Exploring the common good
Researcher: Anne Marie Sowerbutts
The common good is the ordering of a society which enables a flourishing human life lived in common. As such, it is a concept which can provide a useful framework for thinking about aspects of life in society.
This project seeks to explore the meaning and relevance of the common good for contemporary UK society, with a particular emphasis on the use of technology as a tool for wellbeing. This is a particularly timely venture in light of the current Government’s concept of ‘big society’, the underpinnings of which seek to foster an alternative view of how society should be structured and how local communities are engaged in directing their affairs.
A tripartite approach to the project is proposed:
1. The common good: a relevant concept?
This phase of the project, aimed at investigating the practical relevance of the concept of the common good has already been undertaken and was directed at establishing whether the common good, as an abstract concept could both be understood by a typical faith community; further, if it could, is it one which can inspire concrete and positive action?
These questions were examined in four focus group sessions held with people from the local Catholic faith community in Wythenshawe, a relatively underprivileged area of south Manchester. The sessions addressed the overall concept of the common good, drawing out aspects of its theoretical underpinnings and practical relevance, before considering particular elements of the idea in greater detail. Each of the sessions allowed for a strong feedback component from the group to permit the natural development of clarity concerning the ideas discussed. The specific group itself was selected both because the common good is an integral part of catholic social teaching, and formed an important thread running through the speeches of Benedict XVI during his visit to the UK in 2010, but also the demographic of that community is likely to be particularly affected by government cuts and may therefore have an innate readiness to engage with social models favouring the flourishing of all.
The primary findings of this part of the project has been that the concept of the common good has clear resonance amongst the selected group; the sessions were well attended and ultimately the group was galvanised into taking practical action. Initiatives flowing from the sessions include a visiting project for elderly and vulnerable parishioners, lobbying local representatives and integrating principles of the common good into shared parish liturgies.
2. Understanding the common good
Having identified that the common good has relevance to aspects of modern society, this element of the project is an in-depth analysis of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the concept.
The aim of this element of the study is to develop modes of interrogating the concept of the common good which have the practical effect of helping to crystallise the currently inchoate understandings of the concept demonstrated to exist in faith communities in the first phase of this project.
3. Resources allocation and the NHS
In order to have wider meaning, the common good must have relevance at not only a local level, but also at a macro level. Therefore, having considered the relevance of the common good at local level and on a small scale this element of the project will go on to consider the potential relevance of the concept on a national level. In order to do this, I propose to use the institution of the NHS as a case study and sounding board. This will allow a consideration of ideas of the common good in the context of a trans-social institution which at one time or another every member of society is likely to engage with and further, an institution which has concepts of egalitarianism and equality at its founding roots.
This analysis is particularly timely in light of the Government’s proposed reorganisation of the NHS, in the white paper “Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS” which is likely to amount to the most radical shake up of the organisation in its history.
It is clear that the NHS will face particular challenges in the coming years and given the prevailing financial circumstances in the country, there will be profound pressure on resources with the NHS being challenged to do ‘more with less’. This raises clear questions as to how the resources which are available should be equitably allocated. At the same time, there are numerous pressures to increase spending on health care, such as the development of expensive and novel drugs and treatment and strong patient pressure for access to such cutting edge technologies
A key aspect of addressing these questions of equity in the face of competing demands for finite resources is a consideration of the common good; how do we as a society respond to these pressures and is it adequate, in light of practical considerations to permit resource allocation to be driven by technological development? Does this approach result in other, equally important considerations being overlooked? These are some of the questions that the third element of the project is intended to address.