Thursday, June 07, 2007 • 8:31 AM Comments (7)

In Search of the Common Good

posted by David Tebaldi


American society today suffers from two fundamental anxieties. One is economic and has many sources, including the accelerating pace of technological change, the impact of our economy and ways of life on the environment, the globalization of both labor and capital, and worrisome demographic trends.

Our other anxiety is moral. Its causes are varied as well, but chief among them is increasing social fragmentation resulting in a loss of trust in one another and the lack of any sense of a common good. Economic considerations tend to push aside all others in our political system, but in the long run, barring an ecological catastrophe, the lack of agreement about what ultimately matters is a far more serious threat to the vitality of our democracy.

The roots of our anxieties are not unrelated. They feed off and exacerbate each other. Because we lack a vision of a common good above and beyond the sum total of our individual interests, we accept the idea that the best society is the one that satisfies the economic interests or desires of the greatest number of citizens. Thus, the defining characteristics of a healthy nation become an ever-expanding economy and rising standards of living. We come to expect, individually and collectively, continuous economic progress as a birthright.

When these expectations are not met, when people begin to feel economically insecure, they look for someone to blame and this blaming sets us against each other, worsening the social fragmentation that already obstructs our vision of a common good.

The search for a common good is the domain of the humanities. History, literature, philosophy and cultural studies provide us with the ideas and insights, analytical and interpretive tools, and language we need to understand each other and, just as importantly, to understand ourselves. Without such understanding, there is little hope that we will discover the shared aspirations and ideals out of which a durable sense of the common good can emerge.

Our lack of a sense of the common good affects virtually all aspects of public life. Two of the most prevalent manifestations are rampant cynicism and disdain for virtually all things “public” and the much-bemoaned decline of civility and decorum in public discourse in general, and in politics in particular.

Here, too, the humanities — and particularly public issue-oriented humanities programs like The Public Humanist blog — can provide some remedy.

When the perspectives of history, literature, philosophy and the other humanities disciplines are brought to bear on a controversial social issue, a broader context is created within which a dispassionate and reasoned exchange of views can occur. Unrecognized connections between the issue at hand and other important issues are revealed; ways the controversy has been resolved (or not) in other times or in other places are presented for comparison; the underlying values at stake in the controversy are exposed, and alternative means for preserving those values can be imagined.

None of this leads automatically to agreement, of course, but agreement, or at least a modicum of mutual understanding, is far more likely to occur in this context than in a partisan debate between opposing interests.

Clearly at this time in the life of our nation we need more humanities, more attempts to understand each other, and ourselves, and to try to reach some agreement about what ultimately matters.

