Does Common Ground Require Agreeing on the Common Good?

“What are the American ideals? They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good; the development of the individual through liberty; and the attainment of the common good through democracy and social justice.” – Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

The above quote is from the new book The Common Good by former Secretary of Labor and now professor and author Robert Reich.  While there is no doubt that Reich is an advocate for liberal and progressive thought, his latest book raises an interesting thesis that is worth discussing as it relates to the notion of how to achieve common ground?

Reich posits that America has for at least the last five decades under both Republican and Democrat and liberal and conservative majorities, been mired in a cycle that has swung far away from the common good and more towards the individual to the detriment of societal trust in government and other institutions. As such we no longer have a sense of what the common good is but rather we are now a nation of shareholders as opposed to stakeholders.  While the book is critical of the current majority, he is clear that today’s divisiveness did not just spring from this administration but has been fomenting for a very long time.

Much of his book focuses on using economic principles as a way to measure just how far we have strayed from understanding what we owe each other if anything as members of the same society.  His stated goal in writing the book is as he notes, to at least advance a discussion of the good that we have in common and provide a means for people with different views to debate.   As he also points out, the idea of the common good is not new.

He makes mention of the Eighteenth Century philosophers and the Founders who all advocated the idea of a public good as a means to civic virtue.  In fact the concept of the common good can be found in writings dating back to Plato and the idea of social harmony.  But as Reich also points out, we should not romanticize any of this because common good even when it was a goal was clearly not always inclusive.  However, Reich raises the idea that we cannot advance today and break the current cycle of polarization unless we get back to at least the goal of common good.

“The goal of the Common Ground Committee is to pursue initiatives which will reveal common ground for finding truth, clarity, understanding, and progress on issues of importance in a civil manner that does not require compromise of fundamental principles”.

We would ask whether or not agreement on the common good is necessary to achieve common ground? Do fundamental principles require a consensus on what is the common good for all or can each side of the aisle have a separate idea of what is the common good? Do you think that in a country as ideologically diverse as we have become we can be both shareholder and stakeholder to achieve what Justice Brandeis described as the American ideal? We welcome your thoughts?