On the Eve of the Shutdown: Contemplation of the “Common Good”

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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.

11 thoughts on “On the Eve of the Shutdown: Contemplation of the “Common Good”

  1. Sara, it is so affirming to see that you are engaging real-world ethical issues while in grad school. Your analysis is impressive; it reflects your commitment to the world. Also, the quality of your writing shows the confidence you’re gaining through graduate studies!

    1. Thanks, Richard! It’s great hearing from you. I miss you. You can expect to receive some papers from me in the next couple of months for the Richard Pemberton editing treatment!

  2. Sara, Good to read your blog today! I am always challenged by what you write! I have a question that you need to enlighten me on though – you wrote: 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.”
    What is your view on moving people from dependency to responsibility? I want them to eat too, but I don’t want to enable someone’s misbehavior. If my kids don’t take responsibility at home, I don’t reward them, I discipline them to help them grow and become the people I think they should be, because I love them. How do you split this hair?
    Again, I’ve learned a lot from you and respect what you’re doing. So, help me understand the end game here for people who just want to game the system. What requirements would you set up for people to get government assistance for food? Thanks Lady! Say hi to Mr. Andy for me!

    1. Hi Jeff-

      Always good hearing from you! So what I was getting in that section is that a lot of the discussion around food stamps is about who takes “advantage” and who deserves it. I am not sure how being on food stamps is about someone’s misbehavior (if you want to say more about your thinking here, please do). To me it’s more about our communal responsibility, and if anything it is about the “misbehavior” of those in power who have largely made for a system that affords some of us financial opportunities at the expense of others.

      Overall, when it comes to making sense of supporting low-income persons I am of the persuasion that 1) There will always be people who will live off of a system…and that it is part of what it means to live in society; 2) However, the majority of people think they “deserve” food stamps because they have either a- come of age in a community or family where this was just “the way things are” or b- they understand that there are no living wage jobs or employment options for someone like them (it’s very, very hard to get a job when you live in an isolated, impoverished community like South Chicago and have a “black” sounding name and a poor education) and so they believe that as citizens of the US it is our communal responsibility to ensure they at least have some money to live off of….and I agree with them.

      For me, I would rather that we support a minimum threshold at which we financially support people (which is the point of programs like food stamps) and, in addition, work together as a society to find systemic solutions to the root problems for why persons must live off of food stamps. This means taking serious looks at matters such as: minimum wage, available job options, equal education opportunities, job training, parenting classes, reduced child-care, counseling services, access to housing, historic segregation and policies which perpetuate communities of poverty, etc.

      So I both 1) think that even with community development we will always have some people who will need the rest of us to support them through their life (mental health issues, physical dependency issues) and I think that is part of what it means to be society together and 2) that if we really systemically address some root problems as noted above that there would be fewer people who would need to depend upon government funding.

      Does that clarify where I’m coming from?

      Thanks again, Jeff!

      1. Sara, I knew I could count on you for a thoughtful reply. My background has been the hard conservative right, and I can hear them saying that we don’t help people by enabling them, but we actually hurt them more, and keep them in their cycle of poverty and dependence.

        I hear you saying “there’s truth to that, but it’s just not that simple.” Too often we want a quick fix and a one size fits all solution. But your post, and your reply to me, take a much broader and deeper look at the reasons why things are as they are in our country and world.

        But we live in a soundbite society where answers must fit in 10 second sound bites and cater to one side or the other.

        So, thanks for challenging people to think more deeply about how we can act, and not just react, to make our communities better places for people. I hope we are all challenged by Kingdom principles and not just our cultural attitudes.

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