Have Americans lost their commitment to the common good? Have they ceased to feel responsible for the wellbeing of all the members of their community? Have they lost their commitment to ensuring that disadvantaged groups or individuals share in the benefits of our society? Are they waiting to rediscover that the wellbeing of our nation depends on citizens’ commitment to the common good?
The common good refers to policies, decisions, and actions that are beneficial for most or all members of a given community or society. In a democracy, citizens are expected to work towards the good of all citizens, rather than trying just to maximize personal gain.
A long line of philosophers and political observers such as John Locke, David Hume, Niccolo Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls, have stated that democracy will fail if citizens become more concerned with personal benefits than the common good. They agree that the purpose of government is to ensure the wellbeing of all citizens and that no government should serve only special interests, such as the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
The nature of the common good, however, has been defined in a variety of ways. Plato viewed the common good as anything that promotes social harmony, cooperation, and friendship among citizens. Socrates defined it as citizens feeling pleasure when other citizens succeed and pain when other citizens fail. This increases society’s cohesion and unity. Rousseau defined it as the end goal of any society. Machiavelli defined the common good as resulting from the virtue of citizens, which is measured by the degree to which citizens put the good of all over their individual benefit. More recently, Rawls defined the common good as ensuring every citizen has equal liberties and an equal opportunity to achieve, as well as ensuring that social and economic factors favor the least advantaged citizens. And the common good is not only important in democracies. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, noted that capitalism works only as long as people value the common good above personal profits.
Despite the variety of definitions of the common good, philosophers and other social scientists agree that when citizens no longer care about the common good and no longer take responsibility for ensuring a good life for all citizens, then the democracy at best becomes dysfunctional and at worse fails by transitioning into dictatorship or chaos.
There is ample evidence, such as the income gap, flaws in the healthcare and educational systems, and childhood hunger, that the common good is not a high priority for many members of our society. If commitment to the common good is to be increased, there are at least three aspects of democracy that must be emphasized.
First, the common goals (i.e., positive goal interdependence) among citizens need to be highlighted. The common goals include (as stated in the Constitution of the United States) forming a more unified democracy, establishing equal justice for all citizens, ensuring caring and positive relationships among all citizens, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare of all citizens, and securing the blessings of liberty for all citizens and their descendants. The emphasis of all these goals is that all citizens benefit from their achievement, not just a small percentage of the population.
Second, all citizens must understand that they share a common fate. In the long run, either all citizens flourish or no one will flourish. A democracy cannot survive if the majority of citizens lose faith in the fairness of the political processes and decisions. There is a Cree Indian saying, “The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.” It reflects the interdependent, common fate found among members of a society. If the rich and powerful take control of a country, and government officials focus on providing benefits to the rich at the expense of the non-rich and non-powerful citizens, then the country may not long be an effective democracy. When the common fate of all is recognized, the well-being of all citizens becomes essential.
Third, the moral orientation of citizens must include valuing the common good. Ethical values must emphasize the good of all over the good of a privileged few. This includes promoting the success of fellow citizens and taking pride in their achievements. Patriotism, as a moral position, must include a concern for the children, the poor, and the disabled, as they cannot flourish without the active assistance of the majority of their fellow citizens.
Contributing to the common good involves accepting the responsibility to engage in the political and civic processes that will ensure that all citizens benefit from the policies and decisions made by Congress, legislators, judges, and other decision-makers. Democracy is threatened when partisan politics, special interest groups, and wealthy contributors influence the decisions so that (a) privileged groups are favored and (b) the needs of the majority are ignored. Perhaps what is needed at this moment in our history is a political party aimed at promoting the common good, the Common Good Party.