The Common Good: Fairness, Equality of Opportunity, and Helping Those in Need

Published August 5, 2014

By Samya Ali

A student at University of North Carolina School of Law, Justice Warren, wrote in 2012 about a trip he and a group of students took while studying the adverse effects of poverty: “The first stop on our trip was in Lincoln Heights outside of Roanoke Rapids, N.C…..Though the two towns were geographically separated by one bridge, I was amazed at how disconnected this community was from Roanoke Rapids. Most of the roads were unpaved, lined with dilapidated houses that were boarded and covered by ‘No Trespassing’ signs. There were no streetlights, no sidewalks. The one grocery store in the community had no fresh fruit or vegetables. As we walked, I learned that this community was literally built on top of waste. When Roanoke Rapids still maintained a thriving mill industry, the mills would cross the river to dump all of their waste in Lincoln Heights. Even after the mills stopped dumping, the town of Roanoke Rapids leased land in Lincoln Heights to use as a landfill for the trash of Roanoke Rapids. In a time before regulations were in place on what could be put in landfills, toxic and hazardous waste was being dumped in the back yard of Lincoln Heights’ residents. This was not a community that had been forgotten – this community had been actively neglected for generations, and the community leaders are now doing what they can just to keep their heads above water.”

“The moral test of government  is how that government treats  those who are in the dawn of life – the children; those who are in the twilight of life – the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life – the sick,  the needy and the handicapped.”

Warren continued, “Touring Lincoln Heights gave us a real perspective on poverty in the state. Living in Chapel Hill, it is easy to forget that life in that bubble is not indicative of most communities. I have often passed through the ‘poor’ area of cities, and have not thought much of it, mostly regarding the situation as an inevitability – there will be rich areas, and there will be poor ones. But this tour taught me there are all sorts of unforeseen actions that lead to the state of the community, most of which are out of the control of its residents. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said ‘A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.’ This tour helped me realize that we as a nation have a long way to go in giving everyone an equal opportunity at success and happiness, and I am motivated more than ever to help make that happen.”

Subscribing to the Principle of the Common Good

This student’s observations speak to the importance of a society subscribing to the principle of the common good. Gandhi’s quote advises that the best metric of a social commitment to true “greatness” lies in how much value is placed on taking care of those who are weak, ill, impoverished, or needy. The individual and societal commitment to the divine imperative to take care of those in need is spelled out in the Qur’an: “You shall not attain righteousness until you spend out of what you love [in the way of Allah]. Allah knows whatever you spend” (3:92). And in another verse: “Have you seen him who belies the rewards and punishments of the Hereafter? He it is who drives away the orphan and does not encourage the feeding of the poor” (107:1 – 3).The Prophet, on the same theme, said,“Anyone who looks after and works [to support] a widow and a poor person is like the one who fights for Allah’s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night” (Bukhari).

Another measure of the overall health of a society or nation is how well it’s middle class is doing. The larger the middle class, the greater the number of citizens who are reaping the rewards of the general prosperity of the nation. If instead there is a highly stratified society with a wide gap between a majority of people enduring ever increasing poverty and a small minority enjoying exorbitant wealth, that society is politically unstable, with the interests of the privileged class taking precedence over every other consideration including the common good of the society.The principle of the common good is an expression of the collective reality – with its rights and responsibilities – that stands next to and is meant to work harmoniously with the authentic presence of the rights and responsibilities of individuals within that collective. Humanity finds its greatest good in supplanting isolation (atomized individuals) and brute competition with cooperation and interdependent social relationship, creating a virtuous and hospitable environment for all individuals to pursue their goals and realize their ambitions. Those who advocate for the common good assert that particular goods such as justice and security on the personal, community, and national levels can only be achieved through an active citizenry and the collective will to realize those goods.

The necessity of widespread, if not universal, support of the common good would appear to be a moral truism, on par with all other basic moral truisms such as holding ourselves to the same standard that we expect others to adhere to. But there are those who deface the notion of the common good, those who think along the lines of Ayn Rand, believing that only individual rights can be defined and supported, and that each individual does and should exist and act and achieve only for his or her own sake. There are also those such as political leaders who are prone to totalitarian ideology who espouse the common good but exploit or abuse the idea so that it ends up standing for something far removed from the goodness it is meant to represent. While a predominant aspect of the common good is the security of the state, the notion of national security is perennially used to justify an eroding of citizen rights.

