March 20, 2017


Many good things exist solely because the common good is honored by the vast majority of people. Not just a majority, but the vast huge majority. Perhaps as much as 99%.

The snapshot number of people in jail in the U.S. is about 2.3 million, compared to a total population of about 309.35 million. So, at any given moment about 0.74% of the country is in jail. While some organizations believe this number could be safely reduced with alternative forms of rehabilitation,1 that is the number I’ll work with here.

The stability of our society is contingent upon 99% of the population actively committed to promote stability. That is, it would be impossible to police society enough to force stability. A stable society exists only when its members voluntarily discipline themselves to prefer and choose the common good. For example, if only 95% of the U.S. population actively promoted the common good, the prison population could increase over 500% ! The cost of such an outcome in terms of the expense of incarceration plus the loss of productivity is enormous.


  1. I am playing with numbers and do not intend to claim what is minimally necessary for stability. But I do think it is fair to say that order does not prevail because of the expertise of our police forces and our system of disincentives2. It is not the number of people who have to be jailed that matters as much as the huge number of people who do not.
  2. All members of society depend on the commitment of others to the common good. We live in precarious balance otherwise. It is not clear to me that everyone is intrinsically motivated to pursue and support the common good. Particularly when we are confronted by hard choices between self and group.
  3. Would our society be more prone to stability if our rich were slightly less rich in order that no one live in poverty? Are brilliant scientists only motivated by the prospects of fame and money? Does not logic suggest that people who increase their personal wealth by taking advantage of others would refrain from doing so because that runs counter to promoting the common good? Yet, in the west we generally oppose ideas that would bring life styles closer to a median.3 We demonstrate that money, power, prestige, etc., are the only true or satisfactory rewards for excellence.4
  4. I do not think survival of the fittest lends itself well to supporting the common good. I am not a student of biology, etc., but I do not see a lot of people explicitly strongly committed to the betterment of the species at the expense of self betterment. At most I see people wanting things better for their own children — but not for mankind in general. I will grant that if everyone wants things to be better for their part of the next generation, then collectively that might be a commitment to the common good. But I am not sure they are the same thing.5 So at best we have a collection of individual strivings that somehow produces a collective betterment of the species. I would like to know more about this likelihood from an observational viewpoint.6

I know I am not posing new questions here. Like everything else on this blog, I am mostly thinking aloud for myself — not to convince anyone else of anything. I share my questions and my answers to them in process.

I am left with the question: if humans (home sapiens) are not driven to promote survival of their species, what is the origin and ongoing energy for our commitment to the common good?

  1. Drug related and non-violent crimes may account for 20% of all prisoners.

  2. Imprisonment, etc.

  3. If both could comfortably, employed at what they liked best to do, why should someone who is a skilled surgeon enjoy wealth far beyond that of a car mechanic or nurse?

  4. Generally, we hold that excellence in some fields should be financially rewarded more more than excellence in some other field. And we are loathe to embrace non-financial incentives.

  5. As a sidelight, read about the misquote of Charles Wilson that has persisted for decades. What is good for General Motors …

  6. It is easier to posit that something must be at work since we see something that is hard to explain. I.e., since our species has survived, and only the fittest survive, the individuals strivings must complete/compose a collective survival/thriving. But I am not sure that follows. I’d like to see experimental, tested, proof of that idea.

opinion common-good

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