Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 30, 2008

Guest Opinion: Why 'common good' is essential to 'civic engagement'

by Nancy Shepherd and Ray Bacchetti

Imagine you are participating in a meeting about a change in a city or school policy — say to introduce traffic calming or redraw school-attendance boundaries. You have your views and are participating with more than your usual calm reserve.

After an hour, by which time positions are pretty well staked out, the facilitator brings a chair into the room. This chair, she announces, is the "common good" chair, and the task for the disputants is, by turns, to sit in it and describe the issue on the floor from the perspective of the common good.

Do you imagine that you would say from that chair only what you said when arguing your position initially? Or would you feel some obligation to:

* Show that you understand other positions in the room?

* Notice reasons behind those positions more clearly than you had before?

* See why others might be less enthusiastic about your position than you are?

* Perhaps concede that the others in the argument, like you, have a stake in the outcome both as individuals and as Palo Altans?

After everyone had taken his or her turn in the "common good" chair, how might the rest of the meeting go?

This exercise will have generated a lot more information in the room — and even more in the heads of the participants. Those holding different points of view may look more thoughtful, more like someone you could have a cup of coffee with.

You might feel that beating them in an argument is less appealing than finding a solution compatible with or at least sensitive to some of the other perspectives.

In this imagined situation, several qualities of the common good are sitting between the lines <02014> that it's something we create together; that all the effects of a decision have standing, not only those you seek; that it's a frame of mind attuned to searching rather than one fixed on a solution; and that accountability for a decision is an implicit pledge by each contributor to it.

After settling each issue, the next issue brings the common good to life once more in the search for a resolution that will again serve the community's needs, rather than those of a few.

When a proposal entitled "Civic Engagement for the Common Good" came before the Palo Alto City Council at its priority-setting retreat Jan. 12, those of us advocating it didn't do a good enough job articulating the "common good" part of the title. The council decided that "civic engagement" was important enough to carry the full freight, and that's what was adopted. We are very pleased by the council's recognition of the importance of civic engagement, yet we believe that the "common good" has much more to it than what came out at the meeting.

The "common good" is a substantive matter. It has a fine pedigree and is a key component of the democratic process. As in the hypothetical scene above, the common good can be an exercise in detaching a personal perspective for a moment and asking the question, "Where is the community in my argument and how is it being built?"

Decisions then are shaped to serve the community as a whole, not just the aims of a segment.

Civic engagement, when driven by an explicit interest in serving the common good, can reveal what we share as a community in Palo Alto. In its most basic form, it affirms that people are the solution, not the problem, in policy-making.

It becomes a civic instrument delivering results greater than the sum of individual participants' positions. As the council's priority on civic engagement takes shape, we believe that a linked focus on the common good is essential. Together they can become a defining characteristic of our community.

Nancy Shepherd and Ray Bacchetti are both active in the Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness (PAGE) organization. Bacchetti, a former member of the Palo Alto Board of Education, recently retired from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Shepherd is a former president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs active in school fundraising. Bacchetti can be e-mailed at raybac@earthlink.net and Shepherd can be e-mailed at nlshep@pacbell.net.

Comments

Posted by John Merrow, a resident of Professorville
on Feb 2, 2008 at 4:20 pm

A chair for 'the common good' is a powerful image,' and I hope the City Council or School Board will give it a try. Perhaps the student council at Paly or Gunn would be willing to experiment as well. Thanks to the authors for bringing this idea forward.


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 2, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Simple question: What is the "common good"?


Posted by Peter, a resident of another community
on Feb 2, 2008 at 5:16 pm

John, the common good may be defined thusly: "The common good, then, conistst primarily of having he social sysems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people."

Here are two links, one a definition, one a thoughtful article from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara. Web Link Web Link


Posted by Greg, a resident of Southgate
on Feb 2, 2008 at 5:36 pm

I think the common good could be best served by building nuclear power plants, as soon as possible. We should build one in Palo Alto.

I like that common good chair.


Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 2, 2008 at 6:33 pm

Here's another take on the "common good":
Web Link
As you see, this is a corrupt concept.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 2, 2008 at 7:10 pm

from the Ayn Rand link, above -
Ayn Rand: ""The common good" (or "the public interest") is an undefined and undefinable concept: there is no such entity as "the tribe" or "the public"; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; "good" and "value" pertain only to a living organism—to an individual living organism—not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships."

What's amusing about Rand is that she always - at base - contradicts herself. Rand's claptrap is easily refuted by population genetics and ethology. Further, anyone who tried to get a "corner" on what "ultimate good" is, has fools for followers.

As for this "common good" chair technique, it's more about a *style* of confrontation and negotiation, than it is about the "substance" of common good. It's very "Palo Alto".

Sometimes the common good is not served by negotiation, but by fierce refusal to go forward with negotiation. For emphasis, I said **sometimes**.

In fact, one of the reasons for the "Palo Alto Process" is because we have been trying to sit in the "common good" chair, to excess, over these past years.

There's something about this "common good" technique that sounds like a re-hashing of the "fair fighting" movement of three decades ago. It was a miserable failure, not because the idea was flawed, but because it never really permitted people to get to the bottom of sometimes incompatible differences.






Posted by tom, a resident of The Greenhouse
on Feb 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm

What is overlooked is that no system will guarantee that all men/women will achieve everything they want. They will always run into another whose wants/needs are at odds with theirs. My unrestricted right to do as I wish stops at your nose.

Common Good might mean to negotiate in good faith when differences arise, recognizing that compromise is a must. If no compromise is reached, we may resort to violence to achieve our ends (prove we are "right"?). This is a short range solution if history is any guide.


Posted by Jenny, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2008 at 10:35 am

There are many issues that come before Council that cannot be compromised. Council has to make a decision to vote either for it or against it.

Right now there is an issue where many residents of South PA would like to retain a bicycle/pedestrian path between El Camino and Wilkie way. Meanwhile, the residents along Wilkie Way oppose such a path because they say vehicles will park on their street.

There is no compromise here. Either the bicycle/pedestrian path is going to be closed off, as the Wilkie Way residents want; or it is going to be left open to allow bicycles/pedestrians access to Wilkie Way from El Camino, which other residents want.

The two sides could sit down and argue their point forever, and a resolution for the "common good" is not going to be found. One side is going to win and feel good about it, and the other side will lose and feel bad.

The "common good" should benefit the greatest number of people. However, in this case the Wilkie Way residents are well organized and our City Council has always responded positively to small vocal groups. If the silent majority would speak out perhaps the CC would respond differently.




Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 3, 2008 at 11:07 am

---The "common good" should benefit the greatest number of people.---
Using this standard, a six-lane road should be put through since more people would use it than live along Wilkie Way.


Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 3, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Wow, R Wray,

I thought people outgrew Ayn Rand at the end of high school. Do you really not see the weaknesses in her work? The inconcistencies, the inability to see gradations? Well, okay, I read a couple of her books before I was out of high school and laughed. The earnest self-importance of it, the cluelessness about anything that actually had to deal with real people.

Or maybe it's that my dear mother once told me that Rand was someone who thought some people were rare and special and others were not. And that if someone gave you an Ayn Rand book it's because they thought they were one of the special ones. (Rand as courting ritual.)

I mean, given that we're a self-governing nation with all sorts of ideas about the common good imbued in our political structure, you sound kind of clueless.

As for six-lane road--usage may or may not mean a good thing. It would be a debatable thing--i.e. more noise, pollution, traffic, expense would all counter the benefit of "use".

Greg--increased cancer rates, no effective ways of dealing with contamination in exchange for power. Again, "common good" does not lend itself directly to your conclusion.

I think a consciousness of "common good" should be there without a chair. The sad thing is that we would need such a prop to see things from more than one point of view.


Posted by Greg, a resident of Southgate
on Feb 3, 2008 at 2:19 pm

"Greg--increased cancer rates, no effective ways of dealing with contamination in exchange for power. Again, "common good" does not lend itself directly to your conclusion."

OhlonePar,

Please inform all of us. Where is there a scientifically validated study that shows an increase in cancer rates in areas near modern nuclear plants? You may also want to consider the radiation issue in terms of coal plants.

