The Difficulty of the Common Good

Why coherent societal values are harder to agree on than we may think.

Where the pandemic has turned economic, political, cultural and civic society on its head, we've been left to ponder on what is truly of value in life and society.

Rajiv Chandegra
October 17, 2021


Covid-19 as radically transformed the way in which we see society. The pandemic has humbled us in more ways than one. As a direct consequence of globalisation, the spread of the virus has disrupted our economic, political and cultural systems to the extent that we have begun to question the merits of a globalised society. We have seen the entire world has come together in a show of solidarity with a plethora of ways in which civic society has pooled resources - human and financial - to build back community resilience. However, the pandemic has also shone a light on our inherently divergent views on public health ethics, and by extension our 'goals' as a society. Lockdowns, vaccinations, track-and-trace have diminished individual and economic liberrty in favour of public health outcomes.

Perhaps, for the first time in our lives, we've encountered such a stark understanding between the blurriness of personal and public actions and consequences.

Key Messages

Firstly, we must ackowledge the complexity of public ethics and public health. Healthcare, as it is already understood, compromises of healthcare delivery frrom medical instutitions to individual patients. Here, the principles of medical ethics - autonomy, justice, beneficience, non-malificience - play central roles in determining what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done. Public health - of which Covid-19 is very much a crisis - is an entirely different ball game. It focuses on population health, not individual; it deals with social determinants of health beyond the healthcare system; and it requires collective - often state-backed- intervention of multiple actors, and as such, can be related to the legal system. All in all, it makes for a complex system, where the ethics are not clear cut.

Secondly, based on the inherent complexity of the system and it seeking 'population-level' intervention, we are confronted with the dilemma of figuring out what values we - as a society, not individuals - hold in highest regard. Do we, for instance, respect individual liberty over all other values? Do we hold good health and equity of access to healthcare above all other values? Or, do we have a more pluralist approach and hold multiple, and at times contravening values - each at least partically incommensurable to one another? How do we decide whether imposing an economic lockdown is justified? Who wins and who loses? Are we moving towards a paternalistic state? All these questions comprise the dilemma of figuring out what goods or ultimate goals we hold as a society.

Thirdly, understanding that divergence is not a necessarily a public 'bad', can we reconcile as to whether states are truly autonomous in their assertion of their values, or whether a globalised world makes this less so.

Dharmic thinking

If the ontological basis of dharma is 'interconnectedness' - simply that reality is one Whole that we as humans split by constructing seperateness - then the delineation between 'public and 'private' is blurry. The reality of that blurriness became apparent during the pandemic, where, perhaps for the first time in recent world history, we've had to really think hard about human interaction, even for our own health and survival. But the other side of that blurriness is reflected in our understanding that our personal actions don't necessarily have purely personal consequences (as we may seem to think). This integrated view of the world leads us to be mindful that even our personal actions may either contribute to or hinder the sustainability of life and society.

Further Readings

Philosophy for Public Health and Public Policy; James Wilson; Oxford University Press

Policy Paradox; Deborah Stone; WW Norton