Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground.

– Frederick Douglass

The Common Good is an ethical concept that holds that, for a society to be prosperous, we must regularly put the interests of our community over our interests, the interests of our country over our political parties, and the interests of the Earth over economic or nationalist interests. Too often, individuals and organizations behave in their own – typically economic – interests to the detriment of us all. If our citizens and organizations behaved ethically, we would need much less regulation and enforcement.

Have We Lost the Common Good? | Robert Reich

Foundations, principles, and values

There is no amount of regulation, no magic law, which will compel people to behave ethically. Ethical behavior must be grounded and expressed from group and individual values. Ethical behaviors are rooted in our moral sense and understanding of right action and proper behavior, with public disapproval, shame, and embarrassment as ‘behavioral checks’ on immoral behavior. We must each strive to do the right thing, behave appropriately and humbly, and be open to doing better.

Our organizations must also behave ethically. There is a tension, a gray area, between economic advantage and well-being. Our history traces the slow, consistent movement towards collective well-being over monetary gain. [MB1] The rule of law and the steady expansion of a level competitive playing field [MB2] until the 1980s have given us worker protections, advances in health coverage, the forty-hour work week, child labor protections, and a retirement system. [MB3] [O4] In the past fifty years, progress for most Americans has declined

Status: Issues & Challenges

Immoral behavior on the part of individuals and organizations puts our entire democracy at risk. Without ethical grounding and the robust social and legal enforcement of those ethics, our society is increasingly unhealthy. Only these ethics stand between democracy and its collapse. The January 6th insurrection, for instance, failed because the people protecting the U.S. Capitol risked their lives to preserve democracy.[MB5]  That was an ethical, values-based decision that a handful of people made at the risk and cost of their own lives.

Recently, some politicians have tested convention, revealing ‘cracks’ in our system and demonstrating how those with power and privilege, through unethical behavior, leverage power to gain an unfair advantage. Additional work is needed to shore up regulations and enforcement, and citizens must assertively stand against liars and cheats. To do this, we must learn to identify demagogues, charlatans, and aspiring dictators and push back against them.  But we must also appreciate the wrongness of lying and cheating in the first place and be firm and clear in these values.

Too often, economic factors incentivize organizations to act against the Common Good. Companies may even deliberately engage in unlawful behavior, notably when the “gain” or payoff from the crime is greater than the “loss,” the financial penalty of being caught, such as the concealment and obfuscation of the health impacts of tobacco and global warming. Competitive pressures also lead to unethical organizational behavior. When one organization gets away with cutting an ethical corner, its competitors are pressured to cut the same corners to remain competitive. The ‘slippery slope’ problem, where economic survival works against the common good. Lastly, an organization might willfully engage in unethical behavior simply because it wishes to and believes it can “get away with it.” This frequently happens in monopolies of power—both economic and political – where competitive forces no longer serve as behavioral checks.

There is progress on the part of many organizations towards focusing their efforts to serve the broader set of stakeholders: employees, customers, communities, and future generations, in addition to shareholders. 

Public agencies are entrusted with the responsibility for a service area and for thoroughly disclosing their status, owning their problems, and improving their services, then seeking public input and guidance to improve public trust. There is an understandable ‘defensiveness’ of some agencies due to public attacks on the government in general. The argument on the right that we are becoming a socialist society, or on the left that all corporations are evil, is not productive. The right questions are: ‘Are we making the best use of our taxes?’ and ‘Are the right sectors and elements of our economy engaged correctly for the problems to be solved?’

Program Opportunities

The PSA will educate, empower, and engage citizens and organizations to develop personal and organizational commitments and actions to support the Common Good through local and systemic action, whistleblower training and support, and the identification and exposure of dirty tricks and unethical behavior. 

Suggestions for action:

Develop a course teaching the values of the common good.

Offer a workshop on a current event that illustrates the conflicts or communion good vs. economic need.

Develop a course and workshop that teaches members to recognize typical unethical behaviors and how to deal with them.

Teach a course and run a workshop on whistleblowing.

Michael Freedman

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