THR Web Features   /   April 30, 2020

COVID and the Common Good

The common good is back, yet again.

Mark Hoipkemier

( International travelers, some wearing protective masks and gloves, wait in line before meeting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations officers to review their travel documents as they arrive at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., March 18, 2020. CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett, via Wikimedia Commons.)

In ordinary times, the common good is like liberalism’s cranky old uncle: You wouldn’t deny his existence outright, though you don’t usually mention him and his foibles in polite company. But on occasion the common good, like Uncle Orlo, has a role to play in our liberal societies, and the current coronavirus pandemic is such a time. It certainly forces citizens to consider dimensions of our common life that we normally prefer to ignore. While the common good is on center stage, we might profitably reflect on its ongoing relevance for less turbulent times as well.

To be sure, the concept of the common good is a slippery one, subject to contestation and interpretation from all points of the political spectrum. This is a feature, not a bug. That said, most of the contending views draw on a core meaning articulated most clearly by Aristotle and the tradition of thinkers follow him. On this view, the good that members of a community share consists of the flourishing of that community—whether it is a nation, a town, a school, a religious body, or even a family. Irreducibly social goods of this kind are necessary for the flourishing of the “political animal,” yet totally inaccessible apart from the communities with which those goods are bound up. You cannot enjoy the goods of quarterbacking without a football team, nor those of higher education apart from a university system. These communities flourish when their members justly share in the benefits and burdens of pursuing common ends together. When common ends such as knowledge or gridiron glory are achieved with justice, the irreducibly social excellence of the community is a common good in which the members share. The main point of the­­­ “common good” is to name this shared flourishing and use it as a way to evaluate the use of political authority.

At present, away from the crowded wards of busy hospitals and a few mostly urban global hotspots, what we are facing is not the COVID-19 virus itself but the vast social anticipation of its spread, coordinated with varying degrees of competence by the directives of political authorities at different levels of government. Broad compliance with their mandates, it is worth noting, is itself evidence that contemporary society has not become as atomized or individualistic as some critics of liberal democracy claim. For most people, most of the time, it is easy to overlook the political power at work in the personal and institutional habits that we voluntarily adopt. This is precisely why it is hard to identify the common good in normal times—it demands little of individuals beyond what they do in the normal course of their lives. Enlightened self-interest and the common good seem to merge. This is how the most effective liberal regimes exercise their authority: They minimize the use of overt commands and govern with the lighter touch of generally framed laws.

In a crisis such as this one, however, authority is out in the open. It operates through edicts that cannot be disguised as freely chosen individual behaviors. This runs against the liberal grain, and many Americans, myself included, chafe at the fact that personal well-being has become so alarmingly subject to the whims and fiats of mayors, governors, or presidents. Yet however questionable their judgment, these figures, by virtue of their office, are the only ones with the power, perspective, and legitimacy required to lead a truly just and prudent response to the crisis. In the conditions of crisis, expecting enlightened self-interest to secure the common good would be like expecting a general to defeat his enemies by asking each soldier to do what seems best to him. The smart soldier would reply: “What seems best to me is that we work together—so you have to decide!” In principle, then, the common good gives citizens a reason to comply with the directives of the relevant authorities. Even, perhaps, to be happy about it.

 On the other hand, there is a real question whether the omnipresent talk of public health even refers to the common good at all or is modeled instead on the logic of public utilities, which involve cooperative action without irreducibly social goals. We must distinguish between two kinds of goods when we act together. We can cooperate to provide various “public goods”—such as defense, infrastructure, or education—that help our individual lives to go better. Here the shared instrument is just a tool, not an end in itself, and the relevant question is this: What are we to provide?

The technocratic imagination, which loves data and statistical models, tends to think that public goods, which are measurable and maximizable, are all there is to common life. But they are not. Indeed, they are never the heart of the matter. We only cooperate to achieve public goods as one aspect of pursuing a common good, which is a morally transformative project of acting well together, in some form of solidarity. The key question regarding the common good is this: Who are we to become? Questions of this kind are paradigmatically political rather than technocratic, and they have been conspicuously absent from our public discussion of COVID-19.

