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April 22, 2006

Thoughts on the Common Good

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

As an old-fashioned utilitarian, I would be expected to look fondly on Mike Tomasky's essay on the common good as the core of the Democratic message.  And I do! Tomasky has expressed a big part of reason that I'm a Democrat, and, I think, the reason that a lot of other people are Democrats too. Democrats are sympathetic and benevolent people who want to help others -- whether the others are poor Americans with no health care or gay couples who want to get married.  The same sympathy and benevolent concern for others that characterizes liberalism is at the center of our concern for the common good.  (Though an annoying issue arises in the freedom to marry case... see below...)

Digby asks how Tomasky is going to square a bunch of different liberal positions with the common good, and I think good answers are available for some of them. For example, we're against the war because killing our soldiers, squandering hundreds of billions of dollars, alienating our allies, tying down our army, and strengthening the hand of international terrorists is destructive of the common good.  Abortion is trickier, because you have to correct the biological and philosophical confusions that make people think the fetus has a mind or is capable of being harmed, and that its welfare figures into the common good.  But once you correct these confusions, there's really no good response to the argument that we're all better off if women get more control over when they bring children into the world.

Before I start raising problems for Tomasky, let me mention that one thing that makes all this "common good" stuff more attractive is welfare reform.  Now it's a lot harder for Republicans to hang all this "welfare cheats" stuff around common-good-promoters' necks like Reagan did. 

There are two potential concerns I'd like to raise about defending liberal positions in terms of the common good.  First, if my understanding of the phrase "the common good" is standard, it's weighted towards the good of the majority of the people in the community -- in this case, the majority of Americans.  It's not enough for a minority to be significantly advanced while the majority are unaffected.  A majority or near-majority of Americans have to be made better off for the common good to be genuinely advanced.  (To take the extreme case, if one person suddenly becomes way better off, is the 'common good' advanced?  My ears say no.)  That's why it wasn't especially useful in pushing for the end of segregation, as Tomasky notes.  This problem seems to animate a lot of Digby's concerns, particularly on social issues and immigration. Now, I'm confident that ending segregation and  respecting the right of gay people to marry is better even for those in the majority, but I think it's pretty hard to bring majorities around to seeing this.  If I'm hearing and understanding the phrase "common good" in a nonstandard way, please tell me.  But it sounds slightly non-utilitarian to me in its majoritarianism, and it blocks the use of utilitarian arguments for the protection of minorities at neither a cost nor a benefit to the majority. 

An extension of this point is that some of the best arguments on issues like immigration get lost if "common good" excludes the welfare of people outside the American community and just means the "common good of Americans."  And when you're trying to push for humanitarian foreign aid or stopping genocide in Sudan, this problem is even bigger.  Sticking with talking about the common good of Americans deprives you of  some arguments for the Iraq War, there's just so many great arguments against the Iraq War that I'm not all that worried.  But if concern for the common good opens up avenues to isolationism or some kind of brutish Jacksonian foreign policy, that's a problem.  The philosophy of our party ought to be compatible with good old liberal internationalism. 

My second concern has to do with some intermediate-term political strategy on exactly those economic issues where talk of the common good is most applicable.  We've got great policy proposals that will help key swing voter groups -- working-class whites and Hispanics, in particular.  Why should we be talking to these people about the common good?  We're not asking them to sacrifice anything for the common good -- we're asking them to stand up and claim the guaranteed health care and higher wages that they rightly deserve. 

That's why I like John Edwards' way of selling our economic proposals so much.  Hard work is presented as the essential American value -- something that must be respected and rewarded.  "Hard-working people deserve a better standard of living" is the basic message here.  It combines the pocketbook-level appeal to self-interest with a forceful moral argument about what workers deserve, and the key swing voter constituencies we want to help can see themselves both as being praised for the virtues of labor and offered rewards.  Given a choice between sacrificing for the common good and claiming the rewards that are due me for my hard work, I'd... well, actually, I'd probably sacrifice for the common good.  (We utilitarians are crazy that way.  And more to the point, I'm a healthy single guy with modest tastes and a fun job that I have lately been able to do without wearing pants.)  Most people, I'm guessing, are a little more starved for reward than I am. 

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No matter what rises to the top, we must understand and have a strategy for the push back from the repugnicons. The best of these ideas would naturally defend themselves and leave little room for easy refutation. To this extent the Common Good arguement would seem to provide the natural self defense that we need, but I bet that is wishful thinking. The first problem is that it plays into an established meme; the Liberal Lefties as Communists meme is strong for them and the common good is easily wrapped up in it.

Within the Common Good arguement are plenty of ideas that effectively describe the values we (in general) hold. I especially like benevolence as one of the key values. When we start talking about economy I agree that John Edwards talked abot it good and I agree that the corner stone of his commentary was hard work. Other parts economic opportunity amd the having a piece of the American dream. Both of these are also good key values and I can see lots of opportunity in pointing out that the American dream was never intended to be for corporations only. Hard work doesnt pay anymore.

