“We’re all in this Together”: the Common Goods of Public Health and the Environment

Dr. Gordon Menzies and Dr. John McClean - Politics and Economics

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After submitting a piece on environmental inaction, Dr Gordon Menzies and co-author, Dr John McClean, are back to dig further into the dynamics of environmental action and inaction,  using the economic theory known as 'common goods'. 

 

“We’re all in this together”, is not a bad motto for the worldwide policy response to the Covid-19 crisis. 

It’s been used so widely by politicians and in advertising that we are tempted to treat it cynically. Yet the world community really is in Covid-19 together. Looking at our situation that way helps make sense of the current events and responses — but it also sheds light on our environmental responsibilities. 

The environment, just like the health system, is a so-called “common good”.

 “The common good” or “common goods” are resources and benefits that a group of people share. A common good belongs to, or at least can be used by, everyone. This is an idea that has been around for several millennia, and we think it deserves prominence in contemporary policy debates. 

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) argued that a city should have a constitution which did not simply serve the interests of the rulers but "the common interest" (to koinei sympheron). Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 BCE) thought similarly that a republic involves a people in “a partnership for the common good [utilitatis communion]”. 

Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) interpreted Aristotle and Cicero using the Bible. In the biblical account, love – broadly defined – is encouraged in a community built on a relationship with God. So, he taught that the goal of law and government should be "the common good" (bonum commune), which was ultimately communion with God.

In medieval English the idea of the common good was expressed as “common weal”. This was the origin of the term “commonwealth” used for political entities. It echoes the idea that the political structure should serve the shared benefit of all.

In the modern era, Catholic Social Teaching has preserved the idea best. Pope Leo XIII (1810 –1903) promulgated the famous encyclical Rerum novarum in 1891 which taught that the role of the State is to provide for the Common Good explicitly including all citizens: “The foremost duty … of the rulers of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity. … As regards the State, the interests of all, whether high or low, are equal” (Rerum Novarum, 32-33). This view has been developed through 20th century Catholic thought and has been taken up into general Christian thought (and more widely).

We can offer two famous examples of the common good that will help fix ideas for us. 

In medieval England, each manor had a commons, usually pasture land that everyone in the village could use. Most of the land was farmed for the lord of the manor, but the commons could be used by everyone in the village for their own animals. Historians and economists debate how well the system worked — but here it just functions as an example. This was a shared resource.

The internet furnishes us with a more modern example, with more compelling economic benefits than the medieval commons. No one owns the internet — corporations, governments and individuals own parts of the infrastructure. All those wires, poles, cables, satellites, routers, data centres, computers and smart phones are largely useless unless they are connected together. We all benefit from the common network. 

There are two contrasts which help to clarify the idea. The first one is obvious, the second more subtle.

“Individual Consumers” do not Pursue the Common Good

The obvious contrast is with the assumption which dominates our culture and undermines interest in the common good. We are trained to be “individualists” and are inducted into the worldview of “consumerism”.

Where does this outlook come from? There can be little doubt it draws from the post-1980s seepage of market economics into everyday life, what is sometimes called neoliberalism.  

Neoliberalism has impacted not just our economic and political life, but extends to a whole range of communities, like churches or service groups. It even affects our views of relationships, as families are nurtured, or not, according to the principles of cost benefit analysis for the individual. Apart from relationships with children, all other relationships are deemed worthwhile only if the benefits exceed the costs. 

Let’s unpack what it means to be defined as an “Individual Consumer”. 

 

Individualism: “I Am the Centre of the Universe”

In individualism the individual stands central and isolated. This is captured in the tag line for an insurance advertisement: “For the most important person in the world... You.” 

In previous generations people had a place and purpose from a wider group. Individualism doesn’t think like that — it focusses on my comfort and my freedom.

 

Consumerism: “I Am What Buy and I deserve to be served”

We might well add in consumerism — where the shopping trip is our model of life. Accumulation and experiences bring fulfilment, and money purchases bring the right to be served. Society is a market to which we can sell goods and services; as consumers we “buy” that view. 

 

None of this is to say the notion of the individual, or the practice of commerce, is bad. But when those become the lens through which we see all of life, when we think as “individual consumers”: then there is not much room for the common good. I am interested in what I can own. Real benefit comes from my possession and consumption.

The Common Good is Not Equivalent to the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

We have already mentioned the synthesis of classical and Christian thought which set up the idea by the Middle Ages and saw it preserved in Catholic Social Teaching. In the early modern era, however, it took a somewhat different turn. 

John Locke (1632—1704) argued that politics should serve "the peace, safety, and public good of the people" and David Hume (1711—1776) thought that social conventions exist for "public" or "common" interest. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) thought that "the common good" (le bien common) was determined by the general will of the people. 

These thinkers defined the term in different ways but were generally moving away from views which thought of the common good as shared virtue (and communion with God) for more pragmatic concerns for material welfare decided by popular preference. This paved the way for Jeremey Bentham (1748–1832) to propose his utilitarian principle of “greatest happiness of the greatest number” which aims to maximise individual freedom and allows modern society to operate with ethical pluralism.

Bentham’s outlook is a common approach to ethics in our society. It is often paired with neoliberalism, the idea being that the economy grows the biggest ‘pie’ to divide, and then policymakers ‘maximize utility’ by pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number as they divide the pie. 