There are several ways to deal with U-238 (with residual U-235 and Pu-239). The most obvious is to breed it up to Pu-239 and reuse it (breeder reactors). Burial in a subduction zone is very clean and safe, but that would be a waste of good resources. The Yucca Mountain approach (storage) is OK as an intermediate answer, but it a a major error in judgement to consider such storage as a problem. It is correct to think of such storage as Fort Knox, only much more valuable.

The common good should also consider the common harm, if it (the good) is not adopted. If nuclear power continues to be rejected, the common harm will be great.


Posted by perspective, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2008 at 2:52 pm

I always get very, very nervous with "common good" issues..who defines the common good? Is it something that has a net positive outcome for every, single person affected, or just 80% or 60%?

A lot of evil has been done in this world in the name of the "common good". I think such thinking has to always hold the merits of the individual good vs. bad of those affected above the "common good" of the majority.

I am thinking of, for example..medical experiments on a few, against their knowledge, in the name of the "common good"..Someone CHOOSING to sacrifice himself/herself for the good of others is one thing, but others "volunteering" your sacrifice "for the common good" makes me very, very nervous.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 3, 2008 at 3:32 pm

perspective, I hear you, and have the same doubts when I hear the phrase "common good" used as a rhetorical device to advance an agenda - even if it's an agenda that has more to do with "style" than "substance" - as is proposed by Sheperd and Bacchetti.

That said, it IS important to work with "the other", with those we disagree with, in a way that helps to ferret out the real differences over issues, lifestyle, etc.

There is NO easy answer to this, as evidenced by the many, many tomes written about ethics, with little more to show for it than more tomes being written about ethics.

The common good is better preserved within an atmosphere of tolerance for opposing points of view, BUT that tolerance has to be leveraged by action - one way or another (or somewhere in between). THAT is where Palo Alto policy making has fallen down, and THAT is where we must go if this city is to move forward.

This will take extraordinary leadership, and the courage to say "no" to those who live within the world of 1980's nostalgia; or, those who want to build a virtual moat around our city; or, those who think that everybody but Palo Altans should have to pay the environmental price for Palo Alto's success; or, those that think government is always incompetent, and question it at every turn; or, those who think that certain political and institutional structures should live on in perpetuity, no matter the violent throes of change that are whirling around us.




Posted by tom, a resident of The Greenhouse
on Feb 3, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Well said, Mike. One reason we have such contention in PA is people who resist new ideas and ways of doing things.

The only way to determine if a changes is beneficial is to have a dialogue - which means civil discourse and exchange of viewpoints. It doesn't mean that the majority are always right or their "side" will always determine the final outcome.


Posted by perspective, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Wow, Tom.....that is amazing coming coming from a citizen ( i presume) of a democracy..

I prefer to assume that the majority "side" should have the final say, except in cases where the majority "side" goes contrary to our basic rights for any one individual human being as laid out in the Constitution. That is the protection against "wrong" majority opinions.

Anything else is not democracy, but dictatorship by those who "know best".

Other than that, majority wins...


Posted by Joanna, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 4, 2008 at 8:15 am

Maybe it doesn't have to be as complicated as it seems here.

How about describing any opposition to your idea so that you can hear "and feel" how your idea affects others.

Maybe I'm not giving this suggestion justice by squeezing it into a sentence, but if more people thought about others along with themselves (I know better than to say "instead"), then we would solve a lot of problems.

Interesting idea though.


Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 4, 2008 at 9:23 am

OhlonePar,
Yes, some young people give up their idealism. They succumb to their Kantian teachers and professors and become grey pragmatic skeptics. If this happened to me or my children, I wouldn't gloat over it.
I have no basic problem with what your mother said. Ayn Rand's novels do contain heroic characters. I would consider it a compliment if someone offered me one of her books.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 4, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Wray,"I have no basic problem with what your mother said. Ayn Rand's novels do contain heroic characters. I would consider it a compliment if someone offered me one of her books."

Don't hold your breath.

&&&&&&&
And, Tom, this community has been ruled by the minority for too long; the mantle is about to pass back to the majority.


Posted by Dave, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Mike, you have revealed the true face of liberalism once again. Liberals couldn't care less about the minority - unless it serves their agenda.


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