Sucking up, robbing the other guy blind, tricking them like some snake oil salesman... those are the kinds of things that pay these days. Rich is where many of us would like to be, filthy, money grubbing rich is where most of them are. Those are the rumblings we are attempting to address.

It seems to me that the American Dream is out of reach for many Americans. Most of those same Americans are voting red because they think of us as liberal leftie communists. Sure they got sucked in big by the snake oil man, but they are voting their fears more than anything else and there still afraid of the commies.

Posted by: Fr33d0m | Apr 22, 2006 7:20:29 AM

"Hard-working people deserve a better standard of living" is the basic message here.

I think Clinton made a similar argument. Heck, I think T. Roosevelt made a similar argument, when discussing the Square Deal. So it's not a particularly novel argument for progressives to make.

My concern is with the inflection. To a great degree, Reagan was making the same argument - welfare queens were people who weren't playing by the rules, and Reagan was going to enforce the rules on behalf of those who did work hard. Republicans against immigration reform are making a related argument: people who don't play by the rules should not be rewarded.

I'm increasingly leary of populist arguments. They seem to resonate with the people least likely to vote for Dems. (And I don't think they're accurate.)

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 22, 2006 8:52:24 AM

i agree with you that women need to have the completely protected option of their right to choose. it is a matter of deepest privacy and decision-making.
....but i also wonder at the phrase, "correcting the biological and philosophical confusions".
....the spark of life and mysteriously complex cellular patterns and energies that create new human beings,are cosmically remarkable enough.
...how does one "correct biological and philosophical confusions". watching something "become", and cross the mysterious brink, "into" existence?
life has formed. something has come suddenly into existence.
.....regardless of how one can measure the neurological or physiiological development in those early stages, there is a miracle (what other word can we possibly use) that is happening, that surely transcends the debate.
...once there is potential for life, and life appears, we witness the whole unfolding of creation in an amniotic sea.. there is sentience and Essence in the very helixes. for me, it becomes a place of awe and not intellectual certainty.
...and even though i believe profoundly in a woman's right to choose, i think we can never "correct confusions" with a scientific conversation, about the miracle of life or the presence of a sentient force in each fragile strand.

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 22, 2006 12:17:51 PM

First of all, I think that when we're talking about the advancement of the common good, it should be acknowledged that all people deserve some minimum standards. People deserve the chance to get the education they want, the health care they need, and the respect they deserve. You start out with the language of rights, and then use entitlements like health care or social security to advance the common good.

When it comes to the work ethic, I actually wrote something a while ago about how there's a bit of a difference between the Democratic and Republican approach to honoring the work ethic. With deregulation and privatization, Republicans do get rid of some hinderances on personal progress and reward for a good job done. Unfortunately, deregulation and privatization tend to work to decouple work from its reward - in a system with few regulations, it's hard to guarantee that your hard work will be well-rewarded. And, for that matter, people who have rewards might not have worked very hard for them (I'm thinking of a certain POTUS...).

Democrats, on the other hand, would rather keep red tape and taxes where they're necessary so as to be certain that hard work will be rewarded. The payoff might be smaller, but the number of people who get in on it - and I would say that the percentage of the people in on it deserving it - is going to be larger. That's a simple way to work for the common good, while taking advantage of the work people are willing to do for themselves. If you combine this with minimum standards of health and safety, you've got my idea of the Democratic party's spirit in a nutshell, and a pretty nice-looking society to boot.

Posted by: Sara | Apr 22, 2006 12:26:38 PM

Ah Tim... you name two very successful politicians who used populist arguments, and then say you're leery about them! And I don't see why they're inaccurate. We've got a full-fledged economic populist platform with minimum wage increases and universal health care ready to go.

Jacqueline, if you're wondering what it means to correct these confusions, the piece I linked is the place to go. I'm convinced that scientific data, combined with careful philosophical arguments, can clarify the moral issues and show that first-trimester abortion is morally unproblematic.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 22, 2006 1:10:04 PM

I'm convinced that scientific data, combined with careful philosophical arguments, can clarify the moral issues and show that first-trimester abortion is morally unproblematic.

Nonsensical since the great majority of those who oppose abortion are bringing their religion-driven morals to the debate. They want to protect unborn life and find enough scripture in their holy writings to back it up.

Plus "careful philosophical arguments" are not dispositive anyhoo...

While I believe in the woman's absolute right to control her own body, I do not deny there is a conflict of rights here, for the line where abortion becomes "wrong" is completely arbitrary.

I've used the clone argument in the past, but it is just intellectual tapdancing when arguing about real-life babies in real-life wombs.

Posted by: Troy | Apr 22, 2006 1:40:55 PM

Yes, Neil, but--and I say this in the nicest way possible, and as someone who largely agrees with you, at least on the policy issues--you're not very convincing. Frankly, the vast majority of people, even serious wonks, don't have your level of philosophical sophistication. This can work in two ways for you.

First, people might be overawed, and not have the intellectual tools to argue back ("What the hell is utilitarianism, and what are the alternatives?"). Thus, they might adopt your position. This, however, is not very likely.

