About the Project: The Common Good - A Background Essay PDF Print E-mail

Notions of the Common Good have been have been central to conceptions of society since Plato and Aristotle, and it has been described in fairly consistent ways since then.1 There has been general agreement that “…the common good is disciplined yearning, deliberation, judgment, and action in concrete realization of the best, most choiceworthy way to live”2 and that “Its most basic meaning is that the community and its institutions should serve the good of all its citizens and not just the restricted good of a particular ruler or class.”3

“The 1776 framers of the Constitution of the United States reflected an orientation toward the common good when they planned a government ‘by the people, for the people, and of the people….’” 4 They specified “the components of the common good” when they said “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 5 In pursuit of that Common Good, we are reminded that “‘We the People’ are not a special interest group.”6

Yet, there are real differences among us. “[Our] notion of democracy straddles and tries to harness two divergent traditions: the one pertains to the common human good …, with its concern for character formation and virtue, friendly authenticity, obligation and responsibility to and for others who comprise the social whole; the second pertains to individual rights, social contract justice, and tolerance. Call the first tradition, republican; the second, individualist….”7

Some suggest that these two notions of common good and individualism are not antinomies, that in fact “the American experiment was an original conception of the common good with central to the common good the protection of individual rights.”8 The suggestion that the Common Good and the individual are necessarily opposed to one another incorrectly assumes that “liberal individualism and communitarianism exhaust the possibilities for conceiving social relations.”9 Yet the American experience has shown us the importance of what we might call “intermediary” institutions, that is, the informal groups and formal organizations (including nonprofits and foundations) that mediate between the individual and the society.10

Mediating institutions help establish that the Common Good is more than an aggregation of individual rights or goods: “The whole is … necessarily more than the sum of its parts and the independent goodness of the whole is what seems to make intelligible the loyalty of citizens, even their sacrifices of closer [individual] … goods.”11 The philanthropic sector plays a key role in helping individuals to engage in dialogue and action with one another to realize that a better, more just society is possible when individuals work together.

“The common good is … conditioned by human attention, intelligence, judgment, and responsibility.… [It is] open … to our own liberty or self-determination and its thoughtful, sensitive exercise.”12 “But, without friendly authenticity—without mutual trust, fidelity to our moral obligations, and regard for others, especially our community’s most vulnerable members—the common good is jeopardized by our own self-regarding selfishness.”13 “What constitutes the common good of a particular community at a particular time is not a matter of theory, but of practice, indeed of prudence.”14

Caring to Change believes that philanthropy exists to serve the Common Good prudentially. As framed by Bob Payton, a prominent former foundation leader and scholar, its task is to move beyond compassion to work for a strengthened community which he “relates to the things that bring us and hold us together. The emphasis is on mutuality and sharing, common values that override or discipline our self-interest and competitiveness; a healthy community not only permits but encourages vigorous individual development within a few powerful constraints.”15

But what are those “common values?” Payton says “My bias is clearly in favor of organized inquiry into the values, principles, and purposes of philanthropy, as well as efforts to better understand how our system works. The future of philanthropy depends on its self-renewal, in John Gardner's sense of that term.” Payton suggests every philanthropic organization should foster:

  • Commitment beyond self

  • Worth and dignity of the individual

  • Individual responsibility

  • Tolerance

  • Freedom

  • Justice

  • Responsibilities of citizenship. 16


This list is not exhaustive, nor particular to philanthropy. Sissela Bok, the philosopher and ethicist, speaks to common values across societies, including first those minimally necessary to survival such as mutual support, loyalty and reciprocity. A second set pertain to negative duties in refraining from harmful action including force and fraud, violence and deceit. A third set is concerned with rudimentary fairness and procedural justice, requiring truthfulness and equal and just treatment. “There are certain rules of conduct that any society must stress if it is to be viable. These include the abstract virtue of justice, some form of obligation to mutual aid and mutual abstention from injury, and, in some form and in some degree, the virtue of honesty.”17

The Institute for Global Ethics, headed by author and foundation trustee Rush Kidder, affirms these inventories in asserting that there are five “universal values” of compassion, fairness, honesty, respect, and responsibility.18 This is further reinforced by the FrameWorks Institute which identifies freedom, democracy, leadership, defending the integrity of allied institutions, opportunity, community, connection, prevention, and stewardship as values very widely shared by Americans.19

