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One Of The Oldest Questions In Politics-- What's More Important, Freedom Or Societal Safety?

Governments pass laws and regulations to make sure individual "rights" don't trample of the welfare of others and on society in general-- "Me vs We." For example, maybe your neighbor wants to open a zoo for wild animals in his backward. Well thought-out zoning laws would stop him, at least in most parts of the country.

In case you think that jurisdictions requiring COVID vaccines in schools are trying to institute some kind of authoritarian stunt, all 50 states have been protecting their residents' health by requiring immunizations from a wide variety of diseases in order to attend schools or day care centers: diphtheria, chickenpox, polio, measles, hepatitis B (except in Alabama), mumps, rubella... Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, as well as New York City also require annual flue shots. Several politically backward states with Republican controlled legislatures and GOP governors-- Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah-- have passed laws to prevent public schools and universities from requiring either coronavirus vaccinations.

This kind of thing is always a big battle but there has never been as much resistance-- approaching anomie-- as there is in the age of social media and the delegitimation of expertise and credentials.

Yesterday, The Economist released an extensive poll that YouGov took for them. The 79th question asked which of three choices was more important-- the right to own guns, protecting people from gun violence or if both premises are equally important.

This being America, the winner was both are equally important. But there is still something to be learned from the demographic breakdowns

So, here are the numbers among all adults:

  • The right to own guns- 20%

  • Protecting people from gun violence- 33%

  • Both equally- 43%

Let's look at regions of the country:

The right to own guns-

Northeast- 14%

Midwest- 24%

South- 20%

West- 20%

Protecting people from gun violence-

Northeast- 36%

Midwest- 29%

South- 30%

West- 37%

Both equally-

Northeast- 45%

Midwest- 41%

South- 44%

West- 39%

Let's cut right to the chase-- registered voters by party ID

The right to own guns-

Democrats- 4%

Republicans- 40%

Independents- 24%

Protecting people from gun violence-

Democrats- 59%

Republicans- 9%

Independents- 26%

Both equally-

Democrats- 33%

Republicans- 49%

Independents- 46%

In a City University of New York political philosophy textbook, Philosophy Professor Philip Pecorino looked at the tension between individual vs group interest. He wrote that "In any society there is a natural tension between the interests of individuals and the interest of the group as a whole. There is a conflict between what individuals want and what serves their interests and what is needed for the welfare, safety and security of the entire group. Government needs to moderate that conflict. Depending on the type of view that is operative concerning the nature of the social arrangement and the nature of government, the conflict will be resolved in favor of one or the other sets of interests." He offers 5 concrete examples:

1. Individuals may believe that they have the right to smoke tobacco. The group or society as a whole has an interest in preserving its heath and well being. How is the conflict to be resolved? In different societies there are different resolutions. In those favoring individualism there may be a great amount of freedom and a great reluctance on the part of government to restrict the liberties of individuals even when they are placing the welfare of others in jeopardy. In other societies that favor the common good over that of individuals there is less reluctance on the part of that government to intervene in the personal lives of individuals in order to preserve the common welfare and provide for the common good.
2. Individuals have an interest in preserving their earnings and using them as they see fit. In most countries the government takes a portion of those earnings through taxation and distributes the goods and services purchased with those funds as the government thinks best to provide for the more general good.
3. Individuals may want to ride in their automobiles without wearing a seat belt. Society acts to protect itself from foolish behavior that threatens the common welfare. Government enacts laws requiring the use of seatbelts in order to reduce the number of accidents in which the drivers are injured and become so impaired that society must provide for their medical and physical care for the rest of their lives.
4. Individuals have an interest in self-protection, sporting pleasure, or hunting and so want to have guns and handguns. Society has an interest in reducing injuries and deaths caused by the use of such devices as weapons involved in crimes or accidents. In some countries government has acted for the common welfare and has prohibited private ownership of such devices.
5. This conflict arose during the pandemic of 2020-2021 and arises with all pandemics. Individuals have an interest in their freedom and freedom of choice and living as they want to live. Society has an interest in reducing injuries, sickness and deaths caused by the infection of members of society by viruses. In some countries governments have acted for the common welfare and have required the wearing of masks and other measures, such as social distancing and restricting gatherings of groups of individuals and even required inoculations with vaccines.