Alternatively, they will hear your position, not be able to argue against it coherently, but hold to their prior positions anyway. Abortion is like that as an issue--most people don't really think about abortion in a purely logical way--probably even less so than, say, budget policies or what-have-you. Basically, your argument won't convince anyone who's not either already pro-choice or else a philosophy major.

However, the one certainty is that it frankly makes people uneasy about you. As I said, most people don't think about abortion as a logical issue; they use a much broader threshold of "what makes me uncomfortable", which is not something you're going to change with logical argumentation. Frankly, I think your argument is a little off-putting in its certainty--to the average person, it comes off as arrogant and disrespectful. You might want to couch it a little differently.

Posted by: Dan Miller | Apr 22, 2006 1:43:35 PM

i did read your link, and found it very interesting.
thank you for that.
a furtherance of thought.....
... each time something begins anew in the universe, there is an innate wisdom that follows an imprint for a unique creation, coming into being.
...i guess i just think that the cellular energies that create living things reflect a mindfulness in the very imprint.
....what makes a beginning of anything, and calls it out of an abyss of potential, always seems sacred and mysterious to me.
in spite of my political leanings, i always will feel a humility for that.
i felt the same on my walk this morning, watching leaves and roses unfolding, where there were just bare branches last month.
....somehow, in the midst of politics and pragmatism, i think it is important to keep a sense of the marvel in the conversation.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 22, 2006 1:48:39 PM

Yeah, Dan, I know I'm not going to convince anybody with a straight-out-of-Mill utilitarian story on anything. What I'm talking about here is appealing to people's sympathy and benevolence on issues like (say) gay marriage by talking about how much marriage does to make our lives better, and arousing their compassion for the unfortunate gay people who aren't permitted to marry the people they love. Abortion, because of various complexities, is trickier.

The catchphrase here wouldn't be "maximize aggregate utility" but rather "help your fellow man."

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 22, 2006 2:16:32 PM

In retrospect, I should have made it clearer that I was addressing your abortion argument specifically--I seem to have forgotten that psychics are a rare breed. In my defense, I had recently woken up (don't check the time I posted, please!)

Posted by: Dan Miller | Apr 22, 2006 3:05:04 PM

The common good is also served by hopefulness, by optimism. The Democratic Party must utterly reject pessimism, hopelessness, the apocalytic yearning for the end that defines the modern Republican personality. The Democratic Party must be the party of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Posted by: Sharon | Apr 22, 2006 3:10:17 PM

"First, if my understanding of the phrase "the common good" is standard, it's weighted towards the good of the majority of the people in the community -- in this case, the majority of Americans."

This is not my practical understanding. America is not about empowering majorities, but empowering minorities. A very difficult system. We see ineffective majoritarianism in practice currently in America and Iraq. A policy must not only be approved by a majority, but also must not be disapproved so strongly by a minority that said minority will find the policy intolerable and the system unresponsive. Both the right and left sometimes say that minorities rule, but actually minorities have a veto power. They cannot determine policy, but they can very often determine what isn't policy.

The "common good" will be only majority satisfaction or happiness in very oppressive societies.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 22, 2006 5:03:44 PM

that was a very interesting and provocative post.
(so was your comment of the other day on boredom and idleness, with the reference to heller.)

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 22, 2006 5:47:54 PM

One word was running through my mind as I read your piece: religion. Can the Common Good argument adeptly address a possible majority that believes it's in their best interest to require prayer in school, or the teaching of intelligent design, etc.?

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Apr 22, 2006 6:31:12 PM

Dan, I think that some of those points (for instance, the biological point that the fetus can't even feel pain) are very important to winning the public debaet, though that's not exactly the form in which one ought to present them. At the time, I was laying things out in particularly clear terms for some conservatives whom I was arguing with. Also, all sorts of people who aren't utilitarians can accept the arguments given there. Most people accept the moral significance of minds, I think.

Shakes, I'm not really sure what the answer is. I'd hope that saying "Everybody is better off if we let people have freedom of religion, and keep fake science out of the schools" would be a convincing extension of the common-good program, at least to the moderates whom we need to win over. (Winning over the hard-core fundamentalists is both impossible and unnecessary.) But I don't have good data on stuff like this.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 22, 2006 7:21:40 PM

I suspect the comments about presentation are going to be hard to get a grip on. I've no snit as I've been accused of arrogance and scratched my head in puzzlement.
BTW Are you tagging ? I used your John Edwards link ( nice ) and ended up categorizing : you had prior kick at the cat.

Posted by: opit | Apr 23, 2006 12:15:14 AM

Tagging, opit? I do not understand this categorizing talk... please explain!

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 23, 2006 4:15:20 PM

Tomasky's piece is built around an idea that is seriously flawed with the added disadvantage of being verbose. Shakespear's Sister brings up exactly the same point I wanted to make after reading the Tomasky piece. Both parties have elements of individualism and collectivism in their platforms. Democrats tend to emphasize collectivism in economic matters and individualism in social matters. Republicans are the inverse.

Posted by: TheJew | Apr 24, 2006 3:28:12 PM

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