Exploiting the Notion of the Common Good

An example of this is what took place in Latin America during the Kennedy presidency. Noam Chomsky describes this in an article in 2003 in Review of International Studies entitled, “Commentary: moral truisms, empirical evidence, and foreign policy.” He writes of “the decision of the Kennedy administration in 1962 to change the primary emphasis of the military assistance program in Latin America from ‘hemispheric defense’ to ‘internal security’. Among knowledgeable observers, perceptions were similar in Washington and Latin America. Charles Maechling, who led counter-insurgency and internal defense planning from 1961 to 1966, described the 1962 decision as a shift from toleration ‘of the rapacity and cruelty of the Latin American military’ to ‘direct complicity’ in their crimes…the respected president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Vásquez Carrizosa,described the outcome in similar terms: the Kennedy administration, he wrote, ‘took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads’, ushering in ‘what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine,…not defense against an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game . . .[with] the right to combat the internal enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, the Argentine doctrine, the Uruguayan doctrine, and the Colombian doctrine: it is the right to fight and to exterminate social workers, trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment, and who are assumed to be communist extremists.’ The goal of the new National Security States, Lars Schoultz writes, was ‘to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority . . .’, the ‘popular classes.’”What goes hand-in-hand with “eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority” is a shrinking of the middle class and the withholding or diminishing of the social safety net programs that help the poor, the disabled, and the disadvantaged. As Americans, we should be acutely aware of what happens when the issue of national security is used to erode civil rights.

In support of an economy in which all citizens are afforded the basic necessities of life, we can do our part politically by working to elect leaders who care about the common good

Foundation for a Moral Society

As far back as the fourth century BCE, in the writings of Aristotle, the idea of the common good has been highlighted, enduring as a hallmark of Western philosophy in the ensuing centuries. Encyclopedia Britannica, in its article on “common good,” states, “For Rousseau, writing in the mid-18th century, the notion of the common good, achieved through the active and voluntary commitment of citizens, was to be distinguished from the pursuit of an individual’s private will. Thus, the ‘general will’ of the citizens of a republic, acting as a corporate body, should be distinguished from the particular will of the individual. Political authority would only be regarded as legitimate if it was according to the general will and toward the common good. The pursuit of the common good would enable the state to act as a moral community.” As our nation becomes more and more like an oligarchy, that is, government captured and co-opted by the elite, the benefits in society are moved increasingly within the monopoly hold of that small sector of society – that class which dictates policy and appends benefits increasingly to itself.

In such a society, the basic index of social and economic health is the GDP (gross domestic product –a market value index of goods and services).This is a society in which the political class bow to business interests, and all the elements of the common good – including medical care, food security, adequate shelter, personal safety, environmental sustainability, access to education, and so on – are supplanted by the rights of the elite to sustain their excesses in wealth, political power, and political and social privilege. We can only call it wretchedness when a human being games the system to protect his opulent lifestyle – he has a watch collection worth $700,000 and a $75,000 toilet – while another does not have time to spend with his wife or children because he works two jobs just to pay the rent for his family’s 3-room tenement apartment where the plumbing and heating only work intermittently. How can we sit silently when politicians obstruct raising the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and CEO’s average hourly compensation is $7,412!

According to a report from Oxfam International, “Working for the Few,” one percent of the global population controls half of the world’s wealth and the 85 richest individuals own wealth equal to the bottom half of the entire population of the world. The report states that such massive concentration of wealth is a recipe for political instability and a threat to security on the national and international levels. “Left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of ordinary people.”

Indexes to Measure Human Well-Being

Many people have begun to think of alternative ways to measure social and economic well-being. On, an alternative to “GDP and other money metrics” is provided, titled the American Human Development Index. The website states, “The human development concept was developed by economist Mahbub ul Haq. At the World Bank in the 1970s, and later as minister of finance in his own country, Pakistan, Dr. Haq argued that existing measures of human progress failed to account for the true purpose of development—to improve people’s lives. In particular, he believed that the commonly used measure of Gross Domestic Product failed to adequately measure well-being. Working with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and other gifted economists, in 1990 Dr. Haq published the first Human Development Report, which was commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme.” The Human Development Index is now used by a number of countries to stimulate public discourse about human well-being based on more than material success and to support policies that help to improve lives.

