After weeks of very public political brinkmanship (on all sides) regarding the debt ceiling our country now finds that our credit rating has been downgraded.
I think that we are being told that we need to get our act together as a country.
I saw a news clip today where a psychologist was offering advice on how individuals could avoid depression resulting from this tarnishing our our nation’s “gold standard” in credit rating. Now, I am sure that there are going to be economic ramifications to this slip from AAA to AA+ that will have to be shouldered by all of us (probably more overwhelmingly by the poor) but I must admit that I do not think this slip is going to send me into a depressive tailspin.
Credit rating has its place but when ranked with the founding principles of our nation – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom, democracy, the dignity of the human person – I do not find it to be the most important element that builds the greatness of our nation.
The truth is we are more than the market and maybe it is time that we start remembering this.
Part of this “remembering”, I believe, is to regain a sense of the common good. A couple of years ago I read an interesting article in America magazine by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek entitled, “How Greenspan Got it Wrong.” (Vol. 200, No. 11, March 30-April 6, 2009) In the article Belousek (a Mennonite philosopher) argues that Greenspan’s philosophy of self-regulation by self-interest (a view held by many) was a strong determining factor in the setup for our country’s economic meltdown in the Great Recession. He goes on to state that we need to regain a sense of the common good and that Catholic social teaching offers a plentiful resource for this regaining.
I was struck by that article and the next semester here at the Center I offered a series entitled, “Discussions on the Common Good” where we read some writings on the concept of the common good and discussed. (I plan to offer the series again this fall semester.) A philosophy professor attended the series and at one point he remarked how philosophical discussion in our society has so overwhelmingly focused on the individual as to obscure any real and substantive notion of a common good. I found his comment to be very revealing of where we find ourselves as a country.
Belousek ended his article with this: “The need now, for both people of faith and all people of good will, is a return to the ethics of virtue and the philosophy of the common good, within which human freedom and individual interest find their ‘due place and proportion.’ The welfare of the nation depends on it.”
Belousek may very well be playing the role of the prophet. We need an understanding of the common good so we can once again start talking to one another and working with one another not because (whether we like it or not) we have to but because it is built within our very makeup.
The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia published by The Liturgical Press has this to say about the common good:
“The concept of the common good is based on the belief that we human beings are naturally members of society. We are not isolated individuals who choose to come together in society only because it is necessary to do so to protect individual rights and freedoms. Rather, individuals find their own meaning and identity and dignity as part of the larger community.
As a social being, every individual has the moral responsibility to work for the good of the community. The individual’s own good is closely related to this common good; it is only when the right conditions of social life are established that individuals and social groups can flourish.
It is not enough to be morally sensitive and principled in one-on-one relationships and in dealings with other individuals. Moral responsibility includes the obligation to work for the social systems and conditions necessary for the human fulfillment of all.
The common good is not a value easily understood in American culture. Because of the strong emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, the good of the community is often thought of as the good of many individuals. ‘The greatest good of the greatest number’ is not, however, the same as the common good. The common good is the social order that makes possible and protects the good of all, the minority as well as the majority.”
Again, “We are not isolated individuals who choose to come together in society only because it is necessary to do so to protect individual rights and freedoms. Rather, individuals find their own meaning and identity and dignity as part of the larger community.”
An understanding of the common good points to a deeper ontological reality: communion and community is part of our very identity and makeup. When we so sharply and starkly divide reality into “us vs. them” or “liberal vs. conservative” or “blue vs. red” we are at some level attempting to split our very nature. This divided approach to existence is destined for frustration and failure.
I agree with Belousek that the welfare of our nation depends on the regaining of an ethics of virtue and a philosophy of the common good. Maybe the slip in our nation’s credit rating will provide the impetus for all of us to reevaluate priorities.
And whether or not the powers-that-be in Washington or on Wall Street catch the hint I know that we (wherever we might find ourselves) can begin crafting human spaces where community is respected and the worth of every individual is acknowledged.