Pursuing the common good: The bureau of world weather control

Bruce Sievers

The pursuit of the ‘common good’ may seem a straightforward human aspiration. However, it doesn’t take much digging down to realise it is anything but…

Imagine a future (presumably not too distant) when a Bureau of World Weather Control would be created. Aided by AI and supercomputers, the bureau would have the capacity to set patterns of rain and snow, speed and amount of wind, heat and cold waves, avoidance of droughts, floods, and hurricanes, favour certain patterns of vegetation and animal (including human) populations and disfavour others. The central feature guiding the bureau is an algorithm programmed to ‘pursue the common good’. One can imagine enormous positive benefits of such a bureau, but, at the same time, highly problematic decisions emanating from it.

What goes into the algorithm? Who governs the bureau? How are its goals to be realised? What principles will guide its operation? Which human populations will be programmed to remain where they are and which will have to move? What economic factors will have to be considered?

What then becomes of the norm of the common good?

From this simple thought experiment flows a seemingly endless list of practical and ethical choices that will powerfully affect all life-forms that inhabit the planet. These are the issues posed in the opinion pieces, interviews and surveys in this special feature in which Alliance and the Pursuit of the Common Good project[1] have joined forces to explore the concept of the common good and its role in philanthropy.

A human factor that lies at the root of all of these dilemmas is a diminished ability to understand and achieve what has been called in different times and cultures ‘the common good’.

Many contemporary trends point to a world that is apparently unravelling: the seemingly unstoppable drive towards increased energy use resulting in climate change, political and cultural animosities that translate into violent conflicts, public health crises that pit those who seek to protect the public against proclaimed defenders of individual freedoms, forces that shape and distort the production and consumption of information through the media, technology that seems to resist all attempts at regulation, and so on.

A human factor that lies at the root of all of these dilemmas is a diminished ability to understand and achieve what has been called in different times and cultures ‘the common good’. In its simplest form, the common good refers to that which is beneficial to the entire community. But, beyond that seemingly simple idea the complexities begin: how does one understand the common good across cultures and languages? Is pursuit of the common good primarily a moral or an empirical (interest-satisfying) activity? How are the costs and benefits of achieving the common good to be allocated? Is pursuing the common good essentially a matter of voluntary commitment or of legal enforcement?

Definitional issues

These and other questions transform what initially appears to be a straightforward statement of human aspiration into a set of highly complex quandaries – into what political philosopher Michael Walzer describes as a ‘thick’ versus a ‘thin’ moral term. For Walzer, thin concepts are those that easily generate broad initial assent, like freedom, solidarity, or human rights, yet, only when such slogans are translated into complicated local venues of action does the multiplicity of meanings emerge.

A ‘thin’ moral concept which generates wide agreement on an abstract level, therefore gradually splinters into diverse interpretations as the concept becomes embedded into local (‘thick’) cultural environments.

The seemingly relentless increase in energy use reflects a diminished ability to understand and achieve ‘the common good’. Credit: Michal Pech/Unsplash

In its thin meaning, the common good can thus suggest widely accepted norms such as respect for human rights, truth in disseminating information, respect for democratic practice, and so on. At the same time, it can become identified with thick meanings that are increasingly complex and difficult to translate as they are diversely embedded in local cultural communities. For example, in some settings ‘the common good’ might convey a somewhat amorphous, undifferentiated view of communal cooperation, while in others it might be identified with very particular ideas of economic fairness, compassionate concern for one’s neighbours, or shared interests in environmental survival that fundamentally differ from how those in other cultures or eras interpret the term.

Empirical or moral?

A second major question that arises in defining the common good is whether it is seen as an empirical or a moral concept. A view that comes to us primarily from the European Enlightenment presumes that society is composed of autonomous individuals who compete for scarce resources. On this view, an optimal resolution of the competition is a utilitarian calculation of the maximum benefit for the most people, following the Benthamite maxim of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. (The utilitarian optimum.)

There are also a vast number of bright spots of organisational action by people working on behalf of common good agendas on every continent.

Alternatively, the logic of collective action can also lead to the opposite result, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in Garrett Hardin’s phrase, in which the unbridled pursuit of self-interest destroys shared resources. Much of the work of Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, is devoted to documenting real-world solutions to these dilemmas that communities have worked out in practice.

A very different interpretation of collective action, however, flows from a contrasting tradition, grounded in the ancient Platonic idea of the state as a quasi-moral entity, and articulated in the early modern era by Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza’s vision of communal life also embraced what today has become known as civil society that – together with the state – generated the necessary conditions for the best realisation of human aspirations and freedom, achieved through communal cooperation, not just as a solution to the problem of the distribution of social benefits. On this view, the beliefs and ethical commitments of citizens play a significant role in advancing the quality of life in society, beyond a simple calculation of outcomes of particular distributional schemes.

Orangutan conservation – a positive example of pursuing the common good.

