The Common Good

Michael Shirrefs, an Australian researcher and journalist, and his wife came to visit me for an interview. We talked about politics, America, European unity and disunity, and finally the question whether we still have a concept of the common good. How does it look in Trump’s America where billionaires from the president down preach populism but are always ultimately, it seems, in pursuit of their self-enrichment? Do the Europeans still have a sense of a common destiny? Or is the project of a European Union now moribund – reduced to an increasingly unattractive bureaucratic order?

Answers don’t come easily. We find ourselves politically today in a state of exceptional uncertainty. Our world has become so multi-faceted that we find it increasingly difficult to say with confidence where we are and where we are going. To pick one example. The future of every country, including the US and China, will depend very much on the training and education of their young. But do we have a comprehensive view of the strengths and weaknesses of the educational systems of the US and China to be able to say where they will be relative to each other in the next generation? Our world is changing so quickly (in population size, technology, and environmental conditions) that the concepts we have used for so long to make sense of our political reality are losing their grip. Contemporary, manipulated mass “democracy” is no longer democracy in the classical sense. “Freedom” is no longer being free except in narrowly circumscribed situations. And even “politics” is no longer politics as we have known it without its capacity for cooperatively determining a common good. But we lack alternative, new concepts for describing adequately where we are. We find ourselves, in other words, in an empire of disorientation.

This is also the hour for political reflection and awareness or, to put it more ambitiously, the hour of political philosophy. Politics, in the truest sense, is the search for a common good, for a common understanding of the world that allows us to navigate our co-existence. Our question is whether we can revitalize this kind of politics and motivate a sense of the common good relevant for where we are now. We should not expect the political philosophers to tell us what this good will consist in. There is no fixed good to be determined once and for all through expert philosophical reasoning. There are, rather, many different ways to conceive this good and they are not all compatible with each other. Our search for security, for instance, may clash with our desire for freedom, our wish for progress with our adherence to tradition, our desire for justice with our need for liberality and forbearance. Politics is the appropriate domain in which we weigh such choices and affirm this or that common good.

There is a danger in finding ourselves in a world where the parameters of human existence are fixed. That is the totalitarianism Hannah Arendt has warned us about – an anti-political condition in which the cooperative search for the common good has been cut off. In Arendt’s view, this totalitarianism – exemplified in the last century by Soviet Communism and German National Socialism – is by no means a thing of the past. She does not assume that we are political by nature and by necessity. Being political is, rather, for her a human capacity that may atrophy. We may not yet be at this point. It appears offhand that the dark cloud of totalitarianism has receded, at least temporarily, from our coastline. But our new digital media with their potential for large-scale social control may still bring it back and now in an updated and streamlined form.

Totalitarianism is, however, not the only threat we face. Another is the possibility of a chaotic world in which we have abandoned the search for a common good in favor of an unconstrained free-for-all. A complete individualism is, perhaps, an impossible thing. We are social beings right from the moment we are born. We would not even be able to establish ourselves in our individuality without the use of language which exists always and only in the space between us. For all that, the neglect of the need for a common ground and a common good, can still create both misery and chaos.

Europe illustrates the difficulties we face. Its people have lived together for millennia but they have also been separated from each other for millennia by language, tradition, culture, religion, and political affiliation. They have fought each other in terrifyingly destructive wars. For that reason there has also already existed for some time the idea of a unified Europe. 150 years ago, Nietzsche, for instance, was writing of the sickness of European nationalism and his desire to be a good European. After 1945 and the devastations of the Second World War, the Europeans finally seemed to have found a way to make common cause. What united them was their shared belief that the horrors of the past must not be repeated. But that conviction has begun to fade and now the political unification of Europe appears imperiled because of a lack of common purpose. National identity seems to be the best, the Europeans can fall back on.  I agree with Nietzsche that this would be a terrible option. But a new common ground can be found only when the Europeans recognize their diversity as one of their distinctive features and make that the base of their common understanding.

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