247. "How Americans Can Contribute to the Common Good," Fundamental Sources of Morality in American Politics, The Long Term View, Vol. 3, No. 3, Dermont Whittaker, Ed., (Andover, MA: Massachusetts School of Law), (Fall 1996), pp. 78-81.


In 1989, while I was a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School teaching ethics, I came across a finding in the library that symbolized for me the problem people have today in recognizing the common good. I found that young Americans believe very strongly in their right to be tried before a jury of their peers if charged with a crime. But when asked to serve on the jury, they answered, "Find somebody else." Such an attitude is illogical; it is easy to see that if your peers will not serve on a jury, you will not have a jury of your peers. Such an attitude is also ethically unacceptable; it takes from the common good without giving.

Symptoms of this imbalance--citizens taking from but not contributing to the common good are everywhere. For instance, study upon study shows that Americans feel very strongly that there should be less government. In complete contradiction, however, they demand more government services, such as health care, education, and housing. The ultimate example of this disjunction is somebody in a TV audience who, during discussion of what to do about the $500 billion bill for the savings and loan crisis, shouted from the back of the room, "The taxpayer should not have to pay for that; the government should." Obviously, we cannot personally benefit from the government if individuals never give to the government.

We see all societies as having their own particular pattern of balance between the common good and individual rights. The image of a bicycle is useful to understand such balance. The bicycle either leans too much in the direction of individual entitlement and uncontrolled liberties, or it threatens to fall in the opposite direction of too much collectivism, of too many duties to and demands by the collective.

Keeping in mind this image of a bicycle, we should not seek to pull society from one side to the opposite side, but instead try to keep it at a balance point in the center. It is a process of continual correction. In the United States, the unique contribution of the communitarian movement is to underline the importance of simply throwing one's weight in the direction needed to right society.

In our current situation, I tend to favor tipping the United States away from uncontrolled liberties toward greater appreciation for the common good. On the other hand, in places like Albania and China, I would argue for more individual rights because in these countries the common good (or what the government has defined as the common good) is all-too-well attended to. In American society, our mission is not to neglect rights--rights are what make this country great--but to realize that these rights must be balanced by a sense of the common good, by a sense of values, by a sense of personal and social responsibility.

Those who claim that there are no core values to the American experience, that we share nothing except a thin procedural shell, are missing the substance behind that procedure. Substantive values brought us together, and can keep us together.

To point to the importance of core values, however, is not to suggest that these are a given canon, immutably handed down from one generation to another. On the contrary, historical experience shows that the framework must continuously adapt to changing balances within the society and to environmental conditions, while maintaining its own continuity. Examples come handily from American constitutional history. For instance, the concept of privacy is included in constitutional lore although the word "privacy" is not mentioned in the text of the Constitution.

There is, however, one principle that underlies all others: Values do not fly on their own wings. Talking about and celebrating values is not enough. They require institutions to nourish them, sustain them, and make them real.

What, then, ought these shared values be? In other words, what is the substance of the American common good?

First, we value a strong commitment to democracy. This refers to a value, not to a procedure, because without a strong normative commitment to democracy one might be tempted to put love of democracy aside when the results of an election or a vote in the legislature deeply offends one's interests or values. Only when one subscribes to democracy as core value can one's commitment be sustained under such a challenge.

It follows that it is important to transmit this value to future generations and new citizens, as well as sustain it among old timers. Civic practices, in which citizens participate in town meetings, community boards, boards of education, etc., are an important way to proceed. Civic education in schools also helps.

Second, the common good requires that we maintain a strong constitutional framework for government. For example, the Constitution with its Bill of Rights establishes much more than a procedure. It represents core values that guide the American polity and society. It is the embodiment of shared notions of how liberties will remain ordered; how to ensure rights and to maintain a civil society.

