Saturday, March 2, 2013

Self Sacrifice for the Common Good

"Common good arguments" inevitably call for "self-sacrifice" by individuals, small groups, and large groups. Self-sacrifice entails the allocation of time, energy, and our resources in the interest of other individuals and/or groups. Hence, I might be urged to tune my guitar for the "common good" of my band. My band might be urged to rehearse at a lower volume for "common good" of my neighborhood. My neighborhood might be urged to clean up trash on the streets for the "common good" of the city of Cincinnati...etc. Democrats and Republicans are being urged to "sacrifice" their "partisan" interests for the good of the whole country. The U.S. is asked to sacrifice its "partisan" interest in cheap energy for the "common good" of cleaner air for the rest of the world. In each instance, self sacrifice calls for individuals or groups to either "do something" unpleasant, or "not do" something pleasant for the "common good." Moreover, there is always an added correlary: non-cooperative "bad persons" can be justifiably coerced to "do" or "not do" these goods.  While I would never argue that self-sacrifice is "bad," I do think that whether it is justified or not in any context requires a complex moral argument. Merely declaring that X serves the "common good" is not least for a philosopher.

"Self-sacrifice arguments" are part of a larger complex of moral beliefs bound together by the central notion that "good persons" and "good groups" willingly sacrifice their interests (time, energy, or resources) for the common good; and that "bad persons" do not. The more you are willing to sacrifice, the "better."  As I pointed out in my previous blog, the most idealistic "common good arguments" urge us to sacrifice our own short-term, individual (or small group) interests in order to advance long-term, larger group interests, or global interests. Hence, the moral ideal consists in self-impovershment for the sake of the universal, long-term common good.

Because "self-sacrifice arguments" are usually rhetorically persuasive, more and more "interest groups" invoke them, and demand increasing levels of "self-sacrifice" out of all us. Government is the most zealous proponent of "self-sacrifice." The TSA now expects all of us to "sacrifice" increasing levels of privacy in order advance the "common good" of airline security. If I object to aggressive testicular groping I am not a "good citizen" or a "good person." Here in Cincinnati we are being asked to pay higher taxes to pay for two sports stadiums, a zoo, several museums, an orchestra, a new bridge across the Ohio River, and new a street car...all in order to advance that proverbial "common good"over the "long-run." If I object to sacrificing my own financial interests in order to advance any of these "common goods," I'm immediately labelled as selfish, uncooperative, and a bad citizen or person. My question is this. If "self-sacrifice" for the "common good"  is our primary social value and the basis for "social justice," and if, over the long-run, there is an infinite number of possible "common goods," then how can we avoid self-sacrificing ourselves into abject poverty?

Right right now I bet you're thinking something like this..."Obviously we can't advance all "common goods," therefore we are only "obligated" to advance the most salient "common goods" that fill the "needs" of other individuals and/or groups? In other words, it is morally acceptable to ration our self-sacrifice and thereby avoid self-inflicted poverty. That works fine in the private sphere where we have control over our own rationing process. It doesn't work very well in the public sphere where others coercively ration our time, energy, and resources. In either case, here's the basic question: "How do we know that any self-sacrificial act will, in fact, advance the "common good" and not merely advance the short-term"partisan good" of those who stand to benefit from our sacrifices?" Obviously, its harder to know universal, long-term consequences.  

In sum, I am not opposed to the "common good" or "self-sacrifice," however I am wary of the dangers of unquestioned devotion these abstract principles. Both terms are what I call "conveniently vague" which means they tend to evoke consensus, even when there really isn't. Moreover, failure to deconstruct these arguments leaves us vulnerable to opportunists who will "cash in" on our unbridled generocity; especially corporations. Hence, the spread of corporatism in the Western world, as corporations skillfully deploy "common good" and "self-sacrifice" arguments to advance their own partisan interests. In recent years, the most prolific beneficiaries of blind self-sacrifice have been associated with the health care industry, especially: health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and physicians. But that's another topic.