It has been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy with school, trying to find a job, and spending time with friends. But I had to break the hiatus to share some thoughts on this topic. Last week Calvin College Philosophy professor James K.A. Smith wrote a fascinating article entitled, “You’ll Thank Me Later”: Paternalism and the Common Good. I suggest you give it a read (you will thank me when you’re done … really). For those who think they know what’s best for themselves and ignore my suggestion here is a quick summary:
Paternalism, claims Smith, is the greatest vice of our age, saying that it is the “new bigotry”. Smith however, does not think that anyone can “sign up for pursuing ‘the common good’ and hope to avoid some at least implicit commitment to paternalism–some sense that one knows what is good for others”. Pursuing ‘the common good’ is a topic both the Catholic social tradition and, my tradition, the Reformed tradition speak quite openly about. In the Reformed tradition we use phrases like ‘restoring shalom‘ and ‘being co-creators of God’s Kingdom’. But to pursue ‘the common good’ one must have some understanding of what ‘good’ is. Says Smith, “‘the common good’ is a shared orientation of our communities–both civil and political–toward a substantive vision of the good life”. The idea that you know what is good for other people is really just the simple definition of paternalism. So why don’t we just claim it, we are pursuing the common good through paternalism.
But to “sign up for paternalism”, in the eyes of John Stuart Mill, the famous classical economist, is to “renounce liberalism”. Mill’s major assumption, which was the cornerstone for much of his normative theory and practical policies was that, “the person is most interested in his own well-being”. In fact this assumption, that people are self-interested and rational, lies behind much of the contemporary economic perspective. This assumption however, has met a fair amount of skepticism, especially in recent years through a growing pile of evidence, summarized nicely in books such as The Social Animal by David Brooks, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann, and Nudge (a book I reviewed last summer) by Cass Sunstein. All basically stating that we humans do not often act in our best interest, we make a lot of mistakes. Our choices are often influenced by nudges from others rather than some rational, self-interested logic model. Smith brings forward the thinking of skeptics that take this thinking one step further. He introduces Alasdair MacIntyre who suggests “that not only do we fail to act in the interest of our own well-being, ‘we’ as a culture or society have simply lost any substantive vision of what that well-being actually is”.
After reading this article I was intrigued. (I also wondered why I had never signed up to take a class from Professor James Smith during my time at Calvin College.) And I began asking questions. Questions with no easy answer. These questions were similar questions I wondered about after an experience I had while studying in Ghana. One day a friend and I were invited to the dedication of a school. (I wrote a journal about this experience here.) The school was great! It promised to be a great asset for the community. Which had been educationally underserved. It was a project that had been managed and funded entirely by locals. A shining example of what happens when capabilities are realized. It was not long into the ceremony that I noticed a problem. Members of the neighboring ethnic group were disrupting the dedication event. One man yelled shouts of protest before the event even began. The chiefs from the community experienced a delayed arrival due to a roadblock protest.
What was the problem? Turns out the ownership of the land the school was built on was undefined. The neighboring ethnic community was unhappy that the school would only be serving members of the other ethnicity and community. While the school provides beneficial education to the members of that community, it fails to build bridging relationships between that community and its neighbors. It fails to point the community toward shalom. In fact it actually exacerbates the challenge these two communities are facing, to love their neighbor as themselves.
While sitting and watching the events unfold, I had to almost restrain myself from standing up and holding off the opening of the school until the two communities worked out their differences. I felt like I knew something, saw something, understood something that the members of the community didn’t. I felt I knew what ‘good’ was, and I could see that the common good was not being achieved. Of course I didn’t stand up and start yelling. Mostly because I’m not that kind of person, and the dedication ceremony was not the correct venue to raise such concerns, but partly because doing so would be paternalistic. To me, paternalism has always been a bad thing. I have read books like When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, which paints paternalistic actions as one of the worst things anyone could ever do. (Ok… maybe that is an overstatement that Corbett and Fikkert wouldn’t agree with.) Still, they offer harsh words to do-gooders who may be paternalistic. Through all this, I think paternalism is still something to be wary of. I am however, ready to dethrone paternalism as the greatest vice of our age.
Perhaps what this whole discussion on paternalism and the common good is getting at is the meaning and importance of community. And not just any kind of community, but a diverse community, filled with people that see the world differently. Because, I may see some things right, but I probably see most things wrong. Living in true community allows everyone to be paternalistic to each other at various times. Similar to that of the relationship between a parent and a child, but the roles are constantly switching. This kind of paternalism in community allows everyone to be constant givers and receivers of paternalistic actions and advice. It is important to remember that the pursuit of the common good is not intended to be done alone, but in community, jointly with others who are different than us.
All this makes the words of Philippians 2:1-4 a bit more meaningful:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you in the interest of the others”.
In the end if the good we are pursuing is ‘common’ and is indeed the “shared orientation of our communities toward a substantive vision of the good life”, doesn’t it naturally follow that the pursuit should be shared in community, with other people who see the world different, look different, believe different things, eat different food, and live in different ways?