Our actions are poorly matched to pursuit of the common good.
As I wrote in my latest essay for The Good Men Project, Socrates famously and persistently asked six questions: (1) What is justice? (2) What is good? (3) What is piety? (4) What is courage? (5) What is moderation? (6) What is virtue?
Socrates knew humans are singularly tuned to quality, and he pursued a life of excellence by questioning those who would tolerate him and his many inquiries. The questions he pursued are as vibrant and relevant today as they were more than two millennia ago. I addressed the first question in the list above in my previous essay, and herein I tackle the second question: What is good?
Let’s start with Aristotle, who was taught by Socrates’ teacher, Plato. Aristotle offers my favorite definition of friendship: a relationship between people working together on a project for the common good. Without the common good, we might as well restrict friendship to drinking buddies. The distinction is as clear as that between being a citizen and being a consumer. Sadly, I suspect many people don’t know the difference. The Good Men Project routinely takes on issues that are paradigmatic of the common good, thus making its writers and readers friends in the Aristotelian sense.
In Aristotle’s definition of friendship we find traces of his teacher’s teacher. After all, the second of Socrates’ six primary questions was, “What is good?” For focusing on the common good, I suspect Socrates would have been pleased with Aristotle — and perhaps even with those of us who promote and pursue the common good, although I will admit it may be asking too much to expect the blessing of a long-dead Greek Cynic.
On the topic of Greek Cynics, it’s pretty clear the prophet of America’s dominant religion was heavily influenced by Greeks and especially the Cynics. Yet a well-known Time magazine poll conducted in 2006 found that 61% of Christians in this country believe God wants them to be financially prosperous. In fact, prosperity theology is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians. Never mind the biblical root of all evil. Never mind the gospels, especially the gospel of Mark. When three out of five self-proclaimed followers of a poor, homeless prophet who dedicated his life to working with the poor believe they are entitled to wealth, it’s no wonder you don’t hear much about the common good these days. This stunning statistic brings to mind another of Socrates’ questions: “What is piety?”
It seems our actions are poorly matched to pursuit of the common good, especially with respect to non-human species and future generations of humans. The industrial machine to which we’ve become attached and committed drives the Sixth Great Extinction while ratcheting up climate change, pushing us further into human-population overshoot, and further degrading the planet. We push to extinction about two hundred species each day. Greenhouse gas emissions rise yearly. We add more than 200,000 people daily to an overpopulated planet while continuing to foul the air, pollute the water, and erode living soils on which humans depend for our lives.
Where does it end? How shall we respond, as individuals and societies?