‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’ Paulo Freire
In the light of the forthcoming Federal election, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have released a statement “Vote for the Common Good” in which we are all encouraged to make a responsible decision about who we vote for using the principles of the “common good”. The statement provides some guidelines to help us discern how best to vote for the promotion and protection of human dignity rather than in any terms of self interest.
The common good is a politically unpopular concept, especially at election time. It is not something that we will hear a lot of from those seeking election during the campaign, more typically there will be appeals to the direct interests of various groups or sectors in Australian society. According to Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, the concept of the common good runs contrary to the cult of the individual and the free market economy that hold sway over Western society.
For the Commonwealth of Australia, discerning the common good should align well with the principles of a ‘fair go for all’ that is supposedly core to the Australian character. But past history tells us otherwise. Australian singer-songwriter Archie Roach might have something to say about being given a fair go! Not in any way to justify the policies of the past, but I suspect that those who help develop the White Australia policy which led to the Stolen Generation, felt they were acting in the common good in some way.
So how can we ethically discern what in the best interests of the common good and avoid such disasters?
The philosophy of common good has its origins in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and assumes that the good of all individuals is inextricably linked to the good of the community. Catholic Social teaching on solidarity calls us to a way of thinking that recognises people as social beings with rights, responsibilities and human dignity that is interdependent. Only within such thinking can a true meaning of the common good be formulated.
Pope Paul VI in his 1965 statement Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, describes the Common Good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment…Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family” (Gaudium Et Spes, 26).
In the contemporary philosophy of John Rawls, the common good cannot exist without the notion of justice. Rawls’ holds that while economic inequalities are a necessary incentive for productivity which benefits all of society, any such social and economic inequalities need to be arranged so that they produce benefits for the least advantaged persons. Regardless of arguing the legitimacy of such presuppositions, we must acknowledge that inequalities do exist and as such inequalities could provide a preferential option for the poor. Christ entrusted the poor to us (Mt 25:31-46) and it is our response to that responsibility that defines the type of society in which we live.
Again, how can we use such ethical principles to discern what is in the interests of the common good?
In many ways it’s about accepting that common good is not about any false sense of national unity but accepting that as members of the dominant culture in Australia, what may be beneficial for us may be bad for others. Realising we must be willing to accept sacrifices such that they may benefit others who are disadvantaged. As Christians we must be engaged in the creation of a society in which differences of opinion and beliefs are valued and respected.
Such differences can be viewed as providing a challenge to determine the relative value of each issue towards the common good. Different people have different ideas about what is worthwhile and what policy should be given priority. The precedence of personal rights and the freedom to “do our own thing” can be viewed in a similar manner. However the philosophy of the common good does allow us the opportunity of viewing all peoples as one community whose members have a voice.
The Bishop’s statement Vote for the Common Good asks us to look at current social issues including; the Poor and Vulnerable, Marriage and Family, Child Protection, Life Issues, Indigenous Australians, Refugees and Migration, Education, Health, Peace and Development and Ecology and Sustainability. For each of these issues try to determine which policy being offered by the various political parties has at its heart the common good or if that policy in any way contributes to disadvantage to those already marginalised.
Well the Bishop’s didn’t say this way going to be easy!