Quarterly Essay high-school writing competition winner: “On the common good”

On the common good

Alec Miguel, Year 11, University High School


What is the end goal of existence? Why do we submit ourselves to the control of a government that many of us resent? In recent times, we have witnessed democracy become increasinglydysfunctional and, in some instances, replaced with a cacophony of anger and division. The rise of populism, as seen in several democracies worldwide, has left us in a state of war. It brings up the fundamental question, again: what is the purpose of our existence in society?

Surely there is a greater calling? Something driving us to engage in the social contract? Some form of profound human compulsion that would lead us to forego the absolute freedom of anarchy and assemble in organised ways? The answer lies in our safety. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that the natural state of man is “one of war,” but if such cutthroat individuality is the instinctive human state, this is a mode of living in terror from which we have supposedly moved on. By forming a society, we have collectively decided to collaborate in the name of the common good. In this view of society and history, it is human nature to desire a better existence.

But what are we to do when our common good is no longer common among us? From Duterte to Salvini to Trump, right-wing populisms have felt marginalised and, sensing repression, have moved further right in their demands and aims. The result is a manufactured state of political polarisation, where extreme positions are flaunted as policy positions, and an underlying desire to provoke and outrage is reproduced. It appears as if we are no longer debating optimal ways to achieve the same goal, but rather arguing about ideals so distinct they can never be reconciled.

And so, this raises the question: do we (still) share a common good? How can this fragmented, incendiary offshoot of democracy we find ourselves in possibly hope to achieve any progress?

Our whole notion of democracy, our justification for the otherwise arbitrary powers we submit ourselves to, is that we share something in common that unites us: common values, common moralities, common aims. And this is how we can address the populist turn. There needs to be a focus on a larger definition of those under our care – all humans, regardless of our disposition towards them. Our morals of solidarity need to transcend self-gratification, to go beyond helping those we can see and those that we know personally. We need to extend our care to those who are strangers and foreigners to us.

Far too often, we have let money take precedence over morals, division take precedence over debate, and self-promotion over progress. To save democracy we need to return the common good to its collaborative, universal ideal. The common good is a priority above all of us – we exist for it – and so it must remain a force of unity, not of division.