‘Many people come to my country offering help. What’s different about you?’ If I hadn’t had three fine colleagues sitting beside me, and been assured our host was a good man, I would have found the President of Albania’s opening gambit disconcerting. As it was, I still had to rummage in the dusty attic of my mind for an appropriate answer. ‘Two things’, I replied, ‘First, we are very straight. Second, we are here for the “Common Good”.’ In other words, he could expect to find we would speak and act truthfully and that we hadn’t come to pillage his country economically or to promote our own (or an alien power’s) agenda. Thankfully, he acknowledged these two reasons set us apart from many who beat a path to his door!
When people ask me, what Oxford House is and does, I often recall that early exchange on one of my first visits to the culturally rich and physically beautiful – but still, alas, socially, politically, and economically embattled – country of Albania. ‘What’s different about you?’ was, and is, an excellent question. Like others that rumble and disconcert us, it forced me to say the first thing that came to mind: and that, in my experience, usually represents what I, like most of us, really think about something, and not what we thinkwe should think or say! Of course, if there was a deeper and less worthy reason for our being in Albania, a claim to be ‘very straight’ would soon emerge and make our word and work ring hollow and untrue. ‘The good thing about habitually speaking the truth’, I learned years ago, ‘is you don’t have to remember the lie you previously invented!’ Sound advice, and vital for Oxford House.
‘What’s different about you?’ challenges us, of course, not only to think but to clarify for ourselves at the very least, what we are really about; if you like, to identify the solid, unchanging ground on which our character and actions are built. It is not easy, particularly when professional expectations today often demand an ability to bend and swerve, to avoid straight answers and evade risk and responsibility. But a world without veracity and consistency is a muddy quagmire where slips and slides are commonplace – and, of which, countries like Albania (and too many other places, it seems) have little need of more. Muddy morals? How sad – and, how on earth do you make a place clean with dirty hands?
If awkward questions can subvert, so can alternative perceptions. In keeping with Jesus’s characteristic generosity, he clearly rumbled his disciples when he reversed their desire to keep children at bay. ‘No!’, his words and actions make clear, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them’ (Matt. 19.14). Or, in the phrase echoed in art, music and humanitarian aid work, ‘Suffer the little children’. It is a muddy, unprincipled country or community that does not allow itself to invert accustomed power differentials and accord primacy and respect to children and their care. Sadly, this is not always the case, so child abuse and paedophilia, trafficking and neglect, make wicked crooks into millionaires and children unimaginably scared, and miserably scarred, victims. Thank God, children’s charities, NGOs, and the media keep this in the forefront of our minds.
So, what’s different about you? First, I hope a sound, reliable sense of solidarity with the essentially altruistic principle ‘Suffer the little children.’ It is not surprising, perhaps, the UK singer-songwriter Morrisey (b. 1959), who fronted The Smiths in the mid-1980s, turned to those words after close study of the five children killed in the notorious ‘Moors Murders’ (1963-1965) on bare, beautiful – and muddy! – Saddleworth Moor that overshadows the metropolitan powerhouse of Manchester. ‘Suffer the little children’ gave Morrisey a peg on which to hang his anguish and outrage, and awakened altruism. In the mud, blood and misery of the children murdered by Ian Brady (1938-2017) and Myra Hindley (1942-2002), Morrisey discovered anew the morality of mutuality: that is, that others have a claim on our identity and actions, our values and behaviour; and, that they have a right – and justifiable power – to shape and define what is (or certainly should be), as the President of Albania put it, essentially different about us. That, after all, is the distinguishing power of moral principle.
Come back, though, to the other part of my hastily scrambled answer to the President: ‘We are here for the “Common Good”.’ I wish I could say that back then I had thought through what I meant by the term ‘Common Good’! But over the years – despite the history, controversy, and complexity of the idea – I have found myself more and more drawn to the notion of a or the ‘Common Good’ as something to make my/our work with Oxford House (like that of many others) morally and, I hope, practically different. But let’s be clear, like all moral decisions it is a choice and one that I, like every muddy human, will always make and fulfil imperfectly. But better, I would argue, a sound ideal imperfectly applied than no ideals (or morals!) at all.
You can’t be ‘very straight’, though, and deny the difficulties that surround the idea of a or the ‘Common Good’. Prominent in much political philosophy and modern Roman Catholic social teaching, it remains a complex, contentious ideal. Important, maybe: clear, not always.
To explain. Most definitions of the ‘Common Good’ include a sense of the shared benefits (or ‘facilities’) in a person or community’s life that are best – if not uniquely – attained by carefully coordinated communal activity. Hence, social welfare and healthcare, public safety and military security, road systems and public resources (viz. water, power, schools, museums, concert halls and markets), economic and legal structures, education and training, opportunity, property, and free expression, are all ‘common goods’ that citizens recognise have communal value and therefore share. Pursuit of the ‘Common Good’ is, then, any action that in some way enhances the well-being of all, not just a ‘sovereign power’, societal elite, or specific minority. In different ways, from classical antiquity onwards, political theorists and economists, philosophers and public servants, have framed their thought (and action) by an appeal to both the idea and principled application of the ‘Common Good’. So much is clear.
