Thursday, February 28, 2013

The "Common Good"

Tomorrow my college is conducting a faculty retreat to teach us what it means to advance the "common good," how we can know specifically what it requires out of us morally, how to do what's right in advancing the "common good," and how to teach students to advance the "common good." I've been working on this for more than 30 years and haven't been able to do much with it. After 2500 years of Western philosophical debate on that issue, I'm glad a committee at my college, finally, figured it all out. Here's what I expect to learn.

First, of all when we hear the admonition, "Do X in order to advance the 'common good" it's intended to serve as the atomic bomb of philosophical discourse. When non-philosophers hear it, they inevitably submit to it's authority. After all, how can one reasonably present a counter argument? "Do X in order to not serve the 'common good.'" Or, "Do X in order to advance the "common bad." Secondly, when it is invoked within any given context it excites an emotional response within us; namely, a feeling of "solidarity" with other humans and that "we're all in this together." Therefore, "common good arguments" tend to resonate with most of us both rationally and emotionally. Hence, over thousands of years of intellectual history it shouldn't be surprising to find that the "common good argument" has been invoked (and continues to be invoked) in a wide variety of contexts. Most wars (including the Crusades) have been deemed both "justified" and "unjustified" based on the "common good" along with the torture of prisoners of war, internment of foreign nationals during wartime (Japanese),  and recent drone strikes against "terrorist leaders" in populated areas. Other "common good arguments" have been offered both for and against: slavery, capital punishment, gun ownership, and the confiscation of private property by government. Over the past 300 (or so) years, the most persuasive "common good argument" offered by political regimes has been that, inevitably, we must sacrifice our personal liberty in order for government to provide us with "security." The most obvious application here has been our willingness to submit to increasingly invasive "searches" under the guise of "airport security." Over the years, the concept of "security" has expanded exponentially to include not only: physical security (from criminals and invaders), but also economic security, safety, health, even offence or embarassment.

 OK, I know what you're thinking! "Ron, just because someone invokes the "common good argument" (or it's variants: greater good, public good, social good etc.) doesn't mean that the argument is sound. If X does not, in fact, serve the "common good' then we ought to reject that argument." Fair enough! So what we really need to know is: the meaning of the "common good," know whether X in fact advances it, and if X advances the "common good" we need to know exactly how to do it

 What is the meaning of the "common good?"  Better yet...what is the meaning of "the Good?" If we don't know exactly what "the Good" means, we cannot know the "common good." So what are we really saying when declare that "X is good?" Well, we use the word "good" in many contexts. My new suit looks good. Red wine tastes good. Garlic smells good. The Maladroits sound good. etc. We also use the words "good" and "functional" interchangeably. A BIC razor is good for shaving my head. Plato identified at least three different species of "the Good:" extrinsic goods (good for what they bring about, e.g. money) intrinsic goods (good for their own sake e.g. happiness) and the best things in life are both.  Is "the Good" an idea? If so, where did that idea originate? Is it in all of our minds, or only a few of our minds? If so, if only a few of us know "the Good," who knows it, and how do we know that they "know it?" Is it because knowledge of "the Good" runs in families and that it is passed on via genetics? Is knowledge of "the Good" acquired via teaching and learning? Is "the Good" a feeling? When I say that Bota Box Wine is good, am I reporting how I feel when I drink it? If you drink it and report that it's bad, who is "right" and who is "wrong?" What if I'm the only one in the world that reports that Bota is good? Am I wrong? If I say that F.A. Hayek is a "good philosopher" is it just another report, or am I doing something other than stating my approval? Or, is "the Good" a property of things that we can see, feel, touch, or smell...once we learn how to do it? Again, after 2500 years of philosophical debate, I'm glad that someone finally figured all this stuff out.

Tomorrow, just after I learn the meaning of "the Good," I'll finally learn the the meaning of the "common good," how to know it when I see it, and how to advance it. I suppose the key to "knowing" the "common good" is identifying the "interests" that I have "in common" with others. Of course, that assumes that I "know" my interests and "others"know" their interests. But more than that, what does "others" mean? Everyone employed at my college has an "interest" in increasing student enrollment and retention. However, I don't think other competing colleges share those interests. In fact, they have an interest in my college having lower enrollment and lower retention. So what is "good" can be specific to different "commons:" what's good for Cincinnati, Ohio, the United States, or the whole world. Now the atomic bomb of all "common good arguments" is to argue that "X is good for everyone on earth." Universality trumps particularity. Therefore, if  "X is "less good" (or even bad) for me or Cincinnati, then we ought to "cooperate" anyway in order to advance the more "common good." Those arguments are usually complicated even more by the passage of time. Hence, "common good arguments" often differentiate between what serves the common good over the long-run or the short run.'" Here we have yet another atomic bomb; "whatever serves the "common good" over the "long-run," necessarily, trumps what merely serves the common good over the short run. Thus, "common good arguments" aim toward the ideal of advancing "what's good for everyone over the long run." As a philosopher that only occasionally "knows" what's good for himself over the short run, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.

Finally, after tomorrow I'll not only know what's good for everyone over the long-run, I'll also know how to bring it about. As a lifelong pacifist, I have no doubt that "world peace" is in everyone's interest over-the-long run. However, I also recall from history that war mongers have always argued that we need to fight just one more war "to end all wars." We hear that same argument in defense of the drug war. "All we need to do is incarcerate a few more drug lords and drug users, and, over the long-run, there eventually will be no more drugs or drug violence. As you might imagine, I'm really looking forward to learning more about how I can advance the "common good" over the long-run. I'll definately, pass it onto my students. My next blog will explore "self-sacrifice" in pursuit of that elisive "common good."