Glen T. Martin
In this brief article, I want to discuss the concepts of law, democracy, and the common good. I also want to show that the real purpose and function of all three of these (law, democracy, and the common good) can only be realized at the global level under a quality world constitution like the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. These reflections are not just abstract theoretical considerations. They are fundamental to the very survival and meaning of human beings within our common civilizational project.
The purpose of law is not simply to keep order in complex societies. Law frames and enables all external aspects of human life. It has to do with power, with the enabling and transferring of governing power from one generation to the next. It is much more than prohibitions enforced by the threat of force. It has to do with economics, with the rules and regulations by which we feed, clothe, and house ourselves. It has to do with even the privacy of our families, a privacy that needs to be conducted within an objective framework that protects the rights and dignity of children, women, and participants within all personal relationships. It has to do with our rights to public participation with freedom of speech, protest, media, and governing.
The law comprises an objective pattern of rules and principles constructed like a net over society within which people are to conduct themselves and all of their interpersonal relationships. But what is the purpose of this net? Is there some overall good that is supposed to be achieved through the network of rules and principles that govern our lives? It is sometimes said that the law must facilitate the “common good.” But what is this common good? How is it defined?
One thing that is supposed to make the common good “common” is that the rules and consequences of the rules are supposed to benefit everyone with reasonable equity, not favoring some at the expense of others. A happy and healthy society is one in which the citizens perceive the law as being in the interest of everyone. This form is best called “democracy.” Only in part does the concept of democracy mean “rule of the majority.” The concept includes several other dimensions. One of these other dimensions is that the law is for the common good, that it benefits everyone with reasonable equity.
A general framework defining how the laws are to be made for the common good is called a “constitution.” The constitution for a society provides “the law of the land,” the general set of rules and procedures that define who has power (judicial, legislative, executive, etc.), how power is protected, regulated, and guided, and how power is transferred within the society. It also defines how citizens are protected from abuses of power, what their rights and duties are, and how the combination of citizen rights and proper uses of power together promote what is in the reasonable best interests of all.
Please notice that I do not say “what is in the reasonable best interests of the majority.” A proper democratic society necessarily transcends mere majority rule, as Rousseau taught us. It is united behind a common good that is truly common, a freedom predicated and empowered for every citizen, not just some majority. A proper constitution defines all these procedures, rules, limitations, restrictions, and principles as directed toward the common good of the society as a whole.
A constitution, and the network of laws, customs, and principles that it embodies, makes possible a common good defined largely in terms of the external circumstances of citizens. The network does not simply prohibit certain actions such as violence, theft, or murder. It goes far beyond mere prohibitions. It enables people to marry, to raise a family, to get an education, to have good healthcare, to rely on the safety of foods, medicines, and consumer products, to retire with reasonable security, to certify expertise in one field of knowledge or another, to travel, to safely use potentially dangerous machines (like automobiles), to have safe homes and places of business, to conduct business properly, to live their lives without discrimination, intimidation, or fear.
But in all of this a human being is not just an external animal body that requires food, clothing, and shelter and whose life needs to be regulated in coordination with many other external bodies. A human being is a unique form of life: a consciousness, a freedom, a creature with an inner life that can be or become meaningless or meaningful, unfulfilled or fulfilled, desperate and frightened or secure, unhappy or happy, agonized or at peace, undignified or dignified, lost in darkness or illuminated.
Some of the great documents of human history point to this “inwardness” that is the real core of our humanity. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, speaks of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” No one has ever empirically seen these rights or this dignity, yet they are “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Human dignity has to do with our inwardness, our inner consciousness and freedom, with what was traditionally referred to as being “made in the image of God.” It is what is often called our “personhood.”
We are not simply ciphers within a generic set of the same creatures; we are not simply another chicken among the flock of chickens. Each person is valuable, each has this qualitative dimension within, each has this infinite dignity, each is an end in his or herself. This inner dimension cannot be addressed by law or any other form of objective human knowledge because it is invisible and internal. Yet is the very essence of our human reality.
Our personhood is reflected, of course, in our bodies, especially in our faces and our eyes. We recognize one another not just as bodies but as persons. There is a personhood expressed in those eyes that cannot be discovered by any dissection of the eyes or the brain. Yet this inner value of dignity and personhood is exactly what we are as human beings. It is exactly what the law is mandated to protect. The common good of society is that which protects and enables the growth and flourishing of the personhood within each of us. The law is predicated on the human dignity, on the rights and responsibilities, of each of us as qualitative persons.
Here is where the common good and the personal good of each of us coalesce. The common good has the purpose of empowering the inner quality of life—which is qualitative, not quantitative; which is invisible within the objective, empirical world where laws are made and constitutions are written. If all persons have the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then the law must foster what is invisible and qualitative: “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The inner quality of life requires a certain set of external circumstances to be able to inwardly grow, flourish, and pursue its goals, purposes, and desires. There must be sufficient food, clothing, shelter, economic security, personal safety, and prospects for the future. Article 3 of the UN Declaration calls this the right to “life, liberty and security of person.” What is sufficient for this need not be huge. Great wealth does not enhance the inner quality of life, as many people have testified. And great disparities in wealth diminish the common good. The common good includes all those external circumstances that makes inner growth, well-being, flourishing, and fulfillment possible for all persons.
The human project is precisely a human one. The project of civilization is to enhance and promote inner growth, well-being, and fulfillment. This clearly does not obviate community or communion with other persons. Rather it enhances community and communion. We are all one human family, as the Vedas of India say, but inner growth is required to actualize true communion with all others. The more “inward” we are, the more we are able of recognizing the other as a “Thou.” My inwardness responds to your inwardness, and the ties of community are born.
