Book Review: Finn, Empirical Foundations of the Common Good

Finn, Daniel K., editor. Empirical Foundations of the Common Good: What Theology Can Learn from Social Science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017. 246 pp. $99 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-067005-4. 

This present volume originated from a conference organized by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies in 2014, and it contains a tightly connected and focused group of essays that aim to offer the notion of common good a more interdisciplinary meaning, since the Catholic idea of the common good is part theological insight, part moral theory, part empirical theory, and part political philosophy.

The idea of the common good has been a fundamental part of Catholic thinking about social, political, and economic life throughout the Catholic intellectual tradition. It is defined as “the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve complete and effective fulfillment” (ix). The idea of the common good, however, has been rooted in the traditions of philosophy and theology, which, with the rise of the social sciences in the nineteenth century, has faced new challenges. Since then, the social sciences have offered new insights into the human condition which have not been assimilated in narratives of the common good, creating a gap between the consideration of “what is” (social sciences) and “what ought to be” (philosophy and theology). Thus, the eight studies offered on Empirical Foundations of the Common Good are centered around two questions: What have the social sciences learned about the common good? How might theology and philosophy alter its understanding of the common good in light of that insight?

The first six chapters are written each by social scientists with backgrounds in economics, political science, sociology, and policy analysis, and speak about what their disciplines have to contribute to discussions within Catholic social thought about the common good. In the last two chapters, two theologians respond by examining the insights of social science and exploring how Catholic social thought can integrate social scientific insights into its understanding of the common good.

In the first chapter, Matthew Carnes, S.J. presents the contributions of contemporary political scienceto an understanding of the common good. He does so by summarizing four turns in political science that could offer “new opportunities for understanding the common good in a cross-disciplinary conversation between political science and theology” (28). These four turns are the inferential, quantitative, rational, and behavioral turns. Even though the social sciences do not talk about the common good, they are interested in how human flourishing is produced through human choices.

In the second chapter, Andrew M. Yuengert analyzes the contributions that economists may offer the common good tradition, especially with concepts such as economic agency, the distinction between public and private goods, and the work on the logic of institutions and norms. At the same time Yuengert claims that discussions on the common good have underplayed individualistic explanations, have rejected any type of rational choice framework, and have not considered the fact that the order produced by an economy is an unplanned order that cannot be engineered, for it results from the activities of the actors within it. Yet, “this does not mean that all aspects of this order are desirable or that it is pointless to resist its tendencies or shape its direction” (46), for there is still room for intervention and normative goals within economies.

In Chapter 3, Mary Jo Bane sets the theme of public policy and the common good within the context of an imaginary consultation by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding a hypothetical document about the common good in the twenty-first century. She responds three imaginary questions: How does public policy envision the common good? What are some urgent problems that might be addressed? How might the abstract notion of the common good be operationalized into concrete recommendations? Bane suggests that the policy sciences, which draw from the various social sciences, can offer to the discussion both quantitative and qualitative empirical analysis tools, bridging the normative and ideal notion of the common good with concrete policies based on empirical research.

In chapter 4, on the contribution of sociology to catholic social thought andthe common good, Douglas V. Porpora claims that sociological “critical thinking” and “relationality” could deepen the conversation on the common good. Yet, “sociology has nothing explicit to say about what constitutes the common good” (91), for it may be described as interested in the “common bads,” that is, in the social ailments that prevent individuals from truly achieving human flourishing (92).

In chapter 5, Charles K. Wilber presents the contributions of economic theory to an understanding of thecommon good in catholic social thought. He argues that there are many threats that result from human agency, and therefore intervention by government or institutions into markets is required. The Catholic tradition of the common good has been especially concerned with such market failures since they exasperate poverty and injustice. Yet, intervention has to be taken with caution, since many times policy [intervention] has unintended consequences that contradict the desired results” (123). Wilber also calls for more robust ways of measuring economic well-being and human flourishing. Economics, he states, does not see human flourishing as an “aggregation of the welfare of all individuals,” but rather as a product of the stability of markets when those markets result from and supported by human choice.

In chapter 6, Gerardo Sanchis Muñoz offers his views on public service, public goods, and the common good, taking Argentina as a case study. He argues that good public administration is necessary in order to bring about the common good. Argentina went from being one of the wealthiest nations in the world to an almost failed state given the system of patronage, lack of a professional civil service, and the appointment of citizens not suitable for public office.

In chapter 7, Brian Coultier offers a theology of the common good, seeking to refine its contemporary formulation by bringing forward an older tradition in Catholic social thought. Recent formulations stress that “the common good is the attainment of the conditions necessary for flourishing” (172). Yet, traditionally, the common good has been seen as a dynamic activity that produces human flourishing itself, and, according to Coultier, the social sciences support a return to the older view.

In chapter 8, Mary L. Hirschfeld makes the case that the social sciences can learn much from theology and philosophy, for these disciplines “encourage us to reason together about what constitutes the good life.”

This volume’s interplay of social, scientific, philosophical, and religious views is certainly a unique and very valuable contribution to contemporary discussion of what constitutes “the common good.” All these essays will be a helpful resource for economists, political scientists, philosophers, theologians, and anyone eager to understand and promote the common good today, especially with respect to the crucial role it can play in our public life.

© Pablo M. Iturrieta 

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