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The common good Ingalls, Gordon Murray

Abstract

This paper is an attempt to clarify the political uses of the notion of common good, and the related notions of common interest, public interest, and so on. Three different discussions of the subject are examined and criticized. Each of the three represents a different kind of approach to the problem. The first is a theory of the kind that defines public interest as a moral harmony rather than as an aggregate of individual or group interests. The second is of the sort that equates public interest with a particular sort of decision making process. The third is of the kind that tries to delineate the content of the concept in a specific way by identifying it with various substantive notions. The internal defects of each discussion are examined, and are seen to consist mainly of unnecessary and damaging assumptions together with an oversimplified view of the problem. Some more general objections to each type of theory are also noted, such as that the process type of theory results in a notion of public interest that cannot be used as we normally use it, and that the harmony view provides a poor guide for public policy because of its vagueness. The conclusions which appear in the final section are based on the argument that the notion of common good or public interest cannot be given more than a general designation, without a good deal of further study into the substance of the concept.

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