Certainly Islam advocates the imperative of the common good. In “The Economic Thought of Al-Ghazali,” authors Shaikh Mohammad Ghazanfar, former Professor of Economics at the University of Idaho and Abdul Azim Islahi, Professor of Economics at the Islamic Economics Research Centre of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, delineate Al-Ghazali’s thoughts on the obligatory duty, fard kifayah, of providing the basic necessities for public welfare. Al-Ghazali considered this both a social and an individual duty. According to the authors, “… in an ultimate sense, we may infer, the state as the society’s supreme social institution must assume the responsibility of ensuring that sufficient quantities of necessities are always forthcoming, and if the private sectors of the economy are lacking in this respect, then the state must undertake the responsibility of ‘need fulfillment’ for the welfare of the people – i.e., the state must be ready, willing and able to fulfill its obligations along with the private sector, in order to ensure a balanced functioning of the economy inasmuch as the necessities are concerned; an imbalance in this respect will tend to create ruinous conditions.”

In support of an economy in which all citizens are afforded the basic necessities of life, we can do our part politically by working to elect leaders who care about the common good. We can also volunteer with organizations such as ICNA Relief and Helping Hand for Relief & Development and directly help those who are hungry, displaced by conflict or war, orphaned or widowed, beset by debilitating poverty, or devastated by natural disaster. And we can do our part by supporting initiatives that raise awareness about the principle of the common good and advocate an economic system that incorporates humane, fair, and environmental values so that profit does not alone dictate business and corporate policy and behavior.

Creating an Economy for the Common Good

In an article in The Guardian in January of this year, titled “Can we create an ‘Economy for the Common Good’?” writer Bruce Watson lays out a compelling case that an economy of predatory capitalism is ultimately doomed to cave-in on itself. As a good metaphor for predatory capitalism, he reminds us of the garment factory in Bangladesh which collapsed in 2013, killing 1,000 workers.Its collapse was due to use of substandard construction materials and disregard of building codes. In a frenzied attempt to fill orders for the top retailers in the industry (who cared only about the bottom line and so places like Bangladesh with the lowest labor costs were prime locations for their inventory fulfillment), the factory added upper floors that were patently unstable. Watson writes about a number of programs such as B Lab in the U.S. and Economy for the Common Good (ECG) in Europe that seek to bring companies into a policy and operating framework that balances the goal of maximizing profits with the commitment to moral values. ECG works toward imbuing the economy with “common good” values so that, in the words of the founder of ECG, it “rewards economic stakeholders for behaving and organizing themselves in a humane, cooperative, ecological and democratic way.”

ECG’s founder, Christian Felber, advocates modifying predatory capitalism which in essence is an economic system pivoting on “selfish values” that ultimately implodes with problems of its own creation such as poverty, food insecurity, subsistence wages, unsustainable exploitation of people and natural resources with damage to the environment, and an ever widening income gap between the opulent rich and the masses.That system needs to be imbued with a moral bellwether that “places human beings and all living entities at the center of economic activity.”Watson notes, “Politically and economically, ECG is still on the fringes, but it has already demonstrated an ability to draw together a partnership of companies, consumers and communities. If it can make the jump into inspiring significant political changes, it may be able to bring fresh life to capitalism – by offering a fresh alternative.”

Maslahah – Central to Islamic Doctrine

The concept of “maslaha,” variously translated as “public interest” or “common good,” is central to Islamic doctrine. I desire safety and security in my daily life, the opportunity to pursue my aspirations, enough food to eat, proper shelter from the elements, and the right to live with dignity. It requires no stretch to realize that these are the desires of every other person. The Prophet pbuh made it clear: “None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” (Bukhari and Muslim). In an article published in this magazine in 2011, Understanding Shariah by Imam Shamsi Ali, the author states, “Scholars have quoted a number of hadith in support of maslaha, such as the following:

‘No harm shall be inflicted or tolerated in Islam.’

‘The Prophet (pbuh) only chose the easier of two alternatives so long as it did not amount to a sin.’

‘Allah loves to see that His concessions (rukksah) are observed, just as He loves to see that His strict laws (azaim) are observed.’”

