Friday, February 25, 2011

The Common Good

The Concept of the Common Good

I have argued elsewhere that the current debate on Ireland's crisis needs to move away from economist dominated reasoning and be replaced by something more fundamental–a deeper and altogether more important consideration of the basic principles that we should use to organise our society.

This week saw the publication of a document called From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good by The Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference.  This is a welcome and much needed addition to the current discourse.  It is a thoughtful exposition of what it means to think ethically about the current situation particularly from the perspective of the common good.

As you would expect much of the analysis is underpinned by Catholic Church doctrine and as such, it could easily be dismissed by secular thinkers.  For many, the notion of religious doctrine is synonymous with being told what to think and is therefore contrary to the justifiably high value placed today on self-determination and individual autonomy.  However, often on closer reading we find something different as is the case with this text.  Here we are challenged, encouraged to think critically and above all we are stimulated to give deeper consideration to the fundamental notion of the common good. 
The core value at the heart of this vision is the common good, a value that
emphasizes the essential equality of all persons irrespective of gender, race,
colour or creed. This vision of the common good should not be confused with
the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather it is a reminder of
the duty of care on all of us to respect and to take account of the human dignity
of all persons – as groups or individuals.
(p 4)

As the quotation suggests the common good is not a value based on the economic well-being of the majority.  It is not about wealth or income.  It is simply about human dignity and respect for others.

Instrumental rationality alone (see Habermas' Theory of communicative Action) is incapable of dealing with ethically based values such as the common good.  This is why much of the current media focus on managing our way out of the economic crisis is missing the full extent of the problem.

Without doubt in years to come the Irish economy will recover but the underlying cause is not being addressed.  While government policy and our financial institutions promoted a rampant individualistic, materialistic culture based on greed and self-interest, our universities and most of the academic community were either compliant or silent.  Just as we need to rebuild our economy on something more sustainable than inflated house prices we also need to reframe our political, business and education systems to allow for more rigorous and ethical questioning of decisions and policies.

As the title of the episcopal statement suggests we need to move from 'crisis to hope'.  From crisis management to a vision for a better future.  And hope–this is not the forlorn hope that we will never again get caught out by the vagaries of international economic forces but the very real hope we find in the nature and goodness of every human being.  Let's not loose sight of this again.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Election Count- A Learning Opportunity

Why School Students Should Manage the Election and the Counting of Votes

In Ireland voting in the general election takes place this Friday and this means a weekend of ballot boxes, exit polls, tally men and counting. We use a system of proportional representation (PR) that is very fair but very complex.  When you vote you mark candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper.  You can go through all the candidates assigning a  number to indicate 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th preferences and so on.  You can influence the outcome of who gets elected by means of your later preferences.  It is not unusual for the whole process to go through seven or more counts as the lower scoring candidates are eliminated and second and subsequent preferences from these votes are redistributed.

Although the whole process appears complicated it's based on some straight forward rules.  It is important however that voters understand the process so that they can avail of the full extent of their democratic choice.

Normally we use civil servants and casual employees to work in the count centres - in many cases the local school is appropriated as the ballot station and even count centre.  Legally, the returning officer is responsible for managing the count. 

I argue that we should use 15 to 18 year old school students in all functions at the ballot stations and at the count centres. 

There would be many benefits to this idea:
  • The students become active participants in our democratic process and through this experience they appreciate its importance.
  • The best way to understand the operations of the PR system is to be part of the counting process. In a very real way we will be educating our future voters.
  • It can be argued that young people are the biggest stakeholders in the consequences of the result and as such they see how decisions are made.
  • Participating students would be more likely to vote when they reach 18 and perhaps even to wish to stand for election themselves.
  • The important connection between schools and civic society would be reinforced.
  • Student's would learn about the operational and project management aspects of managing an election and count.
  • The whole process would be cheaper and yes more reliable.
I can hear the murmurings now:

"Surely you can't be serious - it will never work!  How could we rely on them.  They'd surely let us down."

Yes, I suppose we can't blame the young people for thinking that about us!

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