Mind Matters — The Common Good

My recent days have been spent in Washington, D.C., being overwhelmed by intelligent, erudite people.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs sponsored an event on “The Common Good,” after which I attended a Bowen Center Conference on epigenetics and the family. In the midst of many heady moments, I walked through the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, happening upon the Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials.

A week before, I attended a meeting at Daylesford Abbey on human trafficking in Pennsylvania. What unites these varied venues is, I think, the concept of the common good.

Michael Gerson, syndicated columnist and senior advisor at “ONE, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases,” had just flown to the Common Good discussion from CAR, the Central African Republic. He remarked that CAR had great religious tolerance for many years and now it is devastated with violence and murder. He warned that presently, in the United States, polarities are modest; however, a working, tolerant society is “quite fragile.” Furthermore, he said, the ideal of common good in life is not identical to market forces or state acts, nor is it about autonomy, but that it is about “allowing all to flourish.”

Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist, voiced concerns about the waning care about the common good. I resonate with her worry about the privatization of the public school system (and I would add the privatization of the prison system). The privatizations of public goods in general leads to a great institutional loss, she noted. It disturbs me greatly that the public domain continues to be eroded by the private for-profit sector.

And so what about my walk through the cherry blossoms and the memorials past the Smithsonian? These are all part of the National Park Service and when I trek here I feel a sense of pride of connection to country. I don’t want this any more privatized than it already is. This is common good—common space—to be shared in community. I read the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson—all men who espoused the common good. Among MLK’s words, enscribed at his memorial, are these: “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”

Martin Luther King’s words ring true even in the field of epigenetics, where genetics meets environment, so to speak. Scientists at the Bowen Family Therapy Conference related their studies on how genes are imparted by early adversity, misfortune, and, yes, socio-economic class. In other words, the environment makes a dramatic difference in the development of children and families. So science confirms what anthropologists observe and visionaries, such as Martin Luther King see, that the common good is the foundation for both the well-being of the individual and society as a whole. That’s the real bottom line—not the profit motive.

One example of a lacuna in the common good is human trafficking—in Pennsylvania too. Not only is human trafficking found in the sex “industry” of prostitution and entertainment, but also in labor exploitation, domestic work, restaurant work, sweatshop factories, and agriculture. When you go to a hotel or a restaurant or have landscaping, do you ever wonder? Are the people in the kitchen modern day slaves, beholden to the restaurant owner? Are the landscapers getting paid? Is the young woman in the nail salon captive to the salon owner? Two things you can do for the common good. One, if you suspect trafficking, you can call the Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline (1-888-3737-888). Two, support Pennsylvania State Senate Bill 75, which would revise the Pennsylvania law on human trafficking.