The idea of the common good, with its roots in the ancient world and diverse elaborations over the centuries, has become one of the most relevant and problematic issues today. At the international level, rising European nationalisms confront longstanding efforts to work out a bonum commune in the European Union, while global agreements about how to regulate trade, immigration, and environmental policies appear to be crumbling. Democratic polities whose citizens once seemed to share basic common values now struggle with partisan extremism, political and cultural polarization, growing economic inequalities, and fierce arguments about how to respond to immigration. Across the globe, marketing techniques and consumerist practices encourage individuals to retreat into their own private spheres, remote from any idea of a public good. New communication technologies and social media tend to create self-affirming ‘bubbles’ of opinion whose inhabitants seldom hear anything that might challenge their version of social reality. Such developments raise concerns that the common good is an idea of the past – one that can now have little more than private or partisan meanings.
In response to these challenges, calls to reassert unifying notions of the common good are heard across the political spectrum. But in the fractured conditions where appeals to the common good seem most needed, how can such a good be found? Who or what should define it? Should it be defined in thick or thin, demanding or minimalist terms, require commitment to strong cultural or moral values or merely an agreement not to overstep public laws? How meaningful are agreements on common values in conditions of extreme inequality? What should be done if a substantial minority of citizens strongly disagrees with a majority’s view of the bonum commune?