Whatever Happened to the “Common Good”?

Recommitting ourselves to the general welfare could solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face

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There is an ancient idea that we have lost, but can and should find again. It’s called simply the common good. It goes back many centuries, but the need for a new dialogue about what it means and what its practice would require of us has never seemed more critical. Our politics have become so polarized and increasingly volatile; and our political institutions have lost the public trust. Few Americans today would suggest their political leaders are serving the common good.

The common good has origins in the beginings of Chrisitanity. An early church father, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), once wrote: This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Of course, all our religious traditions say that we are indeed our neighbor’s keeper, but today people of every faith don’t often actually say and do the things that their faith says and stands for.

(MORE: The Limitations of Being “Spiritual But Not Religious”)

The notion of the common good has both religious and secular roots going back to Catholic social teaching, the Protestant social gospel, Judaism, Islam, and in the American Constitution itself, which says that government should promote “the general welfare.” It is our fundamental political inclination: don’t go right, don’t go left; go deeper. But we’ve lost touch with that moral compass in Washington D.C., where it has been replaced by both ideology and money.

A commitment to the common good could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?

The common good is also the best way to find common ground with other people—even with those who don’t agree with us or share our politics.  Both liberals and conservatives could affirm the moral standard of the common good. And that commitment is especially attractive to young people, who are among the fastest-growing group in surveys who eschew specific religious affiliation.

(MORE: Empty Pews: Everyone is Misreading the new Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’)

The common good should impact all the decisions we  make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices—from how we raise our own children, to how we engage with our local communities, to what we are willing to bring to our elected officials—that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. The nation will soon be deciding on immigration reform, new efforts to prevent gun violence, and how to find a path to fiscal sustainability that reflects our nation’s soul. Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.

59 comments
liberryteacher
liberryteacher

For those of you getting your knickers in a twist about the "common good" being rooted in early Christianity, I believe Wallis was referring to the term itself, since he quoted it and put the term in BOLD print.  Seeing as how he acknowledged it also had roots in Judaism, which as we all know is thousands of years older than Christianity, I don't think he meant the idea of it. But I do think your other points are well taken and I hope that Wallis learns about the sacred texts of other religions as well. 

gaiasoul
gaiasoul

Have to echo the comments below...the common good started way before any concept of any inkling of Christianity.  The writer is biased and assumes facts not in evidence.  The article would have had more impact had it dealt with the alleged Christian Right's argument against why Christianity does not align with a social contract of common good in society.  If you base your premise on lies, then the rest just does not ring true.  Christianity does align with the common good, it just is not where it originated in the history of human behavior.

madhavikaji
madhavikaji

I beg to differ, Mr. Wallis, with your statement: "The common good has origins in the beginings of Chrisitanity." Centuries before the birth of Christ, Hinduism spread the value of "Lok Sangrah" which in English could be translated to mean Common Good. Maybe Christians, like Mr. Wallis, need to read and understand Bhagvad Gita to know that the concept existed way before Jesus Christ founded Christianity. It is not a Judeo-Christian concept. It is good that you, Mr. Wallis, see the point even though in "Johnny Come Lately" Christian manner. We Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and the rest will accept you into our fold of humanity.

But if telling the intended audience a little "white lie" about the Christian origins of Common Good, maybe the only way to bring some sense into the crazy political scene our elected (and non-elected?) leaders seem to have created, taking us from one self-inflicted wound to another, from one cliff to the next, then I understand your intention but do not agree with your statement.

nitrat
nitrat

How interesting that just a couple of days apart, there are op-eds about the common good and the lack of empathy displayed by so many Republicans.

If you have no empathy for your fellow citizens, you have no sense of the common good.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

And the Teapublicans say  "Common Good"?  You mean doing whatever it takes to destroy the Obama presidency.