These “common values” must not be confused with the values of the majority or of a community that restricts membership and excludes some voices. Rather, what we might call “common values” are those that create and maintain the conditions necessary for on-going dialogue and debate about what constitutes the Common Good in theory and practice. Such conditions include both basic rights to survival but extend also to conditions that enable people to participate in public projects and discourse. John Dewey warns us “against identifying the community and its interests with the state or the politically organized community”20 Dewey defines the “public” as opposed to the state as consisting of “all those are who affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.”21 This definition of res publica—the commonwealth—implies that the public interest is only protected when those who are least powerful are protected. It further suggests that we must always be on guard for the consequences of the actions of those who purportedly act in the public interest. Lastly, it suggests that we must engage in on-going dialogue about just when it is necessary to care for consequences and how we should take care.

In other words, we recognize that community is “contingent,” as Richard Rorty has argued. Inspired by both Dewey and Rawls, Rorty argues that our conception of justice is not “true” so much as “reasonable,” something congruent with our “deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations.”22 Such a view does not dismiss justice, but rather demands more of both individuals and the institutions in which they participate. The search for social justice is on-going and found only through dialogue in community about who we are and what we want to become. “A just society, a good society oriented toward the common human good is contingent; it relies upon the women and men who constitute that society. The common human good is fragile; it relies upon a range of sets of probable events …. But the crucial contingency is us—our human attention, intelligence, cooperation, collaboration, and responsibility as authentic women and men, who will pay the cost of living the human good.”23

Caring to Change argues that it is appropriate, perhaps essential, for philanthropy itself to engage the realm of values in service to the Common Good. “[The] common good flourishes only in a democracy constituted by truly good women and men of well-formed conscience and good values, who orient themselves toward realization of good.”24 “Society is the means by which individuals come to see themselves as those whom it has nurtured and developed; society teaches its members to seek their own matured responsibilities as members of a polity, the activities of which are to be justified as the instrument enabling them to seek their common good together.”25

Given the imperfect socialization of many to such values, and the failings of society more generally, a significant task looms large for philanthropy. “Some persons” – Caring to Change suggests ‘foundations’ – “must will the common good not just formally, but also materially…. Their specific actions are actions that materially advance and maintain the common good.”26

We are in a historical moment when philanthropy can serve its own interests and foundations can advance their diverse missions exactly by contributing more to the Common Good. “The common good is common sense. …[it] is post-ideological in the best sense. It’s something more innately human: faith. Not religious faith. Faith in America and its potential to do good; faith that we can build a civic sphere in which engagement and deliberation lead to good and rationale outcomes; and faith that citizens might once again reciprocally recognize … that they will gain from these outcomes.”27

This sense of enlightened self-interest is reflected by the American public today. In a recent poll, 87 percent said that they would be more likely to support a political candidate who believed in the Common Good when it was defined as “putting public needs above the privileges of the few, doing more to aid the poor and disadvantaged, and treating people with respect and dignity.” 28 “Americans recognize the absence of a common good in civic life and yearn for some leadership that will do something about it. …. 68 percent strongly agreed with the assertion that ‘our government should be committed to the common good.’”29

When other Americans were asked how they themselves would define the Common Good “the two most frequently volunteered answers [were] … ‘Good for all concerned/involved/more than individual’ (20 percent), and ‘Good for the majority/not just for the few’ (15 percent).”30

While themselves individually cherishing the Common Good, a significant minority (about 25 percent) of “Americans also expressed doubts about the Common Good as a guide for government,” believing the “society is too diverse for there to be a single Common Good.” There is also fear among younger Americans and people of color that their voices and needs would not adequately inform the Common Good.31 Further, McAdams has shown that while usually sharing fundamental values, liberals favor preventing harm and ensuring fairness while conservatives today are “drawn to loyalty, authority and purity” put significantly different weight on those that tend to undergird their ideology.32

There are “three marks or signs that suggest the presence of a genuine common good. The first is collective causality, i.e., that actions can be traced to the community and not simply to individual members or parts. …. The second characteristic is that the actions of the community pursue a goal shared by the members. …. agreement can exist on a continuum of breadth and depth. …. The third sign is communication among the members that reinforce the goals and existence of the community….”33

