The common good

was my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

One legal and political concept that has been ignored in today’s public debates relating to law and policy is that of the "common good." The disregard could be due to simple ignorance or to deliberate ideological calculation. But whatever the reason, the failure to remember what the common good is has led undoubtedly to a discernable state of confusion in public debates.

It really doesn’t matter if one is "progressive," liberal, or conservative. Those are political labels fit for another discussion. What is important at this point is to determine the difference between truth or reality from those which are essentially manufactured to achieve a political end.

Many academics now seem to want to make us believe that the proper direction of the country is their version of a secularized, pluralistic society moving along Rawlsian lines. What this in essence means is that they seek to construct policies that utilize the technique of the "veil of ignorance," whereby the "justness" of a policy is seen by ignoring one’s position, talent, properties, interests, or preferences within society.

Now the merits of John Rawl’s ideas on political thought is not the issue here (although Alasdair MacIntyre may have something to say about it). The point is that our society was simply not constructed along Rawlsian thinking. To impose such, as some legal or political thought academics are advocating), causes a disconnect between what our society is and how it’s supposed to react, and at the same time removing from the people their sovereign function of designing what our society is to be.

The identity of what our society is can be seen in our Constitution. And our society (and its constitution) were both created not within a vacuum or through a veil of ignorance, but with a peculiar context, circumstance, and history.

It’s a given that our Constitution borrows heavily from the US Constitution. Clearly, the people who wrote our Constitution knew the context in which they were writing it (particularly coming off the Martial Law experience, as an example) but also the context in which the US Constitution was written.

One particular context that must be considered is the background of the US Constitutional Convention delegates: of the 55, around 29 served in the military, a substantial majority had experience in constitutional law drafting (at least at the federal State level), in fact a majority of them were lawyers (with the rest being landholding farmers, businessmen, bankers, and doctors).

Significantly, almost all of the delegates would also sign the other fundamental documents of the US: the Articles of Confederation and -- more importantly -- the Declaration of Independence. The consistency of thought in their founding political documents is therefore there.

Another context is the religious and philosophical beliefs of the delegates: most were Christians (only two were Catholics, the rest were Protestants). At the very least, all believed in a deity or were theists of some sort.

Also, the delegates were certainly quite aware of Aristotelian thought, and quite definitely the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau. That would mean then that the US Constitution was framed with the idea of man’s telos or purpose, of self-evident natural rights, and of the common good (or "general will").

Interestingly, the US Constitution’s preamble contained the phrase "general welfare" instead of the "common good." But again, context: the two were seen as interchangeable, at least in the eyes of the delegates. "General welfare" would also appear in prior Philippine constitutions. However, within the context of the present Philippine Constitution, the use of the phrase "common good" was done deliberately, as Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, attests:

"An attempt to restore the phrase ‘general welfare’ in place of the Committee’s phrase ‘common good’ was not accepted. The change from ‘general welfare’ to ‘common good’ was intended to project the idea of a social order that enables every citizen to attain his or her fullest development economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. The rejection of the phrase ‘general welfare’ was based on the apprehension that the phrase could be interpreted as meaning the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ even if what the greater number wants does violence to human dignity, as for instance when the greater majority might want the extermination of those who are considered as belonging to an inferior race. It was thought that the phrase ‘common good’ would guarantee that mob rule would not prevail and that the majority would not persecute the minority." (see Fr. Bernas; The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, 2009)

The preamble lays down the purpose of the Constitution. It also, as Fr. Bernas points out, is a "manifestation of the sovereign will of the Filipino people." Our laws, therefore, must always be made with the "common good" (as defined and understood within its context and history) in mind. To do otherwise could result in a law made with "grave abuse of discretion."