None of this can be effectively done within the current world system. The current world system was developed within an early-modern conceptual framework that conceived of the world as a collection of “bodies in motion” governed in external relationships with all other such bodies according to external necessities. Capitalism is based on these flawed assumptions and so is the system of militarized nation-states.
Capitalism knows nothing of personhood, inner dignity, or the infinite value of human lives. It simply formulates external economic “laws” that purport to govern wealth and its pursuit. It has no conception of the “quality of life,” for its sole source of measurement is quantitative: always more, always quantitative. Sovereign nations, by their very structure, also know nothing of universal human dignity. Their very existence, which assumes “enemies” in other sovereign countries who may be murdered through war and its devastations, structurally denies the dignity and qualitive value of these “enemy” lives. These institutions deny the holism of human life.
The concept of “law” is inseparable from the concept of “democracy.” Intrinsic to the law is dedication to the common good and this is identical with what is intrinsic to democracy. And intrinsic to both law and democracy is a democratic Earth Constitution, for both law and democracy are universal principles and cannot reasonably be divided up into fragments. Capitalism is not an economic system that can support effective democracy, and militarized sovereign nation-states either passively or actively desecrate and destroy our global common good.
The common good of persons on the Earth entails the rights to peace and a protected planetary environment. There can be no quality of life or human flourishing if our planetary environment is destroyed, and there can be no quality of life or human flourishing if we live under the constant threat of immanent destruction and if our collective wealth and resources go for weapons and war rather than for human a well-being that makes possible a quality of life free from fear, uncertainty, and the threat of unnatural death.
Genuine law governs those external circumstances that make possible the quality of inner life for persons, an inner life of growth, flourishing, and well-being. Fragmenting the planet among militarized sovereign nation-states destroys these external circumstances and hence destroys the very meaning of law and democracy. That is why ratification of the Earth Constitution is absolutely essential. It alone can bring human beings out of their trajectory toward self-destruction and create the conditions for true quality of life and human flourishing.
The objective, rational dimension of democratic world law forms a necessary complement for human dignity and inner freedom. Article 28 of the UN Declaration states that, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This common good must be established by giving every person on Earth such reasonable external circumstances that make possible a meaningful inner satisfaction in life. Only the Constitution for the Federation of Earth can achieve this goal that is intrinsic to our human project from the very foundations of history and rationality.
Even if the constitutions of various sovereign nations mention some of these ideals, those constitutions remain invalid and illegitimate, because, by assuming the fragmentation of territorial sovereignty, they make the rights to world peace and a protected planetary environment impossible to actualize. No territorial fragment can protect these rights or achieve them as part of its promised common good. Only the Earth Constitution that recognizes and is designed for a truly universal common good is legitimate. The constitutions of fragmented sovereign nations are no longer even remotely legitimate because they cannot even begin to secure the common good of their citizens. (Their legitimacy as viable parts of our planetary whole can be easily restored, however, if they unite under the Earth Constitution.)
Legitimate law, legitimate democracy, and the legitimate common good are now all planetary. Only the Earth Constitution is legitimate. We must all personally and collectively recognize it as the legitimate framework for our planetary common good. The internal dignity and infinite value of every human being must be complemented by an external legal system that equitably establishes the objective conditions for human happiness and flourishing. Let us join hands to ratify this Earth Constitution and begin to make our outer circumstances on Earth commensurate with our true inner dignity and priceless human rights.
Constitution for the Federation of Earth, in print with the Institute for Economic Democracy Press and on-line at www.earthconstitution.world.
Finnis, John (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Finnis shows the integral links between law, morality, and human rights. He also recognizes that the human community as a world community necessarily includes the need for a world constitution and world law. He identifies the common good with “justice.”
Frank, S.L. (2020). The Unknowable: An Ontological Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Trans. Boris Jakim. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press. This book is very good on the inwardness of the human being, also on the relation between the “I and Thou.”
Gewirth, Alan (1996). The Community of Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Gewirth shows that rights include the rights to physical and bodily “well-being” without which our inner freedom to seek our aspirations and desires is quite meaningless. He also shows that there is no conflict between individual rights and true human communities.
Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. Harris lays out the early modern set of assumptions clearly and shows their vast differences from the 20th century paradigm of holism, a holism that calls for a world constitution.
Hart, HLA (1994). The Concept of Law. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In this classic study, Hart shows that the concept of law is so much more than prohibitions backed by force. The law empowers human beings in all sorts of ways.
Kirchhoffer, David G. (2013). Human Dignity in Contemporary Ethics. Amherst, NY: Teneo Press. This book is very good on the concept of human dignity and the ways that our sense of that dignity can grow and develop throughout life.
Levinas, Emmanuel (1969). Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority. Alphonso Lingis, trans. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. Levinas is very good at showing that the human face and the eyes reflect something infinitely deep that is not captured in our “objective” descriptions of a human being.
Martin, Glen T. (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press. This book presents a developmental overview of the concept of law in the West showing its evolution toward the concepts of universal world law and world democracy.
Martin, Glen T. (2021). Design for a Living Planet: The Earth Constitution Solution. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press (forthcoming). This book shows the connections between human survival and ratifying the Earth Constitution. It also shows the links between human spiritual and moral growth and ratification of the Constitution.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1947). The Social Contract and Discourses. G. D. H. Cole, trans. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. Rousseau showed that the common good of the whole is not the same as majority rule. UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights on-line at https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/