Common Good vs. Individualism, one perspective

I rarely write opinion pieces, but I am drawn to do so because of a couple of controversies here in Big Sur, currently engendering much discussion and thought. In that vein, I offer the following:

There seems to be a current trend in Big Sur to view the individual or the individual community as a) incapable; b) unqualified; or c) uninformed when it comes to making decisions about its own sustainability and future. What is best for the common good, and how is that obtained? Who makes the decisions? Big Sur has two such controversial projects going on currently, and I see them as related, if one looks at the larger view of the common good. Whose decision is it, anyway? Both projects are discussed below.

The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. (The Common Good Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer.)

In Big Sur, we currently have two controversial projects which demonstrate this principle, and on which people are significantly divided, some being for one and not the other, however, they represent the same goal of what is for the “common good” and who is included in he “common?”

The first project is the Andrew Molera Proposed Wilderness Area. Tom Hopkins, President of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance recently posted on the advocacy page of the VWA website, in part:
“Our challenge now is to demonstrate to Assemblymember Monning that the majority of Californians in his district, and throughout the central coast, support permanent wilderness preservation of the wild backcountry of Andrew Molera State Park.” (Tom’s complete post here)

As I read Bill Monning’s letter regarding his decision to withdraw his proposal this year, he encouraged VWA to work “with” the local Big Sur Community to come to a consensus or compromise on this issue. (Original letter here.) Instead, if I understand Tom Hopkins’s position correctly, it appears he is seeking to make an “end-run” around the local community, where his support is controversial for this project, and inundate Bill Monning’s office with support from outside the Big Sur community for the wilderness project.

Personally, I am not against this project, I think both “sides” to this issue can come to an agreement. What I am against is the manner in which it is being pursued. I wondered about the project, and why it was even necessary, but it did not upset me, until I read the above. Rather than work with the notoriously difficult Big Sur Community, VWA prefers to work outside the community.

The second “project” is the purported sale of an unidentified piece of private property on Partington Ridge to TPL for eventual turn over to the USFS. Some Big Sur residents are upset and vocal about this prospect, and feel the local community has a right to say to whom and under what conditions a private property owner may sell their land, if the eventual owner is a public agency. The justification for the public input into a private decision is the oft-cited “common good.” Big Sur’s community thinking on this appears to stem from the “loss” of community supported by housing and employment that private property might provide for such necessary endeavors to keep “community” alive in Big Sur.

Big Sur, by its actions and words, is conveying to the private property owner that his or her decision is not just his or hers, that many others have an interest in such a sale. So, is it an individual decision or a community one?

VWA implies, by its actions and commentary that the Big Sur Community is incapable of taking care of its resources, specifically the wilderness, and the “common good” is best served by taking the decision out of the hands of the local community. So, is it an individual decision of the local community, or a decision by the larger Central Coast community?

Both problems present essentially the same question, just a matter of scale. When the Big Sur community is told by the larger community what is best for it, and rebels, is it any wonder that individual land owner may also feel put upon? It reminds me of VWA’s objection to creating a firebreak by taking flora down to bare dirt, but VWA when it restores trails does just that – it is just a matter of scale. (see here, for example: Ventana trail work photos

It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good, but there are a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.

In the face of pluralism, efforts to bring about the common good can only lead to adopting or promoting the views of some, while excluding others, violating the principle of treating people equally. Moreover, such efforts would force everyone to support some specific notion of the common good, violating the freedom of those who do not share in that goal, and inevitably leading to paternalism (imposing one group’s preference on others), tyranny, and oppression. (Common Good, supra.)

One problem encountered by attempts to promote the common good is that of individualism. Our country’s historical traditions have always placed a high value on individual freedom, on personal rights, and on allowing each person to “do his or her own thing” and no where is that more apparent than in Big Sur.

Whether “common good” can ever be achieved, or should be achieved in Big Sur is a huge question. This community was established by individualists, propagated with individualists, and has always drawn even more individualists to her bosom. It is who we are. It also challenges us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, “. . . to [also] recognize and further those goals we share in common.” (The Common Good, supra.)

These two controversial examples provide us with the opportunity to examine how we respect the individual rights and opinions of others while promulgating our shared values and opinions into actions which provide for the “common good” of our community both small and large and present us with the further opportunity to creatively come together for solutions.

For example, on the Proposed Wilderness Area, we could achieve the goals of most, if not all, parties by encouraging Assemblyperon Monning to introduce a different bill which assures that the eastern portion of the State Park be held in perpetuity as state park lands, that it have a different designation than others, but not wilderness, and that it never be included in any future listing of possible sales of state lands. (This just an example, not a proposal.)

I am convinced we can work together to protect community, wilderness, individuality, and property rights, without destroying any of that which makes us and our place on this planet so unique.

Weather Report, 4/17/10



And while most of you have probably seen photos of the eruption in Iceland, some of you may not, and this one is spectacular. It was sent to me by “Z” I don’t know the original photographer, unfortunately. (As my constant readers know, I really hate to post photographs without giving credit, but this is one of those rare exceptions.)

And if you would like to see more, there is a gallery of them on flickr.
Iceland Eruption Gallery