When you drill down into the history and use of the idea of ‘Common Good’, problems begin. Clearly differentiated – at times contradictory – systems of interpretation and use emerge. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE), for example, used the idea/l of ‘common interest’ (Greek: koine sympheron) to differentiate ‘wrong’ constitutions (that benefit rulers) from ‘right’ ones (that serve the people), while his mentor Plato (ca. 425-ca.347 BCE) thought more in terms of the general social ‘good/s’ of ‘cohesion’ and ‘unity’ that (should) guide a nation’s affairs. This was picked up by the medieval philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who argued that the aim of all government and law is simply ‘the common good’ (Latin: bonum commune). Over time, in British social theorists John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776), in visionary American politician James Madison (1751-1836) and in the revolutionary French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), new perspectives emerge. Now an appeal to ‘public good’, ‘common’ interest, or ‘the common good’ (French: le bien commun), is used to define the ultimate end of responsible government, civil society and, in Rousseau, the ‘will’ of the people. Though importantly distinct, all of these interpretations (as Aristotle had argued earlier) consciously resist the contraction of social vision to my ‘singular interests’ or the act of any one ‘particular will’ (Rousseau). Community is impossible without a sense of the ‘Common Good’ As Aristotle states in his Nicomachean Ethics (?335-322 BCE), [T]hough it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city states’. In other words, pursuit of the ‘Common Good’ is a profound relational obligation and altruism is by it practically and philosophically institutionalised.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and rocky issues are uncovered.
The practical reasoning involved in understanding and using the idea of the ‘Common Good’ has thrown up a number of contentious issues; in particular, appeal to the‘Common Good’ cannot be separated from either the thorny issue of how ‘public’ and ‘private’ interests relate to one another and how ‘good’ per se is inwardly and outwardly expressed in a society. Let me take these in turn. First, for some (as noted already) acceptance of the idea of a‘Common Good’ contradicts a merely – and, for thinkers as diverse as G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), John Dewey (1859-1952) and John Rawls (1921-2002) deeply mistaken – ‘private’ horizon for my/our interests. But how the ‘public’ me and the ‘private’ me co-exist remains a moot point: politics, personality, and priorities are all implicated. As Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson (b. 1945) memorably wrote: ‘We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.’ In other words, would I be willing to curb my behaviour for some higher cause or ‘Common Good’? Second, with regard to ‘good’ per se, it is often pointed out there is an inner, deeper, more comprehensive, moral dimension to the ‘Common Good’ than in the outer, politically and socially thinner, expression of ‘Public Good’. So, for example, though a local library may prosper the ‘Common Good’, its literature (e.g., car manuals) may undermine a ‘Public Good’ (viz. local garages). Or, as some theorists then take the discussion, there is an inherent relationality in the ‘Common Good’, which is not necessary to evaluations of society based on aggregates of pleasure, welfare, healthcare, security, or maximum benefit. Simply put, a quest for the ‘Common Good’ will be concerned for all not just for the majority, for what is morally good and not just temporarily pleasurable, or as Rawls put it, for ‘certain general conditions that are … equally to everyone’s advantage’; or, as Catholic social thought finally defined it, ‘[T]he sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.’ Heard in this light, ‘What’s different about you?’ becomes a very personal challenge to daily choices and a more general question about the normative ground of social priorities.
Two final points before I end. Come back to the American columnist Robert J. Samuelson. In the quotation cited above, he puts his finger on a fundamental dilemma at the heart of most modern Western democracies; namely, the extent to which personal freedom can, or should be, accountable to society at large. Indeed, is there anymore a ‘Common Good’ that still exerts a limiting power on private choice? The relational social contract between citizens in most modern democracies is so severely strained, it seems, that my obligation to me outweighs any duty I may owe to you. Here’s Samuelson again, his words echoing the sombre appeal of any and every social theorist who has been concerned for the moral fabric of communal life: ‘We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.’ Self-interested democracy has, it would seem, yet more questions to ask of itself if it is to weather the storms of rampant individualism internally and reinvigorated Communism externally.
And then there are those haunting, holy words, ‘Suffer the little children’: though spattered by the mud of modern life, still a voice of reason and right priorities. For, if we take seriously the inversion of power differentials Jesus commends and the horrendous suffering of so many children and infants worldwide, we have, surely, sound moral stimuli to critique our unthinking selfishness and to stir a renewed commitment to the higher and deeper ideal of the ‘Common Good’. For children, suffering children, have a right to demand of us not only attention and affection, but unselfish depth in life … and ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven’.
‘What’s different about you?’ What a good question that was – and from such an unexpected source! Perhaps, as Jesus seemed to see and say, if we ‘get children right’ other things fall into place; if we admit their disruption of ‘singular interests’, perhaps we, too, will recover the morality of mutuality and with it a new commitment to the ‘Common Good’.
Christopher Hancock, Director