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The Common Good

  • Date: 12/15/2007
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • In his book How to Talk Well, James Bender relates the story of a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won a blue ribbon. One year, a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew that corn.
    (Bender, James, How to Talk Well, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1994)

    The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.
    (Bender, Ibid)

    "How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?" the reporter asked.

    "Didn't you know?" said the farmer. "The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn."
    (Bender, Ibid)

    The farmer was very much aware of the connectedness of life. His corn could not improve unless his neighbor's corn also improved.

    So it is with life's other dimensions, in which the welfare of each is defined by the welfare of all.

    This is not a new concept.

    "The common good is a notion that originated over 2,000 years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero."
    (Velasquez, Manuel, Clare Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., Michael J. Meyer, "The Common Good," Issues in Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, California, Spring 1992)

    Surely you remember that from your studies here at The University of Akron.

    "More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are ...equally to everyone's advantage.'"
    (Markkula Center, Ibid)

    Yet, while it looks good on paper, this theory is not without detractors. We know that when dealing with human nature, what may be good for one may not be good for the whole. Beyond the will to survive, most everything else seems to be open for debate.

    For example: "...even if we agreed upon what we all valued, we would certainly disagree about the relative values things have for us. While all may agree...that an affordable health system, a healthy educational system and a clean environment are all parts of the common good, some will say that more should be invested in health than in education, while others will favor directing resources to the environment over both health and education."
    (Markkula Center, Ibid)

    That's the dilemma Congress wrestles with every day.

    Indeed, "The Earth is one, but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others."
    (World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, USA, May 21, 1987, P. 27)

    That is the crux of the report, Our Common Future, prepared way back in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by Gro Brundtland, who was then Prime Minister of Norway.

    The independent body was set up by the United Nations to re-examine critical environmental issues, to develop proposals to solve them, and to ensure that human progress might enjoy "sustainable development" without bankrupting the resources of future generations.
    (World Commission, Review, Ibid)

    "Some consume the Earth's resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations," the report states. "Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease and early death."
    (World Commission, Ibid)

    "Societies have faced such pressures in the past and, as many desolate ruins remind us, sometimes succumbed to them. But generally these pressures were local. Today the scale of our interventions in nature is increasing and the physical effects of our decisions spill across national frontiers."
    (World Commission, Ibid)

    "Yet progress has been made. Throughout much of the world, children born today can expect to live longer and be better educated than their parents. In many parts, the newborn can also expect to attain a higher standard of living in a (much broader) sense. Such progress provides hope as we contemplate the improvements still needed, and also as we face our failures to make this earth a safer and sounder home for us and for those who are (yet) to come."
    (World Commission, Ibid)

    The Commission served notice that the time had come for governments and their people to take a collective responsibility for their actions and to advance the common good by finding ways to balance common interest with self-interest.

    The common good is a form of "selfish altruism" a sort of knowledge that if we do good for others we will do well for ourselves.

    In just a few moments, we will honor an individual who has been able to strike that balance throughout his career.

    Howard L. Calhoun is an attorney, a civic leader and a former member of the University's Board of Trustees. Over the years, he has shared his energy and expertise with a range of organizations, from the Family Services Society of Summit County to the Ohio Wildlife Council and many more.

    And while his hard work and dedication has made him an admired and respected community leader, he also has impacted your life at this University. Like other members of our Board of Trustees, Mr. Calhoun knows that the value of life is measured by the lives we touch.

    Our Trustees receive no pay for their service, but there is certainly a payback in knowing that what they do to assist students helps the University and helps the community. What they do to help you succeed, affects the welfare of our entire society.

    History has taught us that to improve our lot as a society, we must make use of our collective wisdom, and that we must make use of our accumulated and emerging knowledge.

    Indeed, your educational experience at The University of Akron is an important part of that collective human investment.

    Like the farmer and his seed corn, higher education provides the cross-pollination that is needed to improve our fortune, as well as that of our neighbors. We create a better future for ourselves and for our children by investing in those things that advance the common good.

    And so, as you now open doors of opportunity and create your own experiences, you become part of that progressive and collective human advancement.

    Treasure it, nurture it, and continue to learn. Our collective future and our common good depend on it.

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