Mind Matters — The I, The We, and The Common Good

The challenge of balancing the I and the We has been with us for thousands of years. The philosopher Plato grappled with it in terms of the “one” versus the “many.” Psychotherapists, with an eye to family dynamics, see the dance of the I and the We played out in the lives of their clients.

There is little distance from the philosophical to the psychotherapeutic to the socio-political realm when it comes to the I and the We. Society needs a healthy balance of the I and the We in order to flourish—no, perhaps even just to survive.

Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett are the authors of The Upswing: How America Came Together A Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Writing in Time Magazine (12/14/2020), they note how the Gilded Age of the late 1800’s was much like now—polarization; self-centeredness, both public and private; vast inequality. Indeed America was “highly individualistic, … an ’I’ society.” However, in the early twentieth century, there began a shift to a “We trajectory, which produced clear and measurable progress toward greater equality, bipartisanship, connection, and altruism.”

A regression back to the I occurred, according to Putnam and Garrett, in the 1960’s, leading now to inequality and polarization worse than it was a hundred years ago. “The pandemic has also revealed how self-centered we have become, as many of us shun masks and social distancing, sacrificing shared benefits in favor of individual liberties.” Putnam and Garrett believe a sense of the We can return.

The common good depends on our return to the We. And democracy itself depends on the common good. The Wikipedia refers to the common good as what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community. The common good has been propounded by philosophers throughout the centuries, including the “capitalist” Adam Smith. Psychologist David Johnson links the health of democracy to its concern for the common good. “Despite the variety of definitions of the common good, philosophers and other social scientists agree that when citizens no longer care about the common good and no longer take responsibility for ensuring a good life for all citizens, then the democracy, at best, becomes dysfunctional and, at worse, fails by transitioning into dictatorship or chaos.” (Psychology Today, Feb 5, 2018)

Achieving a balance of the I and the We in a family creates a vibrant system where each person is acknowledged for who they are. Nevertheless, there are healthy boundaries and rules for living established within the family. Every good parent teaches their child with each developmental milestone and new freedom gained there is attendant responsibility. The teen is given the keys to the car, for example, but not without a list of responsibilities attached.

If we imagine society as a very large, complicated, and complex family, we can honor the tension between the I and the We and give priority to the common good.

Think about the many ways the common good is necessary. We all need clear air and clean water. Those living upstream should have no claim to pollute the waters for those living downstream. Air too has its “uphill and downhill.” As a grad student in Pittsburgh, I remember an acquaintance smirking about how he and his business school group tested the polluted air near a mill. They knew that the pollution would be higher at the top of the hill where an elementary school was, so they tested the air in the valley where the smoke didn’t go. What they did was legal, yes, but it was not ethical and certainly was not in line with the common good.

It may take time for people to recognize that self-interest backfires. Most of us have come to accept the importance of using seat belts in cars. Most of us stop at stop signs and red lights. As much as these behaviors protect ourselves, they also protect others. So perhaps, the “I and the We” are really two sides of the same coin—the treasure that we hold in the common good.

Wear a mask! Don’t travel yet!