example that makes the same point is this: should we drive on the left or right?  The point is that such matters need to be decided this way or that for a society as a whole, to the end of its common good.  It is not human failure, or anything else having gone wrong, that makes that necessary.

So here we have the second aspect of the state’s role: the positive co-ordination that is needed to help make possible the common good.



I said that that outline of the case for government’s co-ordinating role is common sense.  Does it seem common sense to you?

Perhaps you are inclined to think that attributing such a positive or constructive role to government runs a risk of giving it too much power, even despite the principle of subsidiarity.

As I said this is a tricky issue, and we need to keep reflecting on it.


Even if that brief explanation of this co-ordinating aspect of government’s role doesn’t seem ‘common sense’ in the way I’ve claimed it is, this is the view we find in Catholic teaching!  It goes right back to St Thomas Aquinas, and St Augustine before him.  One statement of this in modern CST is in Pacem in Terris:

God has created men social by nature, and a society cannot “hold together unless someone is in command to give effective direction and unity of purpose. Hence every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and consequently has God for its author.” (#46, quoting Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, Acta Leonis XIII, V, 1885, p. 120)

This begins by saying that humans are “social by nature”.  This point is made repeatedly in the documents of CST.  It is another way of saying that the human good is found in the common good.  Our human nature, as created by God, means that we find our fulfilment in social relationships, in society.  The same point is sometimes made by saying that the human person is a ‘social being’. (We noted this when studying the concept of the common good – see 1.3.2, near end of page.)

But what that quotation as a whole puts across is that we are not only social but also political by nature – in the sense that the society in which human fulfilment is possible is politically ordered.  Read the second sentence in the quotation again.

I said that this understanding goes back to St Thomas Aquinas, and indeed much further back than that.1. At one point in his vast corpus of work, Aquinas did the thought experiment we did just now.  He asked whether some people would have had authority, or ‘dominion’, over others in the original ‘state of innocence’ – that is, in an imagined, pre-Fall, perfect society.  He answered yes, on the basis that there can be a form of authority in human relationships that is freely accepted, because it is recognized to be for the good of each person and the common good.  He said:

[B]ecause man is naturally a social animal, … men in the state of innocence would have lived in social groups.  But many people cannot live a social life together unless someone is in charge to look after the common good…  And therefore… whenever many are geared to one thing, you will always find one of them to be principal or director. (Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 96, Art. 4)

However, what any such “principal or director” does is not dependent on coercion.  Rather, it is freely accepted, even by the people who find they are co-ordinated or directed by it.  These recognize the proper authority of the principal/director and that he or she acts for their benefit and the common good.

Aquinas was clear that coercive subjection of some to others would be a problem, because it would be opposed to freedom – and “freedom is one of the chief goods, and would not have been wanting in the state of innocence”.  But that natural political rule is, in principle, not coercive in this way.  It is only the advent of wrongdoing, and therefore of the need to respond to this, that adds coercion to the mix.

The picture this produces is one of freely chosen harmony of difference.  People give themselves to different roles, each of which contributes in a different way to the common good.  Some are, for example, chefs and others are farmers or miners or pianists or accountants.  Still others co-ordinate or direct society as necessary to its common good – they govern.

In this way, politically-ordered society is ‘natural’.  Even a morally perfect human society would have such political rule.  But those who governed it would not need to employ coercive means as their wise rule would be freely obeyed.  On this, Aquinas’s position is still that of CST.

This aspect of the state’s role can be called ‘civic direction’.  The word ‘civic’ means ‘to do with the city’ (from the Latin civitas), in particular the city’s good.  By extension to other forms of political community, civic means ‘to do with the common good’.2

‘Direction’ is appropriate because this is the main concept we find in Aquinas for referring to this aspect of government’s role.  In fact, this direction is fundamentally a form of co-ordination of the diverse activities of many people so that these do generate the common good – which is why I referred to ‘co-ordination’ several times in the earlier part of this screen.  We could just as well call this aspect of government’s role ‘civic co-ordination’.  But ‘direction’ is the term that has usually been used in Catholic political thought.  This is reflected in the quotation earlier from Pacem in Terris (quoting Leo XIII): the ruling authority is needed to “give effective direction” to the end of the common good.

Summing up, on this screen we have seen that the state’s overall role has two contrasting aspects, namely:

  • response to things going wrong
  •  positive action to generate the common good.

What the second of these means can be labelled ‘civic direction’.

On the next screen we shall ‘join the dots’ by connecting these aspects of the role of government with the language of justice more fully.


End of 3.3.3

Go to 3.3.4 Government’s responsibility for distributive justice: interim summary

Module B outline

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  1. Here Aquinas is following both Aristotle and St Augustine (although this does not imply all three had identical positions).  Sometimes Augustine is interpreted as having held that political authority is only remedial and not also co-ordinating/directive. (For example, R.A. Markus argued this in an influential study: ‘De civitate Dei, XIX, 14-15 and the origins of political authority’, Appendix B, in Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 1970).  However, this surely misinterprets Augustine and so attributes a deep disagreement on this basic point to the Christian tradition that is not really there.  Briefly, Augustine referred straightforwardly to political rule that is good and evidently not only remedial, seeing this as analogous to good and natural authority in the household. This is in the so-called ‘table of peace’ in City of God, Book XIX, chapter 13: “Peace between man and man is ordered agreement; domestic peace is ordered agreement about giving and obeying orders among members of a household; civil peace is a similar agreement among citizens” (italics added).  Here Augustine uses pax, peace, to refer to what later Christian thought called the common good (in keeping with what the Hebrew Bible’s shalom would justify). This communicates a republican conception of rule among free persons, and Augustine’s conception here seems indistinguishable from that we find in Aquinas, as outlined in the main text. 

  2. We looked very briefly at the meaning of civitas in Unit 1 (1.2.5). Apart from ‘city’, several English words have this root, including citizen, civil, and civilization.  All these connote orientation to the common good.