Noted less often is that the Constitution provides a major guide regarding the relationships among the smaller communities that constitute the society at large. It does so by drawing a sharp line between the decisions local (and non-geographic) communities may make, even if those decisions greatly differ from one particular community to another, and those that are framed by the national society and not subject to variance. The Constitution upholds certain values when it distinguishes between those matters on which the majority may rule, and those in which the majority does not govern but where minority and individual rights are guaranteed. For instance, no one may be sold as a slave, or be denied, without just cause, the right to vote or the right to speak freely.

The third element of the common good is tolerance and respect. For a responsive community to be sustained, members have to combine their appreciation of and commitment to their own particular traditions, cultures, and values with an appreciation and tolerance, even respect, for those of others, without necessarily endorsing these others as their own. Thus, one may respect the richness of Islam and Buddhism without embracing either faith as expression of one's own values.

Mutual respect must be especially cultivated the more one works to shore up communities. In a society in which only the differences among individuals are appreciated, lack of mutual respect is less of a problem, albeit far from an unknown one. However, the more one promotes and strengthens communities, the more they tend to develop a sense of an "in-group" which then rejects "out-groups." Hence, one must actively foster a sense of a multi-layered loyalty, so members of a community will learn to see themselves not only as part of an immediate community but also as part of a more encompassing whole, composed of other communities. Additionally, people must remain aware of their multiple allegiances, balancing their commitments in a way that reflects their values without feeling the need to sacrifice themselves to one mono-status: just male, just African American, just lesbian. Complex and multi-layered loyalties promote respect in a way which Balkanized identity groups cannot.

The final part of the common good is reconciliation. To nourish the community of communities, Americans must come to accept that there is room for regret in our particular histories and in our shared history. There is little to be gained and much to be lost for all concerned if persons use the dark moments in each other's history to bash other groups or to promote continuous hatred. One need not forget the injustices inflicted on African-Americans, Native-Americans, or the way Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II, but persons need to learn to forgive and to reconcile so they can live with one another in peace and look with confidence to their shared future. Fanatics who forever find emotional buttons to push on other groups--claiming that there was no Holocaust, suggesting the Africans were among the slave dealers, claiming that Satan is behind the women's movement--are damaging the social fabric. If we could put the Civil War behind us (in which millions of Americans killed one another, set cities on fire, robbed, and pillaged), if Israelis and Germans can visit and trade and exchange culture and be civil with one another, today's ethnic and racial groups should be able to achieve the same level of togetherness. Persons need to learn more about the ways such reconciliations come about and partake in what is never an easy process.

Communities have shared values, and they encourage people to be better than they would be otherwise. There is a notion these days that the moral person is a person who never errs or sins. Our definition of a good person and sainthood have become synonymous, and now it has become impossible for any of us to fit. Nobody can be a saint, it seems we are saying. On the opposite extreme, neither ought we allow people to lose all of their internal values. We should be able to expect that a person who has been brought up properly will have within them the mechanism to respect the common good, to internalize values, and to acquire self-discipline.

What does this have to do with community? If the family and school lay the moral foundation, it is the community that strengthens and reinforces it: not police, not FBI agents, and certainly not the Internal Revenue Service. People must appreciate each other when they conduct themselves properly, and gently chide each other when they do not. That is the secret of a well-functioning society, not reliance on the police when the fabric of society breaks down, an attempt to salvage things by the use of force. A well-functioning civil society works by people first being socialized and educated, then supporting each other to be better than they would be otherwise.

Diversity within unity, bonded pluralism, or, best, communities nestled with a community--these are concepts of a society in which persons respect differences while maintaining unity. Once one embraces this basic concept, the next question is what belongs to the shared framework and what to the member communities? Here, there is considerable agreement, that the democratic mode of government, the Constitution, and mutual respect are cardinal, while other borderline questions remain to be faced. However, one thing seems rather clear: we are not limited to the options of either simply embracing diversity or suppressing it in the name of unity. We truly can have both--a responsive community--if their relationship is properly crafted.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University, director of The Communitarian Network, and author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

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