There is nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes. There can be overlap between the greatest good and the common good. Looking after the commons can contribute to the greatest good in a utilitarian sense and vice versa

But sometimes utilitarian calculations can extinguish the common good, as was the case with commons in England at the dawn of the industrial revolution. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the commons were enclosed to become private fields for the owner of the manor. The owner paid compensation to the tenant farmers who had been using the commons. Both sides thought it was a good deal and there was probably an increase in total good, valued commercially. (Though much depends on how one evaluates the quality of life of the agricultural labourers who moved to the city to work in factories).

We can argue about the wisdom of the enclosure of the commons. The point is that measuring the total benefit to the greatest number is not the same as promoting shared goods. 

A more contemporary, and contrary, example where the common good has not been extinguished by utilitarianism is the recent policy response to Covid-19. 

The primary goal of social distancing of the last few months — no eating out, no theatre, no sport, no physical church worship — was not so much to protect every single individual, but to limit the spread of the infection across the community. 

Indeed, it is hard to explain the political support for these measures just by using utilitarian calculations. The individual risk of contracting Covid-19 is low enough, but the risk of dying from it is extremely low for most people. Of course, young “individual consumers” are less likely to die than the elderly, and this explains the relative difficulty of getting compliance in younger groups, but is there more going on here? 

We suggest there is. One of the reasons for the political support that social distancing enjoys is that COVID has the potential to overrun medical systems. Scenes in Spain, Italy, New York, Brazil were not just of people dying — but of the hospitals over-flowing and medical staff overwhelmed. For a modern society, that threatens a fundamental aspect of our common good. 

For many of us, the cost of isolation may seem out of proportion of our personal risk from the virus. But the primary motivation is not personal protection but a contribution to a shared good — maintaining the health system. 

Concern for the common good is a different way of looking at life than individualism, consumerism or utilitarianism. The three ways can sometimes point in the same policy direction, but the pandemic gives us an example when this is not so. 

 

The Environment is a Common Good

The environment is more than a resource to generate the greatest good for the greatest number. As with the health system, there is nothing wrong with doing utilitarian calculations when we engage with the environment. After all, it is hard to object to measuring the costs and benefits of various environmental policies! But, as with the health system, there is more going on.

It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of the common good has found a sympathetic hearing within the Christian church. At least with respect to the environment, one way of conceiving the common good is found in the biblical notion of “stewardship”. In contrast with utilitarianism where the environment is conceived of in terms benefits for individuals, stewardship includes appreciation of gratuitous beauty that is not ‘useful’ for any human person. On this view the natural world is not primarily for humankind, but for the glory of God. In an article of some influence, Lyn White Jnr. got this famously wrong in his depiction of Christianity when he claimed of it that ‘no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes’. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins did a better job of capturing the Christian vision with the notion that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.  

The appreciation of gratuitous beauty is a human trait, borne out by the survey phenomenon of “existence value”. Although much neoliberal evaluation of the environment is utilitarian – based on “use value” – there is the widespread phenomenon that some people report valuing the existence of something that they will most likely never visit, or use – a pristine Antarctic being a textbook example. 

 

Does Pursuing the Common Good Lead to Good Environmental Policy?

There are practical, localized reasons why it is wise to attend to the common good. Everyone benefits when most people act as neighbours and citizens and not simply as individual consumers. Think of the way it works at the level of a household. If everyone contributes to the tasks around the house — cooking, washing up, cleaning — then they all benefit together. If a family is “all in this together” then it’s better for all if each makes their contribution. 

There are national and global reasons to attend to the common good too, and these are relevant for environmental policy. Using the common good lens, the environment doesn’t have to be conceived of as a shopping mall item for “individual consumers” even with the seemingly generous (but ultimately inadequate) utilitarian proviso that there is an inclusive and fair addition of all these consumers’ wellbeing. Such an aggregate valuation can too easily fall short – it would have us neglect or even destroy the gratuitous beauty which surrounds and envelops us. 

The worldwide policy responses to Covid-19 provides a beam of hope that the notion of the common good has political power, even transcending different political systems. As argued above, the lost GDP and added-up inconvenience of social distancing probably wouldn’t pass a cost benefit test for good policy. Yet in a common good account this is to miss the point that we do not want to see members of our community needlessly die, or medical staff have to live out the nightmare of the trolley problem as they hand out limited ventilators. For once, it seems the common good has triumphed over utilitarianism. 

Articulated and handled well by leaders, a robust notion of the common good could therefore form the basis of responsible environmental policies, by seeing the common good as something worth paying for. 

No one ever pretended that saving lives has been costless in this pandemic, but the pursuit of a functioning medical system has been a good worth paying for. When will it be recognized that some environmental policies which promote the common good are worth paying for too? Many such policies, such as carbon taxes or tradeable rights to pollute, would be nowhere near as disruptive as Covid-19 has been. 

If Covid-19 teaches us nothing else, it is that the voting public can under certain circumstances get behind the politics of the common good. 

 

This would be a good lesson to heed. 

 

Dr. Gordon Menzies an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and author of Western Fundamentalism: Democracy, Sex and the Liberation of Mankind. John McClean is the Vice Principle, and lectures at, Christ College, Sydney with a focus on Systematic Theology and Ethics.

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