IMG_8595What is the common good?

“We could, with meaning and richness and depth, ask: what is caritas? But to answer that question, we have to come back into the very reason for being of a university like Cal, and of its origins in Bishop Berkeley musings over the nature of knowledge. The best questions, the truest questions, are complex, and their answers are complex. Wondering about ‘the common good,’ takes us to ‘how do we know?’ which presses into the deepest things of life– yours, mine and everyone everywhere. These are the questions that human being have always asked, and always answered. Some answers are better than others.”

On Friday night I gave a lecture in Berkeley, CA, exploring who we are and what it means to live together in a pluralizing world. Sponsored by good people who are committed to the welfare of their city, this was the first effort they have made to work together, sponsoring a forum for speaking into the nature of the good life, for everyone.

Words like “good” are pregnant words, of course, full of all sorts of hopes and dreams, different and diverse as they might be. What is “good”? And what is “the common good”? In a pluralizing society, can we even speak about a common good? Or is our future only more fragmentation, more isolation, more tribalism?

Choosing to begin with memories deep within me of days spent on the Cal Berkeley campus as a twelve year-old, joining my father in his days there working with other UC scientists, him giving me a loose rein, allowing me freedom to roam the university and city. And then my days as a college drop-out eight years later, taking up what I even then called my “extra-academic education”—asking questions that college wasn’t very able to answer –living in communes in both the Bay Area and Europe, learning hard but good lessons about “the common good.”

Along the way I remembered that Bishop Berkeley (whose name was the inspiration for the city and university) was both an Anglican bishop and an Enlightenment philosopher, wresting in his own time with the questions that still run through everyone’s mind and heart…. and about the five UC professors who wrote Habits of the Heart a generation ago, studying the work of Alexis de Tocqueville a century-and-a-half earlier about the whys and whats and wherefores of the American experiment, wondering what “habits of heart” would be required to achieve our promise as a people, a common good that was honest and sustainable over time…. and Bernard of Clairvaux and Augustine too, drawing on their deep insights about what matters most for human flourishing for us as human beings to be what we can be and should be in our life together.

And before it was over, my friend Hans Hess and his hamburgers came into the story, as did my work with the Mars Corporation in its efforts to develop a serious rethinking of the way business is done in the world, “the economics of mutuality” we have called it, on finally to my work with the Murdock Trust, a common grace for the common good foundation, serving all kinds of people in all kinds of ways throughout the Pacific Northwest. Windows they were into good people doing good work, vocations in service of the common good.

Caritas is a good word. From it we get charity and compassion, love and affection, which makes that most important of all questions, “What do you love?” the core of any meaningful conversation about the common good—because our answer not only affects our selves, but our societies. In the end, we are always choosing which loves mean the most and which ones don’t, which loves matter and which ones don’t.

Glorious ruins that we are, we are capable of great good and great evil, of glories and of shames, so that ordering our loves rightly is what makes the common, good—which matters for all of us.

(Sather Gate on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, built in 1910 it was the original entrance to the campus from the south from Telegraph Ave.)

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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