Thursday, October 18, 2012

The common good

As a culture, we seem to have little respect for limits.  We want limitless access to so many things that are important for day to day living.  Limitless access to fossil fuels and to fisheries come to mind.  But we also want limitless access to firearms, health care, and countless other things that we consider to be our "rights".

One of the most telling parables of limits comes from Garrett Hardin's, "Tragedy of the Commons".  In this 1968 article in Science, he describes what happened when limits aren't recognized and respected.  A commons was a pasture that belonged collectively to a village. Everyone in the village grazed cattle on the commons. As the number of animals owned by the village approached the capacity of the commons, the problem took the following form:

A villager could buy one more cow and gain the full income that a cow provided. The damage caused by one cow too many grazing the pasture would be small compared with the gain. Of course, the entire community would suffer from the damage because eventually the grass would be consumed. Yet,  every member of the village was motivated to keep adding cows. The tragedy is that, to preserve the commons, the personal freedom of the villagers had to be curtailed.

In the article, Hardin illustrates the critical flaw of freedom in the commons: all participants must agree to conserve the commons, but any one can force the destruction of the commons. Although Hardin describes exploitation by humans in an unregulated public pasture, his commons and "grass" principle fit into our society today.

I see examples from society today in which exploitation seems to be almost a right.  If each person decides to exploit a resource, regardless of what it is, there can be dire consequences.

In Al-Anon, Tradition One states that "Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity."  Unity is based on harmonious cooperation. It means that I am willing to listen to the ideas, feelings, and opinions of others with an open mind. It means that I can share my own views but not insist on promoting my own way as the only way. Without unity, our groups would fail. And without the group, there is no place for the newcomer to go.  Eventually, the whole structure would fail if we didn't think of the common good of all who come through the doors seeking recovery.

Unity also applies in relationships outside meetings. We each have needs and rights, but it's important to also have mutual respect for each other in relationships: with members of our family, with business associates, and friends. With unity, the whole is greater than any of its parts. I may think that I'm right, but it's also important to see the other person's viewpoint and allow them the dignity to do what they need to do. Living with another is much easier when I don't insist that my way is the only way.

Thinking of the common good has to come first in a family, workplace, and society  if we are to function in a healthy manner.  When I start putting my needs above that of my wife, then I know that she won't be happy and there will be an imbalance that leads to disharmony and probably resentment.  If I can maintain balance, thinking of what she needs as well as my own needs, then life is much easier.

When I keep the common good in mind and recognize that I am part of something bigger than just me, I seem to do much better in relationships with others.  I can express my opinion, listen to what others have to say, and reach an agreement that is amenable.  I do my best to let go of the results when I don't get my way.  I can talk things out with others but in the end, my idea may not be the one that is accepted.

I am reminded every day of how powerless I am over others.  I simply can't control what they are going to do.  Even though I consider the common good, another person may be selfish and only consider their own agenda.  I do have the right to state my opinion and thoughts. After that, I have to let it go.  

20 comments:

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    1. I am idealistic I guess. But that's okay.

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  2. i love the teaching on unity...kinda like ubuntu as well....one does not succeed unless all do...but how different that is from where we are..

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    1. Exactly, Brian. What a concept.

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  3. Common good and all working. Interesting concept.

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    1. Or working for the common good--something to think about, instead of just working for the good of just me.

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  4. How apropos of our society, Syd. Especially in this time of electing a President it has become apparent that the common good is the last thing that most politicians are thinking about. The middle class is not even in the middle anymore. It's high time that we got back to our basics ... the common good would be a fine way to start.

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    1. I believe in there being much more than me. And in that thought process, I think about others rather than just about me.

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  5. Wow, Syd - - - After getting to the 'read' of your blog, it really hit a reminder that I need to constantly be aware of - - - that is the application of the traditions, especially Tradition #1 to the unity of the family. This requires mutual respect from the top (Mom and Dad) all the way down the line - - - in my case for 5 children. It took me some time to actually understand and accept the meaning of equality within the family, since I had always been the Super-Mom - and knew better. My life got much simpler when I accorded each person (even my blessed alcoholic husband) the dignity of self-expression without correction! What freedom! Another benefit for me was to know that it was okay to NOT always be right.

    Thanks for letting me say these things. It helps to get down to the basics now and then.

    Great Job on your part,
    Love and Hugs,
    Anonymous #1

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    1. Tradition One applies to just about everything in life. And it could be a philosophy of living.

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  6. Hmm...wasn't that tried in communes also? And still today in kibbutzes. More often than not (from what I've read) these arrangements fail, because..perhaps it's human nature to want a bigger piece of the pie than your fellow man. I don't know the answer. In our world today, might(guns, tanks, drones) are what gets the unlimited pie, and the poor pound sand. Of course, the "grass" will eventually run out, even for the strong and rich.

    For myself, I try to help one on one. Taking on the ills of society seems so overwhelming. I'm probably off point, but your post made me think. I appreciate that.

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    1. One on one to think of the common good is about all we can do. But if each of us does that, it could help more than we can imagine.

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  7. With close to 8 billion people sharing the common ground it has come to a point that the extra land is no longer for the common good.

    I may want to live. But for the common good and the benefit of all if I have a terminal diseases except to treat for pain what good is it to the common group for me to waste those resources. They may extend my life but as the days go by my quality of life diminishes.

    I personally, and no I do not recommend this attitude for all, will not treat a terminal illness to be in the clutches of the medical machine anymore simply because I may get another blade of grass. *shrug* I have thought about this for a long time and to me it is the only conclusion that makes sense.

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    1. We will run out of a lot of things unless we curb our excess.

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  8. I often think the world would be a better place if it ran on a 12 step program. To see ourselves as part of something bigger, and that we are all a part of it.

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  9. As I practise Tradition One, I find my own opinions slipping away - it really doesn't matter to me one way or the other - whatever works is fine with me.

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    1. I like to have an opinion but don't try to pound others over the head with it. A good discussion with reasoning is helpful to me. And then I can let the results go.

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Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.