This was understood by President John F. Kennedy when he “engaged Americans precisely at the level of asking them to sacrifice for a common good, through the things that are obvious to us – the Peace Corps, and of course ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’”34 President Lyndon Johnson understood it too when he said “upon signing the Civil Rights Act: ‘I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.’ What Johnson and his advisers knew … was that desegregation would fail if the matter were put to the American people only in terms of the rights of those directly affected; it had to be presented as advancing the common good.”35

Differences in public opinions about both what the Common Good is and who is included in the Common Good themselves reflect the point that we have made above: the Common Good is not something pre-given but something achieved through on-going dialogue and critical debate. Particular efforts must be made to include those voices that have been historically marginalized. The fact that younger persons, poor persons, persons of color, and others who have been disenfranchised doubt that their voices will be heard tells us something of the negative consequences of prior public discourse and demands that we (to repeat Dewey) care for those who have been most effected by those actions. As Georgia Warnke argues, justice is always better served when we open up the conversation. “Conversation allows us to intervene in the political practice of our community with an understanding of it and its history that is both adequate as we can make it at the time and open to self-revision. Since we recognize that it remains only an interpretation, we are also open to any illumination that we can cull from others.”36

This creates a clear, if circular, agenda for foundations. In serving the Common Good, it is essential that social justice prevail: that all in society must have both the right and the capacity to participate effectively in defining it through discourse and in action. The Common Good requires full and equal access to participation in our democratic processes and institutions, as well as effective controls over any abuse of power and position. This becomes circular because social justice is an inevitable outcome of the Common Good and its value base. Without constant and sufficient attention to the Common Good, foundations certainly will produce individual goods in service to some narrower interests – but may do so in ways which fail to achieve their full and enduring power or which may inadvertently harm the social whole.

“Social justice” is advanced by activity intended to alter dynamics that reduce needs or otherwise affect the Common Good by modifying social structures and institutions to achieve more democratic and equitable opportunities and outcomes in the distribution of economic, social, and political resources and power.

Thus, philanthropy must itself begin by becoming clearer about its own values and deciding to stand more clearly for the Common Good. This means that philanthropy will have to extend the discussion of social justice values and become clearer about how their finer evolution and application can serve the nation. There are two key roles for philanthropy: first, to secure – through focused action – the conditions necessary for on-going civil discussion about what constitutes the Common Good, and second, to provide – again through focused action – venues and forums where such discussion can take place.

What needs to be understood clearly is that neither of those two roles can be addressed successfully without foundation efforts to advance social justice, for such is the precondition necessary to legitimate dialogue and authentic deliberation, as well as the creation and maintenance of venues for them. Further, given contemporary US society, there is little reason to believe that such preconditions can be realized absent their vigorous and sustained pursuit by organized philanthropy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., & Swidler, A. (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California.

Berger, P.L. and Neuhaus, R.J (1996). To Empower People: Twentieth Anniversary Edition: From State to Civil Society. Washington, DC: AEI Books.

Bok, S. (2002). Common Values. Columbia, MO and London: University of Missouri Press.

Copeland, M. S. (2008, July 11). Who Will Live the Common Human Good? An Address to the Convention for the Common Good. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from Vote the Common Good: http://www.votethecommongood.com/files/Copeland.pdf

Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press /Ohio University Press.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Noseck, B. A. (2008). Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , In Press.

Jacobs, T. (2009, April 25). Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe -- An Here's Why It Matters. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from AlterNet: http://www.alternet.org/story/138303/conservatives_live_in_a_different_moral_universe_--_and_here%27s_why_it_matters/

Jones, R. P. (2006, October 16). Center for American Values in Public Life. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from People for the American Way: http://media.pfaw.org/pdf/cav/CGGRMemo.pdf

Lewis, V. B. (2005, November 3). The Common Good in Classical Political Theory. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from V. Bradley Lewis: http://faculty.cua.edu/lewisb/Common%20Good3.pdf

Magness, J. B. (1999, April 7). The Genesis and Gestation of a Justice Journey: Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ, Champion of and Educator for the Common Good. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from Title page for ETD etd-042099-225243: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-042099-225243/

Novak, M. (1989). Free Persons and the Common Good. Lanham, MD: Madison Books.

