Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
The credo of partisan politics is: Do what’s best for the party, even if it’s not what’s best for the nation. And the credo of nationalism is: Do what’s best for our nation, even if that’s not what’s best for the world as a whole. Politicians know that if they take care of their party members, their constituents, and maybe even on occasion their fellow citizens (of their nation) they will be rewarded for their service to the narrow good.
All of this is rooted in an individualistic philosophy, a philosophy that is exemplified in the resurgent popularity of Ayn Rand’s call to selfishness. It’s a world view that proclaims that we must look out for ourselves, because no one else will. Therefore, I’ll do what’s best for me, and as for my neighbor – that’s their problem.
The opposite of such a philosophy is a commitment to pursue the common good. Commitment to the common good sounds wonderful, but it seems out of place in an increasingly partisan, sectarian, and nationalist era. Rarely do we hear these days that rallying cry of John Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And thinking even more broadly, Dwight D. Eisenhower could say: “This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” And then there’s this statement by Barbara Jordan, the late Congresswoman from Texas, which reminds us that “a nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.”
Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper.” God’s answer is “yes, you are.” I believe that a case can be made for the premise that the world is better off when we pursue the common good. But pursuit of the common good requires that we balance our own personal needs with the needs of others. It means that the majority respect the rights and needs of those who are in the minority. It means recognizing that the acts and decisions of one nation often impact the lives of other nations – global warming for instance transcends boundaries. Therefore, commitment to the common good may require of us at the very least a degree of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
What then are the practical implications of the principle that I’m called by God to be my “brother’s keeper”? One might consider the implications of these case studies. For instance, what value do I derive from paying taxes to support a public educational system if I don’t have children in the system? Respondents might question why, since their children are grown or because they don’t have children, they should pay to educate someone else’s child. There are a number of answers to this question, but consider the benefits of having a knowledgeable and productive workforce, reduction in juvenile crime and violence, and maybe even population stabilization. Now not everyone is equally gifted, but if we’re committed to the common good, then a child should at least be given a chance at success. Medical care is another area of common concern. The current system does a great job of serving those who can afford good insurance, but what about the millions of people who are uninsured or under-insured? What of their welfare? Furthermore, even if you’re not all that concerned about the welfare of someone else; what about the impact on you if disease begins to spread through the broader community? It’s impossible to totally wall ourselves off from the health issues of the broader world, for epidemics are no respecters of persons.
Even when we don’t receive a direct benefit of our contributions to society, we receive benefits indirectly. That’s the blessing of considering the common good. I might not get everything I want, but I’ll be better off living in a world where the community as a whole has good health care, strong educational opportunities, public safety, and cultural opportunities. If ever we understood the need for a strong government, it was during Hurricane Katrina. Because the nation’s emergency preparedness was left in the hand of an unprepared political appointee, hundreds died or were left stranded during a devastating storm.
Ultimately, we’re all in this together. What affects you will ultimately affect me, and the world will be better off when we finally learn this lesson. So, the truth is, I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper.
Excerpt from Faith in the Public Square (forthcoming from Energion Publications)