Finding the ‘common good’ in a pandemic: Political philosopher Michael Sandel offers his take

From a conversation between New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and political philosopher Michael Sandel:

Friedman: America today is engaged in a deep and broad philosophical/ethical debate unlike anything in our history. It’s a debate about what is the common good in the midst of a pandemic.

We may not be framing it as such, but every one of the unprecedented, vastly consequential, health and economic measures that state, local and federal officials have taken up to now—some engendering criticism, some applause—reflects an unarticulated ethical position about how we as individuals, communities and a nation define what is best for the most people. That is, how do we maximize the common good in the least heartless way.

This debate is being expressed through language that was wholly unfamiliar to most of us just two weeks ago. . . .

To help surface this unarticulated ethical debate—so maybe we can have it more productively—I decided to call Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. Sandel’s lectures on justice have been devoured by millions of students around the world, and he is just finishing a book on why we’ve lost sight of the common good. . . .

What do we actually mean by the common good?

Sandel: The common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life.

This may seem a far cry from what we see in politics these days. But the common good, like all ethical ideals, is contestable. It’s always open to debate and disagreement.

Friedman: Well, if we are having a debate about what is the common good, how would you describe the actual competing positions?

Sandel: Think about the two emblematic slogans of the pandemic: “social distancing” and “we’re all in this together.” In ordinary times, these slogans point to competing ethical principles—setting ourselves apart from one another, and pulling together. As a response to the pandemic, we need both. We need to separate ourselves physically from our friends and co-workers in order to protect everyone, to prevent the virus from spreading.

But ethically, these slogans highlight two different approaches to the common good: going it alone, with each of us fending for ourselves, versus hanging together, seeking solidarity. In a highly individualistic society like ours, we don’t do solidarity very well, except in moments of crisis, such as wartime.

Our lack of preparedness for the pandemic reveals the lack of solidarity in our social and political life, especially in our inadequate system of public health and lack of universal access to health care and paid sick leave. This makes the sudden, ritualistic invocation of the slogan “we’re all in this together” ring hollow. . . .

Friedman: President Trump said today that he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter,” April 12, less than three weeks away. I appreciate the president’s eagerness to get as many people as possible back to work. I want to as well, but we need this kind of national three-part plan—with real health care metrics established by experts and confirmed by data—to get there.

Sandel: If Trump, out of impatience with the economic downturn, declares victory over the virus and sends people back to work prematurely, then he will be enacting, in effect, the social Darwinist scenario. But it is irresponsible simply to let the most vulnerable die so the rest of us can fire up the economy and the stock market. The more humane scenario from the public health experts you have been talking to is obviously preferable. . . .

Friedman: But this is where are. Do we just have to make a hellish trade-off between medical health and economic health?

Sandel: No, not necessarily. It all depends on whether we can start to reorganize the economy in a way that promotes the common good.

It is clear that this era requires an economy that provides universal access to health care, paid sick leave for all workers and economic support for those who lose their jobs, whether due to a pandemic or technology or other circumstances beyond their control.

Here’s an idea: Why not consider, as a condition of sending Americans back to work, extending these health and economic protections to all Americans for the next 18 months? Maybe this gesture of solidarity will prove habit-forming—and worth continuing even when the virus recedes.

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