Nowell-Smith, P. (1954). Ethics, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Payton, R. L. (1988). Philanthropy and Its Discontents. In R. L. Payton, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good (pp. 116-131). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Payton, R. L. (1988). The Varieties of Philanthropic Experience. In R. L. Payton, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good (pp. 52-84). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shain, B. A. (1994). The Myth of American Individualism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sherover, C. M. (1989). Time, Freedom, and the Common Good. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Tomasky, M. (2008, Juky 4). Party in Search of a Notion. Retrieved April 22, 2009, from The American Prospect: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11424

Warnke, G. (1993). Justice and Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

1. According to Nowell-Smith, the earliest recorded reference to the idea of the common good was in Ancient Egypt. The term used was “Ma’at.” This term had three overlapping meanings: (a) being straight, level, or even, (b) having order, conformity and regularity, and (c) possessing truth, justice and righteousness. See. Nowell-Smith, P. (1954). Ethics, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, p. 14.

2. Copeland, M. S. (2008, July 11). Who Will Live the Common Human Good? An Address to the Convention for the Common Good. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from Vote the Common Good: http://www.votethecommongood.com/files/Copeland.pdf, p. 4.

3 Lewis, V. B. (2005, November 3). The Common Good in Classical Political Theory. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from V. Bradley Lewis: http://faculty.cua.edu/lewisb/Common%20Good3.pdf, p. 3.

4 Magness, J. B. (1999, April 7). The Genesis and Gestation of a Justice Journey: Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ, Champion of and Educator for the Common Good. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from Title page for ETD etd-042099-225243: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-042099-225243/, p. 33.

5 Novak, M. (1989). Free Persons and the Common Good. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, p. 44.

6 Bellah, R.N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., & Swidler, A. (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California, p. 271.

7 Copeland, op. cit., p. 6.

8 Magness, op. cit., p. 33 citing Novak, op. cit., p. 44.

9 Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

p. 227.

10 For the definitive version of Berger and Neuhaus’1977 thesis on the role of mediating institutions, see Berger, P.L. and Neuhaus, R.J (1996). To Empower People: Twentieth Anniversary Edition: From State to Civil Society. Washington DC: AEI Books

11 Lewis, op. cit., p. 7.

12 Copeland, op. cit., p. 4.

13 Copeland, op. cit., p. 6.

14 Lewis, op. cit., p. 17.

15 Payton, R. L. (1988). The Varieties of Philanthropic Experience. In R. L. Payton, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good (pp. 52-84). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, p. 60. Emphasis added.

16 Payton, R. L. (1988). Philanthropy and Its Discontents. In R. L. Payton, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good (pp. 116-131). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, p. 123.

17 Bok, S. (2002). Common Values. Columbia, Mo and London: University of Missouri Press, p. 13 -16.

18 Kidder, Rushworth M. Moral Courage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers,2006, p.47.

19 FrameWorks Institute. Topic: A Five Minute Refresher Course in Framing. Retrieved October 20, 2009 from http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/ezine8 and related publications at http://www.frameworksinstitute.org.

20 Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, p. 15.

21 Dewey, op. cit., p. 16.

22 Rorty, R (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 58.

23 Copeland, op. cit., p. 8. Emphasis added.

24 Copeland, op. cit., p. 7.

25 Sherover, C. M. (1989). Time, Freedom, and the Common Good. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, p. 14.

26 Lewis, op. cit., p. 12.

27 Tomasky, op. cit., p. 5.

28 Jones, R. P. (2006, October 16). Center for American Values in Public Life. Retrieved April 30, 2009, from People for the American Way: http://media.pfaw.org/pdf/cav/CGGRMemo.pdf, p. 1.

29 Tomasky, M. (2008, Juky 4). Party in Search of a Notion. Retrieved April 22, 2009, from The American Prospect: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11424, p. 5.

30 Tomasky, op. cit., p. 5.

31 Jones, op. cit., p. 3.

32 Jacobs, op. cit., p. 1.

33 Lewis, op. cit., p. 8-9.

34 Tomasky, op. cit., p. 2.

35 Ibid. (emphasis added)

36 Warnke, G. (1993). Justice and Interpretation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 160.

 

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