Where Is Our Notion of a Common Good?

7 mins read
USS Santa Fe (SSN 763) and its crew arrive at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam

The philosopher John Rawls suggested a theory about what happens when people are asked to make decisions behind a veil of ignorance about themselves, meaning that they have no knowledge of their own position in society — things like gender, economic class, social class. Rawls theorized that, armed with no notion of how they personally would benefit from their decision, people would make decisions good for the many rather than the few or just themselves. Another theory coming from the study of ethics is enlightened self-interest, in which people make decisions that benefit themselves but in so doing are helpful to the larger society as well (and vice versa). Operating through frameworks such as these, people follow the Golden Rule: They do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. 

With 283,000 Americans now dead, there is little evidence of any sense of common good in America. Perhaps our common good died in November of 2016, but it is more likely that the 2016 election was simply a consequence of its death. Would Donald Trump have made the decision to keep his knowledge of COVID quiet if he weren’t certain of his power to keep himself and his family safe? As POTUS, he knew that if he became infected, he would receive only the best care, the kind of care that was unavailable to nearly everyone else. It benefited him to play the virus down. Had the virus petered out, those who took precautions would appear to be extremists. “I told you it would disappear” would likely have been his response. So, he made the gamble and decided to downplay the risk. How bad could it possibly get?

He took the wrong bet but couldn’t back down. After authoring a conspiracy theory which spread to his followers that the virus was a hoax and that masks were for cowards, he could not reverse himself. That would make him appear weak. Because he couldn’t change course, those who still support him won’t change course either, manifesting in simple but valuable actions like wearing masks. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem reportedly spent COVID funds on marketing materials to boost tourism and has encouraged her constituents to go out shopping. She apparently socially distances by going hunting and assumes that every one of her nearly 1 million constituents do the same. Unfortunately, marketing schemes and hunting don’t help the people who go to their businesses or places of work every day to keep them running. Republicans vying to retain Senate seats in Georgia have followed the president’s lead in holding large, maskless campaign events, yet they strike a posture of indignation at anyone who reminds them that they are potentially infecting people. But it doesn’t hurt them if low-wage earners who cannot work from home get COVID, just as it doesn’t hurt them if the hospitals are overrun. They are wealthy and important. They will always get the care they need, and if the economy tanks, they will remain wealthy. Struggle is a part of life, just not theirs. 

Joe Biden reminds us that we are not at war with each other, and his words and demeanor are a comfort to me. Many say that we are at war against disinformation. I would like to believe that those who are being sucked into the Trump Disinformation Campaign are simply vulnerable people who aren’t able to see common sense and reason. However, I know some of them to have formerly presented as intelligent and reasonable human beings. Now they want to argue about whether masks save lives or whether people with comorbidities should be classified as dying from COVID-19 if they get the virus and subsequently die. While it is almost inconceivable that something as simple as wearing a mask has become a political statement, those on the right claim that mask mandates are an attack upon their freedoms, declaring “This is America!” and “This is socialism!”

In 1941, we didn’t have to tell people what to do. We gave up hemlines and silk clothing. Automobiles, gasoline, and oil were rationed to keep up the war effort. Families stopped eating their favorite meals. Men and women readily volunteered to join the fight for democracy both here and abroad. We did this because it benefited — in fact saved — ourselves and our society. 

Yet, in 2020, we won’t sacrifice the luxuries we have come to regard as necessities. We close schools while keeping bars and restaurants open, imposing an incalculable burden upon our future economy. We travel for Thanksgiving when every expert and every ounce of common sense tells us not to. We appeal to the Supreme Court for our “right” to gather in places of worship despite evidence that there is widespread contagion in these sacred spaces. We attack members of Congress who have the courage to suggest that we pay people to stay home to beat this virus — pay people so that they CAN stay home. We won’t wear masks or social distance, and we won’t skip one holiday dinner with extended family. Because this is America. 

As we reflect on this the anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, my wish is that America finds her missing and desperately needed sense of common good. 

Photo courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Page

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