What does it mean to be a citizen- a good citizen of our cities, of our countries, of our world…and of this planetary system?
This fall I started my Ph.D. in Integrative Studies in Ethics and Theology. My focus is ethics. It has been amazing to read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Luther, Niebuhr, Kittay, Nussbaum, etc. It is often said that the academy doesn’t care about the real world, but I love (many) of these thinkers because like them I live in a world where real people don’t have food to eat- a world where there is war and violence, and like them I write because I deeply care about how we live together. And my real world informs my questions:
- I’ve read about the war on Syria and then last week on MPR I heard a show where the only ethical framework provided for deciding for US military intervention is the question: “What does this benefit the US?”
- I’ve learned of the violence on the south side of Chicago and I moved to a city that is radically segregated along lines of race and poverty; and I am admonished to stay to the north so I can be safe, while my mayor offers a solution to the violence of 3-year mandatory sentences for illegal gun carriers.
- And my government has factions who want to take away $39 billion from food stamp funding.
- And we are now only 14+ hours before the government shuts down.
And I want to cry because I am unsure why conceiving the common good is elusive. I get that this world is complex; I understand this. But what I will not…what I cannot tolerate are moralistic diatribes that are bereft of the basic understanding that real people are oppressed or freed by our political posturing.
Do we really want to talk of war only in terms of how it benefits us? Really- when there are actual people dying in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the DRC, in Syria? They are mothers and sisters and brothers and fathers. They are people who believe in things and fall in love. And all we can find to ask is: “what about us?”
What if we reject this ethic of individual isolationism? What if we instead- on this eve of the shutdown- we collectively work together for a world where it is not OK for people to abuse or own or mistreat each other any more?
Because it’s not OK for black men and women and babies to die at the park just because they live on the south side of Chicago.
Because it it not OK for people to be denied health-care because they have pre-existing conditions.
Because it’s not true that people are rich because they are virtuous, nor is it true that they are poor because they are deserving of their lot in life.
And yes, I am in favor of funding people who think they “deserve” their monthly food stamps. And this is not because the poor are angelic souls…no, it’s because I’m not OK that people starve…regardless if they are “horrible” or “virtuous.”
And yes, I am in favor of ensuring that everyone can be treated in a primary care clinic…or an ER.
Yes, this world is a mess and I want to work with you to make it better…but I will NOT do this on the backs of people dying in their beds. For if we are doing ethics for any other reason or from any other location than one of the common good…then it is destined to fail and annihilate us and our world.
- Plato and Aristotle- yes, I have some issues with their philosophy- but they reasoned from a conception of the common good.
- Luther argued that we must live this life in service of neighbor.
- Aquinas maintained that the role of the government is to ensure that people have the basic necessities required to pursue the common good and their proper ends.
- Martha T. McCluskey interrogates the construction of who is living “subsidized” lives…and argues that we need to be more honest that we choose to subsidize that which matters to our society (farm credits, tax-incentives for oil companies, food stamps, etc.)
Acknowledging the centrality of the common good in constructing policy does not mean that we have to ignore the complexity of our food stamp budget increasing dramatically year over year. Nor does it mean that life is reduced to self-denying platitudes and enabling dictators.
Rather, the “common good” demands more of us: It requires that we see this planet- our eco-systems, our social structures, our war machines, our domestic violence culture…that we see this common life together as both beauty and broken. And it mandates that we see every person as human and that by doing so we become human ourselves. For as both ancient philosophers, many of our faiths, and the ethics of Ubuntu remind: the fundamental humanity of every person is part of what it means to be human- That we live or we die together. And our movement forward cannot be accomplished at the expense of the least of these.
And in the midst of the rhetoric
and in the midst of the fear
and in the midst of the name-calling
I want us to come to a conception of the common good that actually uplifts the humanity of each person and the common created value of all of life and nature so that we might strive together to create a world where together we all flourish- alive and free.