The idea of the public good is mired in ambiguity. One conception of the public good draws on the idea of a shared understanding of value. That is, the public good refers to those goods that are identified as valuable for a society’s members – e.g. public transit, art galleries, etc. – via a process of public discussion and consensus. This first understanding is the precondition for a second, in which the public good refers to those goods that a society decides to provide publicly, zeroing in on the public good’s source in public institutions – such as publicly funded health care or free music lessons provided by public schools – which are nonetheless enjoyed by individuals, perhaps even privately. A society might have a commitment to the arts as a public good but nonetheless not concern itself with public availability, providing opportunities only for the artistic geniuses, or letting the market determine prices for artworks or gallery tickets, or doing nothing to acculturate people to appreciate art. Two further understandings refer directly to public access: on the third, the good is public when it is accessible to all, e.g. by open entry to parks or museums. A fourth conception considers a good to be public in virtue of its metaphysical character as a good that is non-excludable and not a possible object of distribution, such as clean air. This understanding brings to the fore a controversial feature of the public good, the problem of free riders who fail to contribute but nonetheless enjoy public goods – e.g. she who avails herself of clean air while engaging in practices that cause air pollution. Such goods also cause collective action problems since people are reluctant to bear the cost of goods that others can enjoy for free. Fifth, the public good might be thought to refer to something that is good for the public per se, an abstract entity with its own integrity, composed of such properties as civility, stability and lawfulness. Such a good would be the property of the social whole, of society, and thus an abstraction that cannot be distributed to individuals, nor necessarily of interest to them. As such, it is an entity that has moral entitlements to which individuals’

interests might be sacrificed, as in: ‘personal freedom must sometimes be sacrificed for the public good.’ Not surprisingly, in light of this variety of understandings, the very idea of the public good is controversial, seeming inimical to both methodological and ethical individualism, where the relevant units of analysis, the agents or victims of moral rights and wrongs, are individuals rather than supraindividual entities. Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark that ‘there is no such thing as society’ is an extreme version of the suspicion that ‘the public’ is an abstraction incapable of having goods. It is even more problematic than the much-derided idea of ‘the people’ that, though potentially repressive, at least refers to human beings, notwithstanding Mill’s astute objection that ‘the “people” who exercise . . . power, are not always the same people as those over whom it is exercised.’1 In Chapter 6 it was argued that equality is only valuable in light of its effects on persons. Just as equality derives its value from its impact on the flourishing of individual persons, so too, good cannot devolve upon a non-agent or non-subject – ‘the public.’ Nonetheless, methodological individualists can concede that there are publicly provided and publicly available goods, since the equal society requires socially organised systems of distribution of such things as income, education or health care, but they might baulk at the idea of a public good per se. The connotation of a supra-individual abstraction might be mitigated by restricting the idea to a public good, or public goods, plural, rather than the public good. Raz defines a public good in terms of its accessibility to all: ‘A good is a public good in a certain society if and only if the distribution of its benefits in that society is not subject to voluntary control other than each potential beneficiary controlling his share of the benefits.’2 For Raz, public goods that are consumed, like water and air, are only contingently public, since it is theoretically possible, given the right technology, to apportion their benefits individually. Inherent public goods, in contrast, refer to ‘general beneficial features of a society,’ such as the fact that it is tolerant or cultured. Raz’s conception of inherent public goods straddles our fourth and fifth definitions, since what distinguishes inherent goods from contingent ones, according to Raz, is both the essential non-exclusivity of their enjoyment among members of a society and their intrinsic value. Raz’s view does not entail any kind of anti-humanism, where the value at stake does not bear on the wellbeing of persons, an objection, as we saw in Chapter 6, Raz himself makes of the idea of strict equality. Inherent goods enrich people’s lives; both the goods themselves and the lives they enrich are intrinsically valuable. For example, art and the life enriched by art are both valuable.3 Indeed, goods are inconceivable without human beings to create, define, acknowledge, and enjoy them. Raz remarks:

It is a public good, and inherently so, that this society is a tolerant society, that it is an educated society, that it is infused with a respect for human beings, etc. Living in a society with these characteristics is generally of benefit to individuals.4