Every now and then, everyone who walks across the fields of discourse steps in a cow patty. He writes something with the intention of commenting on issue P, realizing only afterward that it is likely to be taken as a comment on issue Q.
Sometimes he sees the cow patty and tries to step over it. For example, in one of my recent posts I distinguished among the different senses in which the various kinds of natural inclination pertain to reason. The reason I put it that way was that I was trying to sidestep the professional debate about whether or not the natural inclinations are “in” reason. I consider that question badly framed, because it can’t be answered simply “yes” or “no” without giving rise to misunderstanding.
But sometimes the writer puts his foot right in the patty. In another recent post, I remarked that according to natural law thinkers, the happiness of the community is the complete set of conditions, physical and social, that need to be satisfied in order for individuals to be able to pursue happiness effectively, both through their own actions and through the actions of smaller communities such as families, churches, and neighborhoods. It wasn’t until some days afterward that I realized that I might have been viewed as taking sides in the professional controversy about whether or not the political common good is merely an instrumental good, a means to an end.
I wasn’t. But since I have already put my foot into it, here is what I think of that debate.
The scholars who insist that the political common good is merely a means to an end say this because in the literal sense, only a person can be said to be happy, and the community is not a person; only its members are persons. That’s true.
Yet these scholars are missing something too. The flourishing of the communities to which I belong is not just a means to the end of my happiness; it is also an element in my happiness. To put it another way, my marriage, my family, my friendships, my parish, my country, and what people of my faith call the “communion of saints” are not just conveniences to me. I care about them for their own sake, just as I care for the persons in them, and I cherish my membership in them as a good above and beyond any personal advantages I may gain by belonging to them. What happens to them, and what happens to their members, I experience in some way as happening to me.