Every Sunday, my UU congregation choruses a shared promise to “honor ourselves, our relationships, and each other with dignity, respect and compassion, always maintaining the common good.” And every Sunday as we speak those words, I look into the many, varied and well-loved faces of my fellow parishioners with appreciation and a sense of community I find in few other places, and nowhere as richly as there. I’ve been saying those words for ten years now, and yet it only recently occurred to me that we were saying “common good”, and not “greater good,” as I’d been interpreting the words.
We hear about the Greater Good a lot. There’s a lovely online magazine by that name, full of thought provoking news and research about altruism and compassion, and a Greater Good Network for charity giving. And a recent documentary film with that title examines the debate about vaccinations. The phrase, “the greater good” is invoked by everyone from religious leaders to politicians and has echoed from the dawn of philosophy in Aristotle’s writings:
“And those things also are greater goods which men desire more earnestly to bring about for themselves or for their friends, whereas those things which they least desire to bring about are greater evils. “
To Karl Marx’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) contention that “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.” — Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)
In ethics, the “greater good” is housed under the theory of “Utilitarianism”, which says that the right course of action is always the one that maximizes the overall good for the greatest number of people. English philosopher Jeremy Benthem called it “the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle.” UUs recount a long religious and political history of working for the greater good , from Susan B. Anthony to Linus Pauling and others, from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King to Occupying Wall Street.
Yet our church’s shared covenant clearly and intentionally calls us to maintain “the common good,” not the “greater good. While the choice of phrasing sounds almost pedestrian beside the likes of Aristotle, Marx, and MLK, I believe the choice of words was quite intentional. When I think about it, maintaining the common good makes enormous good sense; for we cannot serve a greater good without first finding the solid ground of our shared common good.
The greater good can seem an ethereal thing, unattainable, or at perhaps idealistic at best, like Peace on Earth. We all want it, but some people’s peace seems dependent on other peoples’ annihilation. The common good, though – that seems more accessible. Things like clean water, a safe environment, freedom of expression and access to knowledge should be things we can all appreciate and value.
The “common good” can vary by community. Ducks Unlimited seeks to “conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl,” largely for the purposes of hunting those waterfowl. The National Audubon Society also seeks “To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity,” largely for the purposes of enjoying birds. hile the two groups may be somewhat at odds in certain areas of policy and philosophy, they both share a commitment to the common good of managed public lands where people can enjoy healthy populations of birds – whether hunting them or photographing them, and wild spaces for people to enjoy in the company of wildlife. Both groups often support similar conservation measures, and can be part of important alliances in the service of protecting ecosystems.
Finding the places where needs and goals intersect can be a powerful and enduring way to bring people and ideas together. Which is precisely why some groups go to great lengths to drive wedges between potential social allies. Despite our diverse Technicolor world, our vision of it is often quite black & white, thanks to an abundance of shallow, sensationalist media where positions are distilled to two widely, and often wildly, opposing views, and individuals with differing ideas and opinions are flattened into single dimensional caricatures.
Think about current events and some of the popular commentary about them. Glenn Beck contends that Occupy Wall Street is “a Marxist revolution that is global in its nature.” Martin Keeley called global warming “ a scam, perpetrated by scientists with vested interests, but in need of crash courses in geology, logic and the philosophy of science.” And the endless mudslinging by politicians determined to reduce each other into subhuman, non-people in the eyes of the electorate, like Rick Perry suggesting Mitt Romney isn’t a “competent Christian” because he’s a Mormon.
The constant exposure to over-simplified assessments of people and ideas erodes our ability to thoughtfully consider all the facts of a matter and to make informed and intelligent decisions about them. The more we buy into false arguments about issues and accept opinions as facts, the more fractured we’re in danger of becoming as a society, in our communities and even within our families.
In this great short video by National Geographic, the “typical human” is a bit oversimplified but for the purposes of making an important point – that most of humanity is not what we see here in the U.S.. In fact, based on sheer numbers, the most typical human, says NatGeo, is a 28 year old Han Chinese man, of whom there are 9 million in the world! But as National Geographic points out, “Typical is always relative.”
We all need water, but as the video points out, we use it very differently. In the U.S., on average, we each use over a hundred gallons of water daily. In Ethiopia, people use 2.5 gallons daily, and women can spend 8 hours collecting it. Our choices make a big difference, the video informs us, when multiplied by 7 billion. So does finding the global common good among so vast a human family.
Identifying the common good beyond our immediate families and neighborhoods, requires broadening our view and honestly assessing where we stand in the bigger picture, in the wider field of view, and commensurately opens us up to new possibilities and new solutions. More important, honoring that common good empowers us to work together towards a safe, healthy and fulfilling future in the service of our shared humanity, which is the true common ground on which we stand.