Can we teach the common good?

Emmanuel Kattan and Lalitha Vasudevan

Pursuit of the common good rests on equipping people to debate and perceive where it might lie. Philanthropy can help in this

The aftermath of the 2020 US election cast a light on a crisis of trust abundant in the national discourse. Americans increasingly disagree not only about ideas, but about facts themselves. Debates on climate change, public health, or migration, are often driven more by emotion, at the expense of reason and truth, and positions on questions of policy or on the future of American democracy are shaped more by personal opinion than reasoned arguments and debates.

Debate and deliberation – learning to take a constructive part in democratic life. Credit: AdobeStock

As a result, the common set of facts and principles on which shared political values might be based is breaking down. The onslaught of fake news and bad faith political arguments is undermining the consensus on what constitutes the common good and eroding the very fabric of society. This poses major challenges to our democracies. If, as citizens, we cannot agree on the values we share and on what connects us, then we face a future when society will become increasingly fragmented and solidarity around common goals will be impossible.

But what is the common good? How can it be restored? How can we teach it? And is the common good an achievable pursuit in the face of rising global crises?

According to Robert Reich, the common good ‘is a set of shared commitments – to the rule of law, and to the spirit as well as the letter of the law; to our democratic institutions of government; to truth; to tolerance of our differences; to equal political rights and equal opportunity; to participating in our civic life, and making necessary sacrifices for the ideals we hold in common. We must share these commitments if we are to have a functioning society… Without them, there is no “we”.’

How can we teach the common good?

Two important points can be derived from this definition. First, the common good is about what binds us together as a society. In pre-modern societies, culture, language and religion played a crucial role in connecting members of a group together. In our multicultural nations, those identity markers are still important, but they are not sufficient. We are also bound by values – and agreement on these values must be the result of deliberation. Deliberation is vital – even, and especially, when agreement on values seems futile.

Engaging with ideas and beliefs that conflict with our own leads us to acknowledge that democratic debate is not a zero-sum game.

Second, the common good is not only an object of knowledge – knowledge about the constitution, the rule of law, the electoral system, the functioning of democratic institutions – but also about committing ourselves to a form of political conversation, a mode of deliberative debate in which participants demonstrate a commitment to truth, good faith, logic and reason. Teaching the common good therefore means preparing young people to join this conversation and paying attention to their existing debates in other forms. It is synonymous with equipping future generations of citizens with the tools they need to take an active and constructive part in the democratic life of their society.

Civic education and debate

Civic education should be at the heart of this strategy. In addition to learning about the constitution and the separation of powers, young people should practise deliberation. Engaging with ideas and beliefs that conflict with our own leads us to acknowledge that democratic debate is not a zero-sum game. Rather, it is about achieving what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘dissensus’ – a respectful understanding that we may not always be able to rally others to our cause and that we have to accept the reasons they give in support of their position, even if we disagree with them.

Young people should begin participating in processes of deliberation at an early age. Taking part in debating clubs and competitions, for example, builds their communication skills and provides them with opportunities to hone primordial inclinations to be self-critical and self-questioning. Philosopher of education Megan Laverty, who has studied the Philosophy for Children movement, further emphasises children’s requisite capacity for such philosophical inquiry. Whether debating the death penalty or the legalisation of cannabis, this exercise shifts the focus away from emotional expressions of belief to rational presentations of arguments. Young people become stakeholders in a conversation where their voice counts and every position is given equal consideration.

Media literacy

In tandem with civic education, teaching media literacy remains of utmost importance. Nearly 50 per cent of young adults get their news from social media. This puts a higher burden on them to exercise their judgment in order to identify reliable sources of information. The rise of AI-generated deep fakes raises the stakes even further. Media literacy programmes, ideally embedded into curricula, provide young people with the tools they need to become discerning media consumers and producers. In doing so, young people are invited to take a step back from their own private interests and consider the common goals they share with their fellow citizens both near and afar. This is a role that philanthropy can, and does, play. Many foundations –including the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation – provide essential support to media literacy initiatives.

Teaching the common good, therefore, should remain a goal, one less about imparting knowledge or precepts than about engaging young people to play a role in defining the principles that bind citizens together towards common purpose. Reflecting about the common good demands that we think about ourselves not as lobbyists whose objective is to win the argument for their own team, but as equal participants in the task of shaping our common values. Through this effort, we exercise our autonomy – the power to choose the principles that organise our life in common – and we help protect the autonomy of others.

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