What are relational goods? This concept was discovered in the late 1980s and the interest of scholars in it has grown enormously since then. It is a type of goods that are neither material things, nor ideas, nor performances, but consist of social relationships, and for this reason they are called ‘relational goods’. This contribution aims to clarify this concept, used by various disciplines (mainly: sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy, political science), then specifying what are the benefits that relational goods can give to a ‘good society’, and in particular to a mature democracy.

Two sociological mainstreams, one based on rational choice theory and one on relational sociology, converge in affirming that relational goods are those that can be enjoyed only if shared with some others. Both agree that it is a kind of goods different from strictly private goods, which are enjoyed alone, and from standard public goods, which are enjoyed impersonally by any number. However, they differ in the way they understand the nature of these goods, how they are generated and what are their social consequences. For the theory of rational choice, they derive from the fact that individuals find gratification in sharing a certain relationship with other people, so that the aggregation of these propensities generates a local public good. According to relational sociology, instead, these goods are not aggregated effects of individual choices, but emergent sui generis relationships that are sought for their intrinsic value, as bearers of good life for those who share them. The author compares these different approaches, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. He concludes by claiming that relational goods have their own ontological status. They are produced by subjects who reflexively orient one towards the other to generate a relationship from which benefits derive for all those who participate in it. In addition, these goods have positive externalities for the community around them.

It is necessary to distinguish between the proper nature of the good of a relation and that which this relation can generate as its outcomes. For example, saying that certain goods such as a well maintained block garden, a very popular neighborhood library, a social network that links so many people like Facebook, or a school without bullies are relational goods does not mean that they are so in and of themselves, which would be to reify the relational good, but it means indicating that there exists a sociability – a sui generis network – connecting people (the ontological nature of the relational good) that ‘stands behind’ such goods and produces them. The relational good consists of the sociality of networks of relations between people on whom these goods depend. The societal system (macro level) can facilitate or hinder these processes. Its influence can lead in the direction either of relational goods or evils. The macro level of state and super-state institutions, to the degree that it is held up by principles of authority and hierarchical procedures, cannot generate relational goods. Nevertheless, if macro-societal institutions adopt styles of social governance (rather than of government), such as those called ‘open social coordination,” and become actors in networks of cooperation and reciprocity with other actors, then they can favor the conditions that can cause relational goods to flourish.

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