Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Trouble with the Common Good

The trouble with talk about the common good is that no one can quite agree what are the goods we share in common. Two possible routes out of the dilemma present themselves: either abandon talk of the Common Good and search for a set of lowest common denominator goods; or start telling people what the common good is and why they need to listen. The former option we might call libertarianism, which holds individual freedoms ought to be cultivated, not curtailed, by government. And the latter option can be called paternalism, which holds government can and should use its authority to guide citizens who don't otherwise know any better.

So if we can't agree, we either find ways around having to agree, or I tell you what you need to know. Right?  Not quite. These are obvious logical alternatives. If we agree that we don't agree what are those goods we share in common, these are two possible alternatives if our aim remains to articulate a common vision for how we negotiate what are our goods. The idea of common has merely been displaced to another 'level' of analysis. The gnostic idol of conceptual elegance, pristine logical form, prevents us from actually interrogating what we mean by common--whether that be common goods or a common vision for how we negotiate our goods.

Recall the saying about how we are liberals (or communists) in our youth and conservatives (or capitalists) in our old age. The same can also be said of libertarian (especially in our teenage years and early 20s) and paternalists (in our house-holding years and old age). The editor of Comment Magazine, James K.A. Smith, appears to have undergone a transformation of this sort ("You'll Thank Me Later": Paternalism and the Common Good).

Smith points out that paternalism is the new bigotry in our 'age of authenticity'. Though he might have agreed the platitude in the past, now he wants to make an intellectual investment in the language of the common good and sees value in teleological language that explicitly identifies that good.
But I’m getting over it. Quite simply, I don’t think you can sign up for pursuing “the common good” and hope to avoid at least some implicit commitment to paternalism—some sense that one knows what is good for others.
From a certain perspective, Smith's mind appears to have grown, if not exactly lazy, then impatient and tired of waiting; though, from another perspective, his thinking has matured. Which it is remains to be seen.

Significantly, Smith never once interrogates the idea of common. He uses a lot of impressive language about teleological orientations and substantive conceptions. His analysis, however, never gets beyond old hang-ups with the word paternalism.

Failing to interrogate the word common, Smith draws a number of conclusions that fall flat. 'Quite simply, people make a lot of mistakes because they don’t think about their own well-being.' That's true, but obvious. 'So people’s well-being is actually benefited by “nudges” from others...to direct us toward decisions that are for our own good.' That's also obvious. Democratically elected governments are engaged in this sort of directive behaviour all the time. So what?

Smith concludes, 'I just wonder if we have more responsibility to our neighbours—a responsibility to pursue policy that nudges them toward the Good they may not know.' And I have to wonder what is being suggested. Who is this 'we' of which he speaks? A church community reaching out into the wider community in which it is situated? Okay. Not sure a presumptive paternalism will win you converts. A civil community? Okay. Not sure paternalism will win you much respect for your efforts. 'We' in what capacity? 'We' through what means?

The commons aren't common if you enter carrying stick with a carrot dangling from its end. So far as the person dangling the carrot is concerned, there's nothing common about the commons, because they have a priori claimed to be the exception. If you have to talk down to others, you can no longer talk with them. And sticks with carrots very easily become weapons.

Smith cites Aristotle and Aquinas to invest his discourse on why the common good must be dictated to invest it with respectability. I suppose, if he has to cite someone, they are better than a number of other names that come to mind. As much as he might want to, though, he cannot cite the paradoxical paternalism of the Prophet Isaiah, who describes God as a being whose ways are higher than human ways, whose thoughts are higher than human thoughts (Isaiah 55:9), but who nevertheless says, 'Come, let us reason together' (Isaiah 1:18). Nor can he cite the paradoxical paternalism of the Gospel writers, of a God above who speaks to humanity as a man among his fellow human beings, and who shares in the common fate of all: death and taxes. And he cannot say with the Apostle Paul, 'I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,' (Romans 7:15) because he knows what to do, and that's all there's to it.

At least, it is if you do not think very hard about what is meant by common.

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