By Mary Petersen
College of the Canyons recently hosted a panel discussion about the timely topic of “The Common Good.”
Its relevance is critical in today’s society, even though it is not a new idea. It has been a consistent theme of philosophers since the Greeks. Political, economic and philosophical thinkers throughout history have analyzed the importance of “the common good.”
Although they held diverse views about its definition, it generally refers to the good of all citizens. It refers to the social systems of society being accessible and beneficial to all citizenry. It refers to the shared values, principles and ideals that bind a society together. These include promoting safety, engaging in civic duties such as voting, honoring institutions, seeking nonviolent ways of resolving conflict and being responsible members of our communities. These are common ideals that generally, we all agree, are important.
In my column a few months back, I reflected on the pursuit of happiness, one of the inalienable rights along with life and liberty that are afforded each of us in our Constitution. In our democracy these rights are valued and protected vigorously by the government. A robust belief in individual rights is one of America’s greatest strengths, but in recent times, this idea has been compromised.
The right to pursue happiness has morphed into the right of individual self-indulgence, unconstrained gratification and winning at all costs. At its worst, it has turned into greed, exploitation and corruption. We all recall the pharmaceutical CEO who raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 percent. This predatory action reveals the ideal he upholds — profit at all costs, even at the expense of the common good.
Further examples include Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Bank, both of which defrauded customers and engaged in lies and deceit to maximize wealth and power.
And it’s not just in the corporate world. We see in politics a volatile, polarized climate that values winning at all costs.
Rather than rationally debating the causes of a problem or the merits of a solution, it has become acceptable to demean the opponent, dismiss their point of view and ignore any common ground upon which a compromise could be reached.
Often, it is fear that generates polarization. We’re encouraged to see an alternate point of view as dangerous even before it is deliberated. As citizens, we can’t compare the views of each side rationally because we don’t know how to access unbiased information or we choose to listen to only one side of the debate. We fear the opposition because we don’t see any shared common ground. Honoring the common good obliges politicians to conduct themselves in ways that show respect for our ideals of civility, truth and cooperation. In order for our nation to prosper, we need to trust that our leaders are behaving honorably and are working to promote the general welfare of the people, not just secure a win for their political party.
Leaders must be at the forefront of modeling ethical behavior focused on the common good, but we citizens are also called upon to be stewards of our nation’s ideals. It is shortsighted and detrimental to community governance to behave as if my personal desires and needs are always more important than those of the community as a whole.
Rather than a group of solitary individuals unilaterally pursuing goals that solely benefit ourselves, our personal success is inextricably intertwined with the success of the community. Cultivating civic virtue is essential for society to thrive and can alleviate some of its division and dysfunction. Practicing civility, compassion, fairness and cooperation with others allows us to locate a sense of solidarity, shared responsibility and dependence upon one another.
As a community, we have the same concerns, even if we don’t agree on a common solution. To prepare our children to be engaged citizens of a democracy, we must raise them to be open-minded, to care about integrity, responsibility and compassion. We must help them to realize there is something greater, more noble and more meaningful than personal self-interest.
Upholding the common good is essential for our nation to thrive. Our country is taking an unsustainable trajectory. We’ve lost our sense of shared identity as a nation. Our common identity goes beyond race, class and religious affiliation. It penetrates to the heart of our ideals, principles and basic rights. It respects our democratic institutions, acknowledges our differences and strives to find our commonalities.
The motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one), summons us to bind together despite our differences so we can function as a cohesive nation.
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English instructor and 30-year SCV resident.