An example of the difference between the empirical and moral view is provided by Robert B. Reich in his description of the actions of Martin Shkreli in the US in the mid-2010s. Shkreli, a pharmaceutical industry wunderkind, devised schemes that he sought to justify in purely economic terms – as the most efficient arrangement for generating the highest profit – that, in turn, were supposed to yield benefits shared by everyone. Shkreli, however, was ultimately convicted by a court of hiding information that led to massive fraud and huge economic losses to his investors and clients. He had systematically hidden morally questionable activities that took advantage of the vulnerability of clients and undermined social trust.

A second example of practices justified on purely economic grounds at the expense of public trust (as well as of environmental limits) is exploitation of the world’s oceans, chronicled by Ian Urbina in his book Outlaw Ocean. He describes the activities of ships that carry on their predation of the oceans – over-fishing, elimination of entire whale populations, destruction of coral reefs – in largely unregulated international waters. Those who operate these vessels usually do so from the shelter of countries that have minimal means of enforcing what few rules there are in the open seas. Urbina argues that past efforts to create more effective rules and enforcement have proved inadequate. What is needed for the preservation of the ocean commons is a dramatic transformation in attitudes of human beings towards each other and towards ocean life.

At the same time as these negative trends proliferate, there are also a vast number of bright spots of organisational action by people working on behalf of common good agendas on every continent. Most of these efforts originate in civil society, for reasons that will be described below. They are to be found in every field of social and natural need – healthcare, environment, education, journalism, preservation of public space, emergency response, housing, violence prevention, nutrition, sanitation, clean water preservation, defence of human rights, and on and on in every corner of the world. These organisations, while often internationally supported, focus their efforts locally. They draw upon and reinforce local reservoirs of social trust and further generate that trust in local communities worldwide. They seek to address local needs, respond to globally recognised problems, and contribute to a shared sense of community.

In contrast to the top-down regulation imposed in authoritarian systems, civil society seeks consensus and builds goodwill in developing freely chosen solutions to difficult social problems.

Examples of these common good agenda organisations include Doctors Without Borders (provides medical care in the areas of desperate need); Seacology (builds relationships with island communities all over the world who agree to contract to protect coral reefs or segments of local rain forests in exchange for schools or other needed public facilities); Living Goods (an entrepreneurial organisation that provides essential health and well-being products through an Avon-like system to women in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and Myanmar); Agua Para La Vida (sponsors local clean water projects throughout Nicaragua); East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (provides legal assistance to Afghan and other refugees); and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (works on all aspects of Sumatran orangutan conservation).

The universal element in these projects is that, in addition to addressing immediate local needs, they contribute to building a shared sense of community and the common good worldwide.

Allocating costs and benefits

‘Whose common good?’ is a question often posed in discussions of the common good. Assuming a consensus on a particular social goal, such as the reduction of carbon fuels as a percentage of total energy production and consumption, questions immediately arise as to who should bear the primary burden of attaining that goal. The highest consumers of energy? Producers? Stockholders in energy corporations? Those who stand to benefit most from climate or environmental improvements? The wealthiest? Historic beneficiaries of the carbon-based energy system? Or should the burden just be spread evenly throughout the population?

The adjective ‘common’ suggests a benefit shared evenly throughout the whole of society, potentially including future generations. Yet, by what criteria should those burdens, costs, and benefits be allocated? Typically, legitimate governing bodies take on the responsibility of resolving the myriad ethical and political disputes that surface around such issues. A common good agenda would take into account principles of equality, effort, commitment, justice, and fairness, along with utilitarian concerns of distribution as well as local histories and customs in determining the final outcomes.

Voluntary versus legally enforced?

The concept of the common good also contains a suggestion that the impulse to pursue common goals should be voluntary rather than mandatory. From this viewpoint, civil society becomes the natural seedbed for the pursuit of the common good. While the achievement of effective collaborative outcomes (whether through governmental mandate or voluntary action) is a desirable goal in and of itself, the added element of an ethos of cooperation with other community members yields a significant further benefit. The fact that such cooperation springs from the goodwill of cooperating participants adds a moral dimension to collective action that it otherwise lacks.

This bottom-up nature of collaborative work in civil society also gives it a democratic character. In contrast to the top-down regulation imposed in authoritarian systems, civil society seeks consensus and builds goodwill in developing freely chosen solutions to difficult social problems.

The pursuit of the common good, thus understood as a moral aspiration that includes equal burden-sharing, voluntarism and democratic participation, therefore becomes a constitutive element of civil society. Civil society, with the support of philanthropy, in turn, becomes an essential platform of modern liberal democracy.

Bruce Sievers is based at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University and is a guest editor of the June 2024 issue of Alliance magazine.


  1. ^ The Pursuit of the Common Good (PCG) is an international and multisector initiative that promotes the pursuit of the common good as an essential unifying factor for the resolution of critical contemporary challenges.

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