Reflections on the common good

A few days ago, in response to a question raised by a friend regarding the ethics of sunbathing in the park during the current crisis, and an associated article in the Guardian, I tweeted: “Yes, solidarity is important, but not the solidarity of a collection of individuals. We are who we are by virtue of our relationship to others, so perhaps we need to reflect on how our actions contribute to social flourishing, to the common good.” I quickly realised, however, that I failed to express my meaning clearly enough. This may have been down the sheer inadequacy of Twitter as a platform for philosophy / ethics, or it have been a lack or clarity on my part. Either way, I would like a second go with a few more words at my disposal.

For those of us on the left of the political spectrum in particular, the idea of solidarity is held in high regard. The suggested unity of interests, especially among those of the same social class, has historically been associated with strength – the strength to overcome oppression. And there is also the strong implication of being unified in our endeavours towards a particular outcome. Whilst I do not want to dismiss these notions out of hand, I would like to question this implied unity. In fact, if I’m being honest, I have a problem with the notion of unity itself. My concerns come from my understanding of complexity and complex systems, or what the French philosopher Michel Serres has termed ‘the multiple as such’; sets “undefined by elements or boundaries. Locally [they are] not individuated; globally [they are] not summed up”; they are neither an aggregate nor discrete. No collection of people, no matter how big or small, can be defined by either the individuals who make up the collective or by the collective as a whole. This is because the relationship between group members is too rich, too interactive, and too subtle. From this highly dynamic relationship (referred to as “background noise, the murmur of the crowd”) novelty is always being created. In the language of complexity science, any group of people form a dynamic complex system which is self-organising. This means that structure emerges. If structure is applied, for example by defining the overarching task or purpose of the group, either the group will only function in a limited setting (like a sports team) or it will loose all creativity and eventually stagnate and die.

To return to the pandemic. I have no problem at all with the desire for everyone to work together to achieve a specific outcome – for example, fight the pandemic. What I do have a problem with, however, is for the actions and behaviour of group members to be overly defined or controlled. This does not mean that I endorse a libertarian approach. Far from it. It’s rules and norms that hold the group together. But if these rules and norms are rigidly defined, if they are largely imposed rather than emerging from within the group itself, the group loses its creativity and ability to adapt to novelty. So in terms of the specific example that led to my initial, clumsy response (a Guardian article about people sunbathing in parks during the lockdown) I think that there should be a clear and specific objective (reducing the spread of the virus), together with clear guidelines for how to achieve it (social distancing / washing hands), but no rigid control of individual behaviour. If someone who lives in a flat wants to lie in the sun on their own and does so at least two metres from anybody else, what harm is done?

I think that I also want to make a wider ethical point, one related to Aristotelian virtue ethics, but the details of this may need to be deferred to another occasion. The gist of this, however, is that we are all highly interdependent on each other, and that our flourishing (a better translation of Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘happiness’), our common good, is achieved collectively by each of us developing certain character traits – character traits that facilitate our flourishing / common good. It would be for the greater good if we could all spend some time during this crisis reflecting on our own behaviour / character traits: deciding which of our traits support the common good and which don’t, then working to develop the former and weaken the latter.

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