As you know, conservatives go insane over the concept of the common good trumping personal rights. Before they tore into the premise recently, a couple of conservative academics quoted conservative pundit Robert Samuelson in a paper they wrote for their school. "Commenting on the many economic and social problems that American society now confronts, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently wrote: 'We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.' Newsweek is not the only voice calling for a recognition of and commitment to the 'common good.' Daniel Callahan, an expert on bioethics, argues that solving the current crisis in our health care system-- rapidly rising costs and dwindling access-- requires replacing the current 'ethic of individual rights' with an 'ethic of the common good.'"

Appeals to the common good have also surfaced in discussions of business' social responsibilities, discussions of environmental pollution, discussions of our lack of investment in education, and discussions of the problems of crime and poverty. Everywhere, it seems, social commentators are claiming that our most fundamental social problems grow out of a widespread lack of commitment to the common good, coupled with an equally widespread pursuit of individual interests.
What exactly is "the common good," and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as "certain general conditions that are . . . equally to everyone's advantage." The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment." The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of, society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well tines systems and institutions are functioning.
As these examples suggest, the common good doe not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good requires the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens. But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society's other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.
It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good. But numerous observers have identified a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.
First, according to some philosophers, the very idea of a common good is inconsistent with a pluralistic society like ours. Different people have different ideas abut what is worthwhile or what constitutes "the good life for human beings," differences that have increased during the last few decades as the voices of more and more previously silenced groups, such as women and minorities have been heard. Given these differences, some people urge, it will be impossible for us to agree on what particular kind of social systems, institutions, and environment we will all pitch in to support. And even if we agree upon what we all valued, we would certainly disagree about the relative values things have for us. While a may agree, for example, that an affordable health system a healthy educational system, and a clean environment are all parts of the common good, some will say the, more should be invested in health than in education, while others will favor directing resources to the environment over both health and education. Such disagreements are bound to undercut our ability to evoke a sustained and widespread commitment to the common good. In the face of such pluralism, efforts to bring about the common good can only lead to adopting or promoting the views of some, while excluding others, violating the principle of treating people equally. Moreover, such efforts would force everyone to support some specific notion of the common good, violating the freedom of those who do not share in that goal, and inevitably leading to paternalism (imposing one group's preference on others), tyranny, and oppression.
A second problem encountered by proponents of the common good is what is sometimes called the "freerider problem." The benefits that a common good provides are, as we noted, available to everyone, including those who choose not to do their part to maintain the common good. Individuals can become "free riders" by taking the benefits the common good provides while refusing to do their part to support the common good. An adequate water supply, for example, is a common good from which all people benefit. But to maintain an adequate supply of water during a drought, people must conserve water, which entails sacrifices. Some individuals may be reluctant to do their share, however, since they know that so long as enough other people conserve, they can enjoy the benefits without reducing their own consumption. If enough people become free riders in this way, the common good which depends on their support will be destroyed. Many observers believe that this is exactly what has happened to many of our common goods, such as the environment or education, where the reluctance of all persons to support efforts to maintain the health of these systems has led to their virtual collapse.
The third problem encountered by attempts to promote the common good is that of individualism. Our historical traditions place a high value on individual freedom, on personal rights, and on allowing each person to "do her own thing." Our culture views society as comprised of separate independent individuals who are free to pursue their own individual goals and interests without interference from others. In this individualistic culture it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to convince people that they should sacrifice some of their freedom, some of their personal goals, and some of their self-interest, for the sake of the "common good." Our cultural traditions, in fact, reinforce the individual who thinks that she should not have to contribute to the community's common good, but should be left free to pursue her own personal ends.
Finally, appeals to the common good are confronted by the problem of an unequal sharing of burdens. Maintaining a common good often requires that particular individuals or particular groups bear costs that are much greater than those borne by others. Maintaining an unpolluted environment, for example, may require that particular firms that pollute install costly pollution control devices, undercutting profits. Making employment opportunities more equal may require that some groups, such as white males, sacrifice their own employment chances. Making the health system affordable and accessible to all may require that insurers accept lower premiums, that physicians accept lower salaries, or that those with particularly costly diseases or conditions forego the medical treatment on which their lives depend. Forcing particular groups or individuals to carry such unequal burdens "for the sake of the common good," is, at least arguably, unjust. Moreover, the prospect of having to carry such heavy and unequal burdens leads such groups and individuals to resist any attempts to secure common goods.

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