Adequate answers will necessarily depend on prudence and judgment as well as data. They are always contestable in a way that the technical analysis of public goods is (supposedly) not. Measured deliberation feels out of place when crises demand swift and decisive action, but the moral question of the common good will be answered one way or another, whether we acknowledge it or not. The leading notion governing the pandemic response—that we should do whatever science says—is an inadequate answer to the question of the common good. It does not acknowledge that a moral course is being charted. Just because it is unreflective about its underlying assumptions, it is all the more revealing of the moral order we inhabit today.

The goal on every tongue is health. The trouble is there is nothing irreducibly social about infection curves or case mortality rates—or about epidemiology-speak more generally. If we want to think of health as a common good, and not merely as a cooperatively secured individual good, we must consider health alongside the other goods that citizens jointly aim to achieve. Normally, it is the task of politics to balance various goods against one another as aspects of the overall common good. What is striking in the global response to COVID-19 is how much we have been willing to sacrifice for the sake of health. Balancing has seemingly been ruled out: Perniciously expanding government power, economic collapse, social breakdown, or psychological problems weigh as nothing against the statistical threat to life.

We should recognize that this health-centric vision is a normative vision, not a merely technical one, as we can see by the intense moralizing directed against whoever dares to question the mandated lockdown—“You are as despicable as you are ignorant.” We are dealing here with something like a sacred cow, not just one good among others. An insight from philosopher John Rawls is helpful for understanding the logic at work. On Rawls’ account of liberal justice, certain goods should be “lexically ordered,” which means you absolutely have to achieve the prior goods, to some threshold level, before you may attend at all to the subsequent ones. We are treating health as a primary good in this sense, before which everything else must yield.

Still, it is remarkable how much exaggeration and fear-mongering have been deployed to keep the public discussion focused on this “sacred and undeniable” good. As one group of doctors put it, “The bottom line is, we are all at risk.” This is simply not true, so far as we know. Children seem to be in relatively little danger; young and healthy adults face scarcely more. For low-risk individuals, the social-distancing “cure” is arguably more damaging than the disease itself would have been, because the cure entails a definite social and economic cost weighed against a remote chance of serious illness.

Leaving aside the atmosphere of fear, the real concern is for certain vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly and those with a range of pre-existing conditions, and for those living or working in precarious settings, whether they are residents of densely populated (particularly poor and urban) neighborhoods, health workers in hospitals, or workers toiling in close quarters with others. In this context, it would make sense to ask citizens to accept sacrifices as citizens, for the sake of the common good, rather than pretending that they all are in grave danger as individuals.

But if not all of us are directly menaced, then the just demands of vulnerable persons for lower COVID risk must be weighed against the just demands of other members of the community. One classic way of arriving at what justice truly requires would be to ask the healthy what they would expect if they were sick or at-risk, and to ask the vulnerable what they would expect if they were healthy. But this would require political deliberation rather than technocratic solutions to secure a value that is assumed to be absolute. The absolute priority on population-wide statistical health is exactly the perspective that epidemiologists take, which helps to explain their sudden prominence.

We don’t know whether richer deliberation on the common good would lead in America to tighter or looser restrictions, to something closer to the Chinese model or to the Swedish one. But the largely docile public response to state-imposed, expert-led solutions, and the depiction of those solutions as unquestionable mandates of morality, is a worrisome sign for a liberal politics that relies on vigorous contestation. The doctor’s professional perspective is partial, and the common good calls upon citizens to recognize the full panoply of human goods at stake. These cannot be ordered by statistics or aggregate data alone. We should not pretend that our decision to treat health as an absolute value, whether prudent or not, is a matter of uncontestable political common sense or a dispassionate deliverance of science. (For that matter, there is no consensus among epidemiologists and immunologists about what the correct medical response should be.) The common good needs citizens, and their leaders, to make and accept decisions of a less certain kind.

The COVID crisis is a good time to recognize, yet again, that we always have a politics of the common good, like it or not. The question of who we are to become will find some answer or other in our common life, whether tacit or explicit, whether for better or for worse, from the standpoint of human flourishing as a whole.