One of the characteristics of our time is the exaltation of individual rights to the exclusion of consideration for the common good. Actually, this explanation is a bit misleading, for today we make no account for the common good at all. We simply assume that it will be secured along with our ever-expanding set of rights.
There are two reasons for this hesitation to speak of the common good. In the first place, if the starting point is that our rights are limitless, the common good can only serve as a restriction. This makes us wary. Implicit in this is the assumption that unbridled autonomy leads to happiness, while anything that opposes it causes us unhappiness.
This is a mistake. Traffic lights do impede our ability to drive wherever we may please, but only superficially. In reality, the lights provide the modicum of order necessary for drivers (and cyclists and walkers) to thrive.
Secondly, we cannot speak of a common good because that idea has been obliterated by secularism and the failure of the enlightenment project. We do not have a single common good based on a shared understanding of what our humanity means. We have wildly divergent and incompatible views of man that lead to incompatible notions of the common good.
Consider the debate surrounding the current hot topic of the culture wars: gay marriage. Proponents insist that the right to marriage is self-evident. As heterosexuals may marry, so too may homosexuals. Failure to grant this is to deny gays their rights. The common good is secured when both heterosexuals and homosexuals have the right to be married.
Opponents maintain that not only is this at odds with the institution of marriage, it is inconsistent with the common good. For the family is the foundation of society. One of the principle reasons the state concerns itself with marriage at
all is because of consideration of the child, who has a right to his mother and his father. Allowing gays to marry obscures this essential point, while permitting them to adopt obliterates it. For the children raised by gays, however lovingly and however successfully, cannot meet this essential obligation.
My point here is not so much that gay marriage is a mistake, though I think that it is. Rather, it is that we come no closer to achieving that common good by creating additional rights which must be granted. Every additional right only serves to increase the confusion, for as long as competing ethical frameworks exist, there will be disputes over whether a right is consistent with the common good provided by that framework.
The solution would seem to be secession of some sort: this Catholic community has these particular rules, while this Mormon one has others; and the hipsters in Brooklyn espouse different mores to achieve their good while Silicon Valley posits another. From a practical point of view, this would present some challenges, but it seems a workable and peaceable solution.
What prevents us, I won't say from taking this step, but from even giving it consideration, is that we fail to recognize the limitations in our own framework. However passionately we believe in it, we will not be living in a culture either wholly secular or wholly religious any time soon. Nor will we reduce the amount of infighting between the various secular philosophies or religious ones. (And I suspect that the latter only appear to more intractable than the former.)
Both the right and the left seem to have missed something rather substantial. Electing a Republican President won't return the country to its Christian roots any more than electing a Democratic one caused all Christians to apostatize. Politics is not completely ineffective--as proponents of gay marriage are well aware--but neither is it deterministic. Culture, what's left of it, remains. And it will prove, as it always does, a most influential factor.
From this standpoint, our energy should be devoted towards preserving and rebuilding our culture. Politically, where we can we should hope for a truce. If our nation cannot be so governed as to be ordered towards the common good as we understand it, it might at least be possible to be left free to work out that common good on a smaller scale.
What will convert the culture isn't politicians passing the right laws but families living moral lives in the midst of decadence. If we can't talk about the good, perhaps others will recognize it when they see it lived.