One for All, All for One

How to be good is a subject close to my own heart, yet the question of being good seems to have retreated to the private sphere of our lives. Most of us are pretty comfortable with talk about making good choices, but good choices for most people have to do with leading a life beyond reproach in very obvious and personal ways. In other words, do the right thing, especially when you have the opportunity to gain something, in a personal way, by doing otherwise -- even if it's just the pleasure of venting some anger.

Clearly, honesty is the foundation of being good. Honesty is the baseline. Pay your taxes, return the wallet you found on a park bench, and write down exactly how many golf strokes you had on a particular hole. Yet to get to the real heart of what it means to be good, you need to do more than play by the rules and live in a trustworthy way. It has more to do with an intense awareness of the entire context of your actions and your behavior. The goodness that matters most is when we have to contend with other human beings and think about their welfare, not ours. It comes into play when we show what kind of social animal we really are. I read not long ago how one participant at the last Davos (The Conference in Switzerland) described how his rich acquaintances have been planning how to flee to safety in the future, if and when rising income inequality leads to social collapse. They are "buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway," he said. And he didn't mean a vacation getaway. He meant an escape route.

On its face, there's nothing morally wrong in that is there? It's perfectly legal and moral to live in a quiet place, away from a troubled society. It isn't wrong. Yet it isn't good. What would goodness mean in this context? What would good men or women do? With every choice, they would have the welfare of everyone in mind, not just themselves. In this case, I wonder if the folks buying safe houses in New Zealand looked at their behavior objectively and asked themselves how much they have contributed to the problems they are fleeing. Is personal success and the bottom line the only measure of my contribution to the social fabric? Can I do something more to ameliorate the problems we face? Is my own success somehow making life harder for others? And if so, should I figure out how to do the right thing?

In reality, the wealthy cannot cling to their wealth by running from the economic ruins they leave behind. (For one thing the economic value of everything they own would drop catastrophically through a global downturn.) Goodness means making choices now in favor of everyone's welfare, not just survival for the deserving few. For those who think they can migrate away from the mess, it may mean having the foresight to accept higher taxes on capital gains. It might mean raising wages just slightly across the board, as Wal-Mart and Gravity and other enlightened companies have done. It may mean choosing to invest in job-creating ventures that add real value rather than just growing wealth through risk-averse financial manipulations.

In other words, being good right now means thinking of the most far-reaching consequences of everything we do. The highest good ennobles you by enabling you to help others. Being good ultimately means treating everyone as you would treat yourself.

So many battle lines keep getting drawn now between left and right and between the rich and the rest. Those lines need to dissolve so that all sides can recognize the common goal of a sustainable future for everyone. In a nutshell, what's good for me has to be also good for everyone. It is worth remembering we are all citizens of this nation, and we're all interdependent. Being a citizen isn't something you let lapse, like a club membership, when it's no longer convenient.

We have responsibilities to ourselves, to the common good, to the nation that has made our success possible. So many of our ancestors have fought and died for the principles and the institutions that gave us the world we live in now. As Americans, we are still in the best place on earth for most of us. We too must do our best, doing it on the good side of our natures to sustain this nation, not look for a way to hide somewhere far from its troubles.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.

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