When did we stop talking about The Common Good?

I feel like I just woke up from a long nap. Like something vitally important was missing, and I had failed to even realize it was gone until all of a sudden it hit me like a tidal wave.
What has happened to us? That phrase, “The Common Good,” has more or less disappeared from our global dialogue. There was a time when it was an integral part of many discussions. The United States was founded by individuals who put their own selfish interests aside (for a time), to stand up for what was right, not just what was advantageous to themselves personally or to their small group or party. Since that time, many other leaders of many other cultures have likewise put The Common Good ahead of their own selfish considerations, defying evil, shedding slavery and class systems and tyranny, adopting fair labor laws, child welfare laws, (at times) resisting polluters….
But something has happened. I don’t know if I can trace it back to a certain date or even decade, but at some point we just kind of… stopped talking about issues from the perspective of The Common Good. We’ve become engrossed in personal or corporate or factional calculation: “What is good for me, or for a limited version of us?” We ask, rather than what we used to ask regularly: “What is good for Us?” “Us” with a capital U, that is: as in all of us: our country or culture or humanity or the planet.
This is why I enjoy the Sustainable Business Forum. Through some luck of the social media Fates, I stumbled into this group. The exclusive posts I’ve written for SBF thus far have stirred something within me. They have also helped me connect with others who care about The Common Good more passionately than I think I’m used to. I feel that the people I meet on the fledgling twitter hashtag, #sustbiz, or in the comments sections of the posts throughout this site, or on the sites linked to this one, are interested more in the greater Us than the narrow view of us one typically finds.
Fortunately, while I’ve been napping and observing from the sidelines, some people have been fighting for The Common Good already.

  • Environmentalists, who enjoyed a huge shot in the arm several years ago with release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
  • Oppressed citizens, as we can see from the continued struggles of the Arab Spring.
  • Outraged youth, leading us so courageously in Occupy Wall Street protests across the US and, to some extent, throughout the world.

We’ve got to help these and other citizen-leaders reintroduce the very notion of The Common Good to mainstream dialogue.

  • Imagine if bankers began to ask, “How will our investment decisions affect The Common Good, as well as my own bonus and the profits of my firm this quarter?”
  • Imagine if our political leaders began to ask, “Is our incessant squabbling and sowing of distrust among the media and the electorate harming The Common Good of our country, and of humanity?”
  • Imagine if corporate boards began to ask, “Is it sufficient to merely comply with the letter of environmental laws, or should we be doing more?”  
  • Imagine if individuals asked, “Is there anything about my personal behavior (infidelity, tax evasion; general incivility) that might subtly undermine The Common Good?”

As I ruminated over an ending to this post, I visited one of my favorite blogs, that of my good friend Shawn Murphy, Principal of Achieved Strategies. Wouldn’t you know it, right there in Sunday’s post, Shawn writes about serving “the greater good,” in his outstanding post, We Don’t Need to Change The World. Coincidence? Serendipity? Something in the air? Whatever the case, if this issue has struck Shawn and me in the same week, there’s at least a chance our posts may be onto something.
But I’m curious: what do you think about the need to revive consideration of The Common Good? Is it too late? Is this idea antiquated? Does it indeed have no place in business discussions, or even politics, for that matter?
Or are you with me? Have we left something out of our public discourse for much too long now, something we never should have allowed to leave? Is it time to take up the mantle of The Common Good after all? Before it’s too late.