Comments (7)
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On the idea that "economic growth"=the common good: the COSTS of the kinds of "economic growth" that get accounted for within the GNP are not often considered by the media (or influential pundits) . One example is the negative environmental impact of corporate agribusiness. That is, the very premise of "economic growth" is flawed. If we all believed, as a collective national whole, that reducing waste was a priority, personal behavior, policy, and the very language used to describe progress would change.
Posted by Hayley on 6.7.07 at 10:19
Very nice essay, well put. Re the specific points: "Thus, the defining characteristics of a healthy nation become an ever-expanding economy and rising standards of living. We come to expect, individually and collectively, continuous economic progress as a birthright . . . . Clearly at this time in the life of our nation we need more humanities, more attempts to understand each other, and ourselves, and to try to reach some agreement about what ultimately matters.” I’d add that I’d also be grateful for some agreement on what doesn’t matter, or at least on what should matter less. I’ve just returned with my family to the U.S. after spending 8 months in a traditional part of northern India (the ancient sacred city of Varanasi). There it was obvious everyday that most Indian’s remain extremely poor by American standards. But at the same time they are typically more content, less tormented by inner demons. In fact, the Indians who seemed most stressed out are the more middle class folks, not the impoverished street people or, say, the economically poor, shoeless men driving bicycle rickshaws for a living. We Americans have all this stuff, but it just doesn’t work to make us inwardly happy, secure or peaceful. Economists are the scholars who dominate American political and public policy discourse . . . and they are the scholars most responsible for misguidedly enshrining economic growth as the measure of human well-being and progress. However, recently an interesting minority of economists have begun to address this issue more critically and thoughtfully through an emerging sub-discipline, the “economics of happiness.” I’d love to see humanities scholars muster the courage to enter the fray of economic policy deliberations, enriching the ill-informed, socially damaging dialogue of the mainstream economists with their historically informed insights into human aspirations and cultural variation. Ultimately, I’d be grateful if, as a society, we could move toward agreement that whatever matters most, it needs to transcend an obsessive preoccupation with mere material standard of living. Our individual and collective well-being (not to mention the health of the global environment) depends on our learning to seek satisfactions beyond the realm of material consumption.
Posted by Richard Sclove on 6.7.07 at 10:59
Wonderfully put and provocative. Some of what this raises for me is a somewhat more troubling question around who defines "the common good" ? One of the ways in which earlier generations (say the US's "founding generation") was able to do what many see as a "better" job of establishing clear ideas of what the "common good" was -- was by limiting those who were able to voice thier opinion on the topic--and limiting those models (including which philosophers were read to which art was considered high quality) for finding the "good" . I believe that we have a much harder path today as we really embrace the challenge of distilling both common language and a notion of the common good from a wider array of voices and models.
Posted by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello on 6.7.07 at 11:46
I think it's been pretty well established that there is very little correlation between the amount of money one has -- beyond what is needed for basic necessities -- and the amount of happiness one enjoys. And yet we Americans, perhaps we "Westerners," always seem to want more money, more and more of the things that money can buy. Perhaps it's because of the connection between wealth and prestige in our culture. What we really crave is prestige, recognition, esteem.
Posted by David Tebaldi on 6.7.07 at 12:03
Excellent point, Elizabeth. It is VERY hard to define the common good once and for all. And the larger and more diverse the community of interest, and the more general the policy being deliberated, the harder it is. But I think it is important and possible to be mindful of the common good, to strive toward it, even without knowing exactly what it is. We often can know, as Dick suggests, what it isn't.
Posted by David Tebaldi on 6.7.07 at 12:14
The common good. I take it that the common good is that which is truly best for everyone. OK. I have the answer. What is best for everyone? A good night's sleep. There it is. The common good is a sound sleep for all. People who are asleep never cause trouble, at least not wilfully and thus can never be held responsible. This is why we say such things as "Let sleeping dogs lie." A sleeping dog will never fight over a scarce bone ... nor will a fully pooped pooch bite the hand that foolishly tries to feed a sleeping dog. Moving on, consider the seven deadly sins, you know, greed, envy, lust ... the big ones in the bible that lead people to all sorts of injustice, mayhem, and what have you. OK here's the deal. No one can be greedy when they are asleep. Okay, you may think you've got me on lust because a preferred venue for lusting is the bed. Nice try, but no good. Lustful sleepers may ruin an occasional pillow, but that hardly counts as mayhem. Sleep cures gluttony also - well, staying asleep does. And as for sloth, think about it. One must be awake to be slothful since true slovenliness requires conscious assessments of how many BTUs will it take to move my sorry ass from the La-zy-boy to the bed - and so forth. I rest my case: what's best for everyone is a good night's sleep. The longer people sleep, the better. And I'll bet you this: the world will be a kinder place when people get enough zzzzs. It's always true that when a person is full of tension, they become a pain in the keister. They honk their horn, they drag their cuff in the butter dish, they cheat at cards, they take more than thier portion of lox, they don't load the dishwasher, and they like watching gunfights on TV (that leads to real bad ideas). I rest my case. What's best for everyone - the most common and effective good available - is more sleep!
Posted by Jeff Cook on 6.7.07 at 22:01
Now that I've had some sleep, I feel more capable of expressing sustained, and focused thought. But I still do not know what the topic is, precisely. I know what the topic is not. It is not "What is the common good?" because that question, taken fully out of any context, is ridiculous and unanswerable. So, how about we add a little context and ask,"Of all the options the park committee has put before our town council, which option most nearly represents the common good?" Uhhhh. What's the common good? "Does anyone have that hand-out? The one where we listed and ranked the characteristics of commonly good parks? I know we took a poll in the neighborhood, but I don't think the sample size was large enough to satisfy professor Potter." Am I the only one who feels Jeremy Bentham nearby? Well, the quantification of pleasures and pains never advanced ethics and won't work in our situation,either. No rational calculus will help us identify the common good. That approach was debunked centuries ago. No one can calculate his way to virtue. I find answers to BIG MORAL ISSUES in simple things. The other day I pushed my empty shopping cart into the rack and, just as I turned to head back to my car, I saw a black thing in one of the racked carts. I took a closer look and, sure enough, it was a purse, zipped tight. No owner around. Well, I sure wanted to take the purse home, I will not deny that, but I did not; I took it to the customer service counter in the store and asked them to help the owner retrieve it. I did the right thing. I know that. And I think the "Common Good" was served. Some might disagree, saying that personal property is, in itself, destructive of the common good. My reply: irrelevant at best. We are all better off if we return personal property to rightful owners. What does this have to do with the 'common good'? My answer is that the search for a "common good' solution to any societal problem is like searching for a tiddly-wink on the floor of the Indian ocean. Odds are slim that you'll find one. And if you do, you'll look at it and say, What good is this?" Building (and supporting) a just, compassionate, and loving society can't be done by applying an ethical calculus to cut through stubborn prejudice, ignorance, and fear. The whole rests upon children developing a strong sense of empathy and learning how to apply that awareness in daily life. Simplify, simplify.
Posted by Jeff Cook on 6.8.07 at 19:40
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