T.P.Chia
T.P.Chia

The American people have yet to be truely educated that they have the right and duty to promote the common good of the society or nation. Life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness are taught as constitutional rights -- not as what is good for the society or nation. The common good of the society or nation--the general welfare and public interest--is less appreciated by the Amercan society that is culturally, ideologically and politically divided. We do not have a common understanding of what the common good is.

Personal or individual interests have overwhelmed the common good of the society or nation,  And it is difficult for the common good to prevail over special interest with money and political power. 

It is unfortunate that gun control is associaed with public safety and for the common good of the American society, but those who oppose stricter gun regulations do not hesiate to place their own interests and selfishness above societal or national interests.

The value of the common good has been so politicized that public decisions may not necessarily be based on what is right or proper. It is difficult to change the culture of ignoring the common good in American society.  Perhaps, America, as a nation, should improve the quality of civic edcation in public schools.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Common good has been replaced by selfishness.  Ronnie Raygun was I think the largest leader of this movement when he won a Presidency by asking "are you better off than you were four years ago?" with an implication that his policies will make YOUR life better, forget the other folks.    Today, that is still a winning lie, oops, line for any political wannabe.   Ronnie's coronation as King of the US lead to a period of deep tax cuts and massive military spending.  Poverty and illness are largely worse in many places in the richest country of the world.  Churches are fundamentally unable to take care of the problem, but the right wing would have us believe that government is not needed to help, that faith based solutions will take care of the problem.  We used to vote for politicians that would be able to look at the "big picture".  That has degenerated to the point of "what have you done for me lately", which is where we have come to be represented by these morons in Congress that would not vote for a tax increase even if it was paired with much larger cuts.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

The Common Good is best served by Adam Smith's "invisible hand". By each of us pursuing our own economic self interests, we satisfy demand with supply and establish fair prices for all. Innovation is rewarded.  

The alternative is a small group of people deciding what the common good for the rest of us.  If such models (Communism, Socialism) worked, they would dominate the world.  Capitalism for all its faults has delivered the greatest economic benefits to the most people in the history of mankind.  

Epicurious
Epicurious

The lack of "common good" is what this article is all about!! Nowhere in the world does "common good" exist. Thats exactly the point that the author of this piece is trying to get across. Maybe some people to to read an entire article, witha little understanding, before they embarass themselves by posting such asinine comments. Just sayin'......

how_are_you_not_yourself?
how_are_you_not_yourself?

Bible:  "You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours."

Bhagavad-gita:  "You have the right to your labor, but not the fruits of your labor. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your actions, and never be attached to not doing your duty."


RebeccaKlein
RebeccaKlein

The "common good" was ALWAYS simply a euphemism for "white middle-class interests".  People have become more aware of this point now, so the term has fallen out of favor.  

fidelius
fidelius

Our society has steadily become more selfish.  We no longer protect the most vulnerable (the unborn children aborted every day), we prop up institutions that steal billions from us (Fannie and Freddie, and just about every major bank) instead of helping people keep their homes, we send more of our wealth overseas to prop up foreign economies, we purchase goods from those same foreign nations rather than supporting domestic manufacturers, we ignore global climate change because acknowledging it would for us to make some minor sacrifices, etc.  In short, we have become self centered and selfish, short sighted and uncaring.  Our politicians (who we vote in) reflect our societal values. 

If we want to see real change, it has to start in four places:  our homes, our schools, our places of worship and in the media.  The last two are probably the most critical, in that both have a huge impact on shaping societal norms. 

GaryJackson
GaryJackson

Want to promote things for the common good? Ban liberals and liberalism! Liberalism is NOT compatible with civilized society. Never has been, never will be. It's a cancer on all of humanity.


