The Common Good

Human society appears to thrive best when the governments of the day are guided by the common good. But what is the common good and how can we determine what actions are consistent with it? These are most difficult questions and the most controversial issues of the day involve human rights and obligations over issues like abortion rights. But the common good also describes many problems that are environmental, and ecologists have a right to assert the common good from their collective knowledge of how biodiversity operates to sustain life.

The common good is any action that benefits society as a whole, in contrast to benefiting the private good of individuals, sections of society, and corporations. It is a worthwhile exercise to look at the controversies and decisions made by governments in our time and judge whether they pass the litmus test of the common good. Just this week for example, the Canadian government has promoted regulations restricting the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry production because current indiscriminate use invites antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause human diseases. Such a decision is a cost to livestock producers but a benefit to society. Since microbial ecologists have been suggesting such a restriction for more than 25 years, the only question left is why the common good was set aside of all these years.

The common good looks to the future while many of our governments do not. Climate change is an issue that ecologists have been discussing for more than 20 years with virtually no action from our governments, much talk, little action. In British Columbia at the moment there is a discussion about damming the Peace River at Site C for hydroelectricity. The justification for this is the common good that a growing population in BC will need more electricity, and this is pollution free electricity, what many ecologists have been requesting. But the price of this is a loss of good farmland and the disruption of river food chains. Is this plan to build a dam at Site C consistent with the common good? It might be if there is no alternative to the dam, and if indeed the power generated is for the people of BC rather than for mining companies that taxpayers subsidise. Would not the common good be better served by conservation of electricity use, the development of solar power, geothermal power, or wind power?

Conservation of biodiversity is a clear public issue where the common good is obvious. Implicit in the concept of the common good is the assumption that we will not take actions that imperil the future for our children and grandchildren. In conservation decision making ecologists play only a small role at present, but this was not always the case. Someone had the foresight to set aside parks and reserves long before ecology was taught in the schools, and governments at least appeared to operate for the common good. But now we see tendencies to define the common good as more export dollars for coal and gas and oil, so that pipelines can be permitted in national parks and reserves with few questions asked.

Money talks but people vote, and consequently it would be useful for ecologists as well as ordinary citizens to demand that our society define and follow the common good rather than the generation of wealth for the few and nothing for future generations.

Everard, M., B. Pontin, T. Appleby, C. Staddon, E. T. Hayes, J. H. Barnes, and J. W. S. Longhurst. 2013. Air as a common good. Environmental Science & Policy 33:354-368.

Sandel, M. J. 2012. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 244 pp.

Sargent, R.-M. 2012. From Bacon to Banks: The vision and the realities of pursuing science for the common good. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43:82-90.

Vineis, P. 2014. Public health and the common good. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 68:97-100.

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