Can We Choose for the Common Good?

We have some ideas about how to manage the coronavirus. We know that if we ask people to shelter in place—for a while—we can avoid overwhelming the local hospitals. Once we are past the initial surge of cases, we can begin limited reopening of our “common” areas. (Businesses, restaurants, parks, and more.)

I see differing opinions on what happens when we start to reopen our common areas. What happens if we have another surge? What if the surge is limited to nursing homes and older-people facilities? What if the surge sweeps through schools?

And, how long can we ask people to work “full time,” teach their children “full time,” and live in their houses full time?

Our current lives are not sustainable. We have too many pressures, pulling us against each other.

And, because the virus doesn’t care who it infects, I’ve been thinking about the common good.

Common good is the idea that we work for the benefit of society as a whole, not our individual private good. For example, I live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The idea is that we work for the betterment of all residents of the state. We are not better or worse than any other state—I’m not claiming that. I claim that because we have the word “Commonwealth” in our name, we might think a little more about how to optimize for our whole, not our individual parts.

We can already see the results of this “common good” thinking. Several eastern state governors are collaborating on how and when to open our common areas back up. So have some western states. (I’m not aware of any European countries doing this, but I might not know.) These governors are not playing zero-sum games—they are playing the common good game.

They have a growth mindset.

Move to a Growth Mindset

The more we collaborate “up,” for the common good, the less we play zero-sum games. When we play zero-sum games we have one and only one winner. Everyone else loses. Zero-sum games often arise from a scarcity mindset.

So, my questions for how we can act for the common good:

When we use the growth mindset, we might see what we can do for the common good.

  • What do we need to practice to obtain feedback? I say it’s generating more options with experiments.
  • What skills do we need? We need to move from protecting hospitals from the surge to protecting people so we can leave our homes.
  • Where else can we learn from others? Gather and learn from the data other states and countries have generated.

I wish I had answers. I still have more questions. And, when we create questions for the common good, we might generate more interim experiments, which offer data. The data might prompt us for more questions and experiments.

Dear adaptable readers, that’s the question this week: Can we choose for the common good?

7 thoughts on “Can We Choose for the Common Good?

  1. Marsha Browne

    When it comes to a “novel” (as in, new to humans) coronavirus, I don’t think fear is unreasonable. i also don’t think life-preserving caution for an extended period until the epidemiologists, virologists and contagious disease experts have completed THEIR experiments, and gone through the process of peer-review and Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). I also don’t think there is anything we really can do at present other than the two things we have already proved works — strict self-distancing, and rigorous attention to cleaning hands after touching things other people have touched.

    We have watched as other nations have lowered their guards, attempting to restore normal life in their societies, only to suffer immediate resurgences, with several people who’d already had the virus re-infected (this is a sobering thought) and often with more disastrous results than the first outbreaks. Sweden, in a class of its own, decided to simply ignore the Covid-19, and their statistics are unfortunately spiking and spiraling far beyond what they can sustain — to date, 21, 092 confirmed cases, and 2,586 deaths from the disease. That number of deaths represents 72% of the 3,591 cases that reported an “outcome.”

    Here in the Commonwealth, MGH and a collaborative bunch of physicians released a modeling tool for our Governor to use in helping he and the legislators come to grips with what reasonably can be expected given certain considerations, loosening of constraints, and statistically moderate (i.e., not too negative, nor too optimistic) outcomes. Right now, IF we do everything we are currently doing AND we don’t re-open non-essential businesses, our schools, our churches, or our parks, we MAY be able to level off the infection and get some things open again in mid-July. You can go to the website and use the tool yourself to get a feel for what to expect.

    What needs to happen is testing (complete); self-distancing; prophylaxis (masks/disinfectant/soap); contact tracing, and probably a lot more patience and intelligence than we are collectively capable of sustaining.

    A member of my extended family died from Covid-19. It was a miserable, heart-wrenching experience for all of us, and even more so for her. It’s still painfully fresh in us. I hate it that she became a statistic for the sake of nothing more than smug stupidity and careless risk-taking with the public well-being.

    Until the numbers look like they did on March 10th, I’m staying put, and I’m not doing any socializing. I don’t care if every person in this republic has to re-learn how to cook because all the restaurants go out of business, either.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Marsha, I’m so sorry for your loss.

      Yup, our governor is making decisions based on data—and for the common good. (And, if I’m correct about the data as of today, we have still not reduced hospitalizations or deaths. We are stable at way-too-high a level.) I have not left the house in weeks. I’m not planning on leaving the house, either.

      We cannot make an equivalence between the economy and thousands of lives. That’s a false choice. (I wrote about that in How Can You Prevent Your Fear From Limiting Your Options?) We need to continue to gather data, and create ways to make a society that works for all of us so we can live through this.

      For people who want to see modeling tools, see this page: You can choose your country.

      Here’s a simulator: The data appears to be about a week old.

      I can’t find a simulator on, but that could be me. The site seems pretty good.

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  3. Yury Makedonov

    “Common good” is a rather vague concept. I would like t have a better definition of this term.
    Meanwhile I see it as a trade off between interests of older wealthy people (that can afford delivery of food etc.) vs. interests of younger underprivileged people.
    I am not sure about Massachusetts, but I have not seen such honest discussion so far.

    1. Johanna Post author

      See this link to common good at Wikipedia. The idea is that we optimize for natural resources we all share (not private resources). The alternative is the Tragedy of the Commons.

      In Massachusetts, we are just coming down from our surge. (I think our surge lasted close to a month. It’s been a long time.)

      I would not frame this as old and wealthy vs young and underprivileged. I see many old and underprivileged on the news and well as young and wealthy. I don’t even frame it as wealthy vs poor. That’s way too polar and not nuanced enough.

      Here’s my perspective on an honest discussion: We can’t have it both ways. Without testing, we can’t open the economy and have everyone buy things so we stop the economic contraction. If we do open without testing, we will ration health care. There won’t be enough ventilators for everyone who needs one. Who gets to choose and how? Will we decide that anyone over 60 doesn’t get a ventilator? What about 70? 80? 90?

      Who gets to place a value on my life? Right now, the doctors decide—and here, we have enough supplies so they don’t have to. Who decides? Is that an honest enough question for you?

      And, as I bet you remember, that when we go through a recession, most people stop consuming. Just telling people to go buy is insufficient.

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