Ali also makes the point that the maslahah applies to the good that accrues to the people as a whole rather than to “any particular individual, group, or special interests.”In fact, Islam aims to achieve a healthy and practical balance between the rights and needs of the individual and the rights and needs of the collective community. According to Imam Al-Ghazali, “maslahah” as an aspect of the Shariah, aims to protect the five essential values of life, religion, intellect, lineage, and property. That being said, the collective goods, which also support and protect essential values of life, are many. When self-interest is in conflict with the collective good, it is the collective good that supersedes individual interest. To any person of moral standing, and certainly to a person of religious faith, profit cannot be the pivot and criterion of policy and action whether in personal life, business or government affairs. Catholic social teaching is a well-developed conceptual and practical program for support of social justice, commitment to helping the poor and needy, and bringing about a more equitable society. The advocacy position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides a clear and concise “framework for economic life” that is very much consonant with Islamic teachings:

The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.

All economic life should be shaped by moral principles. Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family and serve the common good.

A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.

All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security.)

All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.

All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide the needs of their families and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.

In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.

Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life.

Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers are moral agents in economic life. By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.

The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences. Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe.

Privatization and Profit Motivation

The ten assertions above that form a “framework for economic life” stand in stark contrast to the neoliberal ideological stranglehold that the current elite cartel has on the world.Their economic program, in practical terms, seeks to channel all economic activity through the filter of “free-market” and profit orientation. An essential aspect of this economic/political ideology is the replacing of public provision of goods and services with privatization of the means of providing for the wants and needs of people and the necessities of a functioning and orderly society. In so doing, profit rather than public good becomes the dominant raison d’être. A good example of this is evident in the privatization of the prison system in the U.S. Much has been written about the consequences of this transition. In an article in the New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik, states that a “growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.”

The privatization of public services – the running of prisons, the maintenance and repair of infrastructure such as road and bridges, the operation of water systems, the handling of the social service programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and much more -has been pushed by those who glorify individualism, entrepreneurship, self-reliance, wealth acquisition, and deregulation of the market. At the same time, they condemn government for inefficiency and incompetence. The facts, however, tell a different story. In 2013 people on food stamps in 17 states were unable to use their debit cards to purchase food. Immediately there were cries of “government incompetence.” But soon it was found to be the fault of Xerox, the company to whom the government contracted out the running of the Electronic Benefit Transfer System. They had run a “routine test” that shut down the system. A similar failure to competently serve low-income families took place in 2009 in Indiana. The state had a $1.34 billion contract with IBM to service the state’s recipients of social services including food stamps, cash assistance, andhealth coverage. IBM failed to provide benefits for a two-year period due to a whole host of problems. Stories abound about private, for-profit companies failing to competently serve those they have been contracted to serve. And too often the costs sky-rocket so that while initially acting on the incentive to save money, states are finding that their coffers are depleted more by privatization of services.

Proponents of privatization often talk of the “magic hand of the markets,” a take on the suggestion by Adam Smith in 1776 in his book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” that an individual acting in his own self-interest trades in the market, guided by an “invisible hand” such that in pursuing his own interest, he “frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” But what advocates of privatization don’t mention is that the invisible hand today is attached to a very discoverable intentionality of those who have captured and control legislators – those with wealth, power, and influence. A more equitable system than one in which all regulations have been dismantled is one in which the common good and just social priorities are embedded into state policy and action.

Noam Chomsky writes about the efforts of the working class during the Industrial Revolution to educate themselves and assert their rights. The press of the labor class condemned the hyperfocus of that time – the acquisition of wealth and selfish interest. Chomsky writes in “Corporations and the Richest Americans Viscerally Oppose Common Good” that “No efforts have been spared since then to drive this spirit into people’s heads. People must come to believe that suffering and deprivation result from the failure of individuals, not the reigning socioeconomic system. There are huge industries devoted to this task. About one-sixth of the entire US economy is devoted to what’s called ‘marketing’ which is mostly propaganda. Advertising is described by analysts and the business literature as a process of fabricating wants – a campaign to drive people to the superficial things in life, like fashionable consumption, so that they will remain passive and obedient.”

Americans cannot be passive and obedient to a socioeconomic system than dotes on the wants and desires of those who have an inordinate percentage of the essentials of life and neglects the wants and the needs of those who have little to nothing. The 38th vice president of the U.S., Hubert Humphrey, said, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life – the children; those who are in the twilight of life – the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” And American Muslims cannot be passive and obedient to a socioeconomic system that denies the children, the elderly, and the sick, needy, and handicapped their due. Muslims must speak out and take action to support the common good.

“Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful”(Qur’an 4:36).


Samya AliAuthor Samya Ali converted to Islam in 1980 and she is a free-lance writer.

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