Working towards a common good

It is remarkable how, from a very early age, the concept of fairness is so ingrained in the human psyche

“That’s not fair!” Every parent is familiar with this passionate cry from their children. It is remarkable how, from a very early age, the concept of fairness is so ingrained in the human psyche. It is this that drives many important debates within society.

In their book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show how a greater degree of income inequality within countries closely correlates with an increase in a wide range of health and social problems

Meanwhile, a number of green economists have suggested that to ensure fair distribution of resources, we need to aim for a steady-state economy – one which neither grows nor shrinks but is in dynamic equilibrium with the planet’s ecological systems.

One of the most visible current signs of an outraged sense of fairness are the many protests around the world under the banner of the Occupy movement and others such as ‘indignados’ in Spain, which are protesting in broad terms against structural inequalities within society.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US has taken as one of its main themes the idea that most of the benefits of modern capitalism flow to a very small group of people, while the costs are borne by the vast majority – a theme summed up in the slogan, “We are the 99%.”

As the political commentator Andrew Sullivan notes, “extreme concentration of wealth hurts economic growth and destroys political comity.”

Writing in Vanity Fair magazine, The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out another key issue: “Growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, it means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets – our people – in the most productive way possible.”

And he expands on Andrew Sullivan’s point when he notes: “Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1%, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity and a sense of community are so important.”

The growing recognition of such an unfair distribution of economic power and the distorting effects it may have on politics, could have unpredictable consequences for social stability.

What is needed, in all these places of protest and potential conflict, is an atmosphere of goodwill within which all sides can come together to consider how to move forward. This is not to suggest that compromise should be sought at all costs, but rather that a thoughtful, considered dialogue should take place, which makes a strenuous effort to identify a common good.

Many mechanisms of dialogue exist to tackle complex problems with multiple stakeholders, but there must first be the willingness to apply them and to recognise the legitimacy of voiced concerns. A strength of the Occupy movement is its understanding of that need.

Many mechanisms of dialogue, such as ‘open space’ or ‘world cafe’, exist to tackle complex problems with multiple stakeholders – but there must first be the willingness to apply them and to recognise the legitimacy of voiced concerns. A strength of the Occupy movement is its understanding of that need.

We live in a time when many values are being re-examined. Inevitably, this process is uncomfortable, as old certainties seem to melt and vanish. Yet there should be no fundamental cause for alarm, as the heart of humanity is sound.

When we can combine the clear thought of the mind with the magnetic uniting power of the heart, the way forward towards a common good can emerge. Generating a will towards a common good is the right, and the responsibility, of all citizens.

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