The Common Good and the Democratic Ideal

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Every course of action can open or close opportunities, make new courses of action more or less possible. What we do changes conditions. Making things better increases possibilities for new action; making things worse reduces possibilities for new action. Actual consequences become resources or obstacles in a new situation. The end of one course of action becomes a means (or obstacle) in a new situation. The quality of ends projected in imagination is their potential as means in releasing new possibilities. From this point of view, an end that is not also conceivable as a means, is a "dead end." Taking an extra part-time job may mean more cash on hand, but it may also close off educational and career opportunities that will count later on.

2. There is no single "end-in-itself." There are many "ends." Ends projected by an individual may be conflictual or compatible with one another. A person may be at "cross-purposes" with himself. Courses of action should be mutually reinforcing; we get more done when our energies work together. Projecting ends which work together increases the possibility of their fulfillment.

3. But every moral situation is also a social situation. Our acts are alongside of and interact with the acts of others. The things we do create resources and obstacles for others as well as ourselves, and the things others do create new conditions that have to be reckoned with. We may be the cause of their present or future trouble or we may provide conditions that open up new opportunities for their improvement. To a great extent, we grow or decline together. Thus, practical wisdom requires taking care not only that our own acts and ends work together, but that they work together with and promote the worthwhile acts and ends of others.

4. An end is inclusive, rather than exclusive, to the extent that it coordinates a whole series of acts, for a long time, and over a wide area. In general, it is important to frame ends which are inclusive, expansive, and enduring, rather than exclusive, contractive, and short-term. It is important to imagine, as far as possible, remote and long-term consequences. Very inclusive ends, as opposed to particular ends (which arise from and are projected to complete particular situations), are ideals (which try to project a view of a larger social whole). In humanistic ethics, the most inclusive end is the common good, which includes the possible fulfillment of many individuals together. It is the vision of unique and distinctive individuals developing their capacities in mutually reinforcing association with one another.

5. Because each human being is unique and irreplaceable, has a unique angle of approach to the world, as well as things in common with others, taking the ends and acts of others into account requires sympathy. If all human beings were basically the same, we could understand others simply by understanding ourselves. Sympathy (or empathy) attempts to appreciate the unique standpoint and irreplaceable quality of each individual. This requires generosity or open-mindedness. The common good does not require that individuals suppress their individual interests, only that they adjust their actions so as to be compatible with and to promote the development of the capacities of others. In our imagination, we try to make room for the concerns of others and to adjust our course so as, at the least, to bring no harm to others, and, (optimally) if possible, to assist others in their progress.

6. The common good includes two aspects, which are inseparable: the development of the capacities and powers of unique and irreplaceable human beings and the development of cooperative, fraternal, and mutually helpful ways of associating. In other words, individual growth means widening and expanding of one's horizons to include others and their concerns. Growth means deepening of character while extending and expanding the horizons of one's concern. Humanity means unique angle of vision and interest which is inclusive (social), as well as the projection of purposes which bear the stamp of unique individuality while being inclusive rather than exclusive. The common good includes cooperation as promoting individual growth and enlargment and broadening of individual interests to include the interests of others.

7. The big picture includes others. Interdependence is a fact. We are connected. As Rodney King stated, "We are stuck here for a while together." Being connected, we can work together or work against one another. Since cooperation works better than conflict of energies, individual courses of action are best achieved when modified flexibly in the face of the movement of the energies of others. The flexibility of unique striving adapted to work together with the unique striving of others, so that both are moved forward rather than impeded, so that they are mutually reinforcing, is the unity within diversity sought in the light of the democratic ideal. The imaginative vision of the common good, which brings into view the possible development of many unique individuals together, is none other than democracy -- which includes the development (liberty) of qualitatively unique (equality) individuals in mutually reinforcing association (fraternity) with one another. Unlike the utilitarian ideal, it is objective rather than subjective. It looks to a future when human beings and their affairs will be rather than simply feel better. The satisfaction or pleasure taken in each success, though enjoyable in itself for the moment, is thereupon a means (not an end) or incentive for further striving.


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Copyright © 1997 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.