This article is nothing more than a push for new age communism under the guise of religion. There's a special place in hell for liberals who go this route.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Human nature demands survival first.  This is intrinsically egocentric behavior.  But mankind didn't evolve as individuals.  Mankind evolved in tribal units.  For at LEAST hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years, mankind evolved in families/tribes. We've only had civilization for a few thousands of years which isn't enough time to evolve out of a tribal mentality toward our collective approach to life.  Civilization tends to break down tribes, blurring the lines and making it difficult to find one to which we all can "belong".  It is our lack of tribal identification, and our yearning for it, that causes us to diverge from one another.

But when speaking of "the common good", one is always, always, always talking about THEIR OWN TRIBE.  In our fractured society, that is often simply the self, because an individual often doesn't identify closely with one of the many tribes that abound today - race, social status, religion, etc.  In other cases it is a group - political, social, religious, cultural, national, etc.- to which "the common good" is applied.  Only in these "tribes" do we find consensus as to what "good" is and for whom "common" will include.

This explains why a conservative will have a view of "common good" that is so divergent from what a liberal or moderate feels is "the common good".  The same is said of religions, or social castes or even bridge clubs.  "The common good" relates to the tribe in which the members find themselves.

The only way that "the common good" will EVER become universally applied to all people is to get all people to identify themselves individually as a member one, single "tribe".  Until that universal tribal identity is established, "the common good" will be neither common or good to a large number (if not a majority) of others, rendering the notion of "common good" utterly and completely moot.

FrancisMulhare
FrancisMulhare

I think of this every time I drive down the third world quality streets in my neighborhood of million dollar condos and multimillion dollar homes. We live in this Randian society where the pursuit of individual satisfaction is supposed to magically dovetail into a functional whole that is ultimately beneficial for all. What actually happens is that such a society degenerates into an anarchistic  dog-eat-dog free for all where nobody gives a whit about anything beyond their own immediate needs. Humans are naturally selfish and focused on their own survival and prosperity and if you build a society that  enshrines these traits as guiding principles you wind up with an ultimately destructive civilization. It is possible to have a societal structure which harnesses and rewards individual ambition but places sensible restraints on it so that the common good is also served.

richard.easbey
richard.easbey

The alleged "common good" is a collectivist LIE, designed to persuade you that others have a higher claim on your life than YOU do. Otherwise, why do the collectivists among us always insist that we must use government, which is nothing more or less than naked FORCE, to achieve their Utopian goals? I'm wildly in favor of PRIVATE, charitable acts. And yes, I "walk the walk."

SidneyAllenJohnson
SidneyAllenJohnson

Christianity is not and never has been about seeking the common good. This is a lie.

boomeradvisor
boomeradvisor

The common good only matters when all sides agree on what it is.

In this country,  we have a history of dropping our differences  unite against trauma.

This usually happens when all sides are threatened by a singular  trauma (Pearl Harbor, 9/11 (for about 5 minutes), Ronald Reagan's "alien invasion" comment as example).

Our founding fathers were mostly united  with the trauma of removing the British.  With the Constitution. they  attempted to write a guide to achieving the common good.  

Today, everyone has their version of what defines the common good  (our laws notwithstanding).  We draw lines in the sand and stop talking to each other.  

Are we headed towards "the last man standing?"

If that is what it takes to get to the common good, then so be it.  Just know that is a pretty rough path to take with a lot of collateral damage.


Jane112233
Jane112233

The "common good"? Isn't that what communism is about?

bryan.sharber
bryan.sharber

Naive.  Simplistic.  All good people DO strive for the common good.  What the author seems to be missing is the disagreement over how to define the common good, let alone achieve it.  Somehow he seems to believe that the common good has a single description (his) and a single set of actions to achieve it (also his).

We may agree that 'quality education' is part of the common good, while at the same time disagree on the best course to achieve that (teacher accountability, vouchers, funding levels, etc).  And, even if we do agree on the goal and the steps to achieve it, there's still room for disagreement over how to fund it, or if it's even possible to fund. 

Instead, the author seems to lump everyone who doesn't agree with him into a group of selfish people who don't care about the common good.  He is not adding anything useful to the public discourse.