by Emma Goff (Mr. Aparicio)
There is strength in numbers, but only when there is unity. In an increasingly diverse society, Americans risk losing sight of what unites them. Citizens of the United States may agree on certain core values, such as freedom, but they often disagree on what exactly these values mean and what role they should play in American society. American culture places particular emphasis on protecting a citizen’s right to make decisions freely; however, this emphasis on the individual may lead to a self-centered outlook and lack of consideration for society. Although they may take different paths, people seek the same fulfillment in their lives and share the desire to live in a better society, but can Americans find a balance between recognizing the importance of the individual citizen and working towards the common goal of an improved society? If we are to progress as a nation without forsaking our values, we must find this medium.
Individualism has been a central aspect of American society since the founding of the United States, and although its meaning has fluctuated through the years, individualism remains an underlying current in the American perspective. In “Liberty and Property,” Ludwig von Mises describes individualism as “[aiming] at the creation of a sphere in which the individual is free to think, to choose, and to act without being restrained by the interference of the social apparatus of coercion and oppression, the State.” Citizens of the United States desire to make choices freely, and while this emphasis on the individual ensures freedom, it can create a lack of unity. Individuals need to be able to make choices independently of society and the government, but there is power in having a common aim behind those choices.
In mapping out the roles of the citizen and the state, Aristotle sought to determine the reason why societies form and thus determine the ultimate purpose of a state. In The Politics, he establishes that states form naturally and do not exist merely for the purpose of survival, stating that “men, even when they do not require one another’s help, desire to live together.” People, even when self-sufficing, are drawn together by some common, natural goal. Rather than simply protect human life, states serve to help their citizens fulfill their purpose as human beings. This purpose, as Aristotle defines in The Nichomachean Ethics, is to live according to reason, to possess and utilize virtues. He reveals that this is the innate, ultimate aim of every human being, and thus it is the goal of society, as a whole, to promote the fulfillment of this purpose. While this concept does not negate the importance of the individual, it does suggest that a shared goal is central to society.
A shared goal is notably essential in uniting a diverse nation. Today, people are strongly dependent on the contributions of fellow citizens, but this dependency alone fails to unify society. The United States boasts a diverse population with equally diverse beliefs and lifestyles, but this variety, while it benefits the populace by offering differing perspectives and ideas, can result in a split nation, unable to fulfill its purpose by promoting the common good. A widespread focus, however, can bring people together. Although not all Americans wanted to enter the Second World War, overall, the country supported entry into the war, especially following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Citizens “pulled together to produce the soldiers and weapons that would be needed to defeat the powerful armies of the Axis Powers” . In this case, the war provided a common enemy and thus a common focus, and, in turn, the country united. That said, the goal of society does not need to be as definite as the defeat of an enemy. The goal could also be the more general positive progress of society.
In fact, we actively work towards this objective of progress on a regular basis by paying taxes. Taxes support the various programs that are instrumental to the good of society. This example introduces another reason for sustaining a common goal: it is beneficial for the individual. When society improves overall, individuals benefit. A model of this relationship is the public school system. Public education is needed “to produce citizens who would understand political and social issues, participate in civic life, vote wisely, protect their rights and freedoms, and keep the nation secure from inside and outside threats” . In order for society to function and improve, each generation must be adequately educated. In accordance with the already mentioned dependency each individual has on his or her fellow citizens, a more educated society is favorable. Furthermore, potential leaders and innovators need the opportunities and basic skills provided by education to, in the future, push society towards progress. In return for funding public schools, individuals receive the numerous advantages of an educated society. Ultimately, citizens receive the benefits of their own contributions.
In working towards the common good, however, utilitarianism should not become the means of decision making. Prevalent today, this ethical system leads to sacrificing the good of the minority for the good of the majority. It aims to increase the sum total good rather than the general good of society as a whole, thus ignoring groups within the population. There lies the fine line of distinction between promoting the total good and working towards the common good. While both methods aim to increase the happiness of society, utilitarianism sacrifices the happiness of some to increase the happiness of others, and working towards a general good means that a person is willing to sacrifice some amount of happiness to increase the happiness of all. The reasoning behind smoking bans can act as an example of this distinction. Although commonplace today, laws banning smoking in public places and restaurants caused controversy early on because they aimed to improve public health at the cost of infringing on rights and damaging businesses. The Tobacco industry suffers from smoking bans, and restaurant and bar owners lose business when customers leave to go smoke in legal areas . In his book Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill explains that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Under the belief of utilitarianism, the smoking bans could be wrong in that they result in unhappiness for the tobacco industry, restaurant and bar owners, and smokers or right in that they promote the happiness of the majority, who do not want to breathe in second hand smoke. Both justifications, however, rely on favoring one group of people over another. According to Aristotle in The Politics, any system of law making is erroneous when it favors the good of a group, whether it is the minority or majority, rather than “the common good of all.” Under the belief that it is best to work towards widespread good, however, smoking in public places could be banned because it is a health danger to all. The difference between working towards the sum good, as promoted by utilitarianism, and the good of all, as promoted by Aristotle, is in the intention. Under Mill’s idea, smoking can be banned because that will bring the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, but under Aristotle’s idea, smoking can be banned because it is for the objective good of all people involved.
While Americans favor the individual and detest state interference in decision making, it is necessary to consider the good of the country as a whole. Aristotle declares that the purpose of society is to help its citizens achieve their common goal of a good life, a life aligned with virtue and reason. Focusing on this end unites society because it is innate to all states and, surpassing all societal barriers, binds together a society of distinct members. With individual contributions, society as a whole improves, and thus individuals receive the benefits of their personal contributions. Uniting in a focus on and working towards the good of society as a whole does not, however, mean sacrificing for the majority. The aim should be to improve the entirety of society, not simply please the masses. Today, the United States is fragmented into groups, each pushing for its own agenda. The problem, simply put, is that we can make no substantial progress as a society while separate. If we do not share the same goal, then we will continue to advance in different directions. Making the best choice for society as a whole, rather than deciding based on what will bring personal benefit, does not require us to sacrifice the freedom of the individual.
Although, at first, these concepts may seem contradictory, individualism and having a common goal can better society when combined. The aim is to find balance between these two ideals. Yes, the individual is more important than the state; however, focusing on or, at least, taking into serious consideration the ultimate goal of widespread, societal improvement benefits each individual citizen. Ultimately, what is required is teamwork. While society can function when individuals work alone, we can accomplish much more by working together, and in order to do so we must release selfish interests and collectively aim at improving society as a whole.
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Kober, Nancy. Why We Still Need Public Schools: Public Education for the Common Good. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy, 2007. Accessed June 27, 2014. http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=291.
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