Reflections on the Common Good

Keynote Lecture for Emporia State University

Research and Creativity Day Award Ceremony, May 1, 2014



Charles Brown


It means a lot to be recognized by this university, by the people who are Emporia State University. Receiving the President’s Award for Research and Creativity is truly an honor. I think I am the first philosopher to receive this award—and, not to brag too much; it only took me 25 years.

I want to thank all my colleagues over these past 25 years for their encouragement and collegiality. I also want to thank my wife who is far better read than I and who shares a lot of diverse information with me that makes me be a better scholar. Sharing a life with Dianne and working with a faculty of academics is, from my perspective, about as good as it gets.

So, I’m lucky.               But you know sometimes academics are kind of funny.

If you hang out with people from the so-called real world long enough, business people, laborers, service providers, sooner or later they will get around to talking about academics and they always say the same thing. Those academics, they are pretty nice folk, they mean well, they know a lot of smart people words, but they just don’t have any common sense, they don’t live in the real world.

I suppose there is some sliver of truth to that.

But if you hang out with academics, sooner or later they get around to talking about philosophers. They always say the same thing. Those philosophers, they are pretty nice folk, they got their book learning going on, but they just don’t have any common sense.                      They don’t live in the real world.

  • With this in mind, I will try not to disappoint you today.

I am told that brevity is the great virtue of talks like this. The wisdom of our sponsors has limited this one to 15 minutes. I will talk a little bit about

  • Environmental philosophy,
  • a little about political philosophy,
  • a little bit about the role of the university
  • and a little bit about my own experience with public institutions.
  • All this is framed around the idea of a common good. I’m hoping all this fits together—in 15 minutes.

That 15-minute clock starts now.

One of the enduring questions that we as academics are tasked with concerns the nature of the university curriculum. For what should the university prepare its graduates?

For example,

  • Nobel laureate Paul Cruzen and other natural scientists argue that that human impact on the earth has already propelled us into a new geological age.
  • Cruzen and others propose this new epoch be named the anthropocene—meaning the age of humans.

This advocacy for the recognition of a new geological epoch frequently comes with the further claim that

  • It is the evolutionary destiny of our species, to transform the environment around us to better serve our needs.

Cruzen and others argue that in order to survive the unintended ecological upheaval of the anthropocene,

  1. climate disruption,
  2. mass extinction,
  3. ubiquitous pollution,

They argue that humans have no choice other than embarking on the grand project of

  • Massively geoengineering the planet, controlling the temperatures and chemistries of the atmosphere, oceans, and soil as well shaping eco-systems to better support the human project of planetary transformation.


What I like about this idea is that there are several big picture themes rolled into one.

New geological epoch,           human destiny,           urgent political choices,

As well as a clear alternative to the dominant ethos of most environmentalists:

The anthropocene advocates argue that

  • we must adapt the planet’s biosphere to fit human practices rather than adapting human practices to fit the environment. So what’s not to like?

But how are we to think about and evaluate such ideas?  Ideas at the intersection of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities.      Ideas that lead us into uncertain futures.

  • Such questions require on-going reflection and dialogue among many perspectives.
  • Such questions require the ability to entertain multiple interpretations of complex matters.

All of this raises the question of what kinds of issues and problems should the university prepare its graduates to wisely consider?

The question about how to think about the proposal to name a new geological epoch after our own species is merely one example of the many conceptual challenges toward thinking wisely about the issues that define our moment in history. To do this well we may need some luck.

We need to be lucky enough to have an educated, thoughtful, and even a wise population of critical and adaptive thinkers.

In my own life I was lucky to receive a minimally adequate education from a variety of public institutions at public expense. I was lucky to graduate HS in Oklahoma. This entitled me to guaranteed admission at that state’s flagship university. This allowed me to study and eventually work with the Indian philosopher Jitendranath Mohanty who is internationally recognized as one of bright stars of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy and is now the most celebrated of all living Indian philosophers. That world-class training in phenomenology shaped my future research and theoretical orientation. So, yea I’m lucky.

What I think I learned in my publically supported education are a few simple lessons worth repeating:

  • First, don’t confuse the map for the territory; the basic idea is to not confuse the way things makes sense for me with the way things really are.


  • Secondly, any perspective or conceptual framework powerful enough to reveal something of importance also conceals something of importance. Too often, in the attempt to privilege one perspective over the others and call it the final truth we forget that differing perspectives need not be mutually exclusive and can possibly illuminate deeper and more complex truths.


  • Finally, the moral ideal of Ahimsa—the ethic of non-injury, should be applied to philosophical and critical thinking: this means that we should not reject outright the other point of view without first recognizing an element of truth in it. Recognition, or at least, openness to finding some truth in the standpoint of the other seems to be a necessary condition for the sort of dialogue that leads us not only towards peace and solidarity but also towards more encompassing and more stable forms of truth.

So, I was lucky to learn all of this through participation in public institutions.

I was Lucky to grow up in the time of Great public works such as the building of the interstate highway system—and the post world war II democratization of higher education—both projects dramatically expanded opportunities for all.

I was Lucky to be hired by ESU —where I first discovered, in our library, the Journal of Environmental Ethics—over time I tried to think how the insights and methods of phenomenology could be applied to environmental philosophy—and eventually I was lucky enough to become part of new field of inquiry now known as eco-phenomenology—in recent years it has been very gratifying to see eco-phenomenology emerge as new paradigm for research not only in environmental philosophy and across the environmental humanities but also in unlikely disciplines such as—forest studies, geography, anthropology, architecture, and even modern dance??    (I’m not making it up)

Whatever small things I may have accomplished flow from the opportunities of freedom and personal empowerment cultivated by public institutions— institutions devoted to the common good.                                                                                 So, yea I’ve been lucky.

Lucky to have been funded by ESU to travel to Poland in 1989—

  1. Lucky to be a founding member of the international society for universal dialogue.
  2. Lucky to be offered the opportunity to research the history of the ideas guiding the polish dissident movement and rise of solidarity in Poland.
  3. Lucky to present papers on Just War Theory in Hiroshima, democracy in Greece, globalization in Beijing, and neoliberal economic and political theory in New York City.


I am lucky that public institutions dedicated to cultivating the common good made all of this possible for me.

All of this was supported by modest travel funds that have been greatly diminished.

So Maybe our luck is running out—too many young scholars no longer have same level of access to professional development opportunities as I did.

  • This is true all across the country.

Our Commitment to public institutions reflects a basic sentiment shared by nearly all—that in some big way we are all in it together—traditional virtues of loyalty, compassion, honesty, generosity, fairness, -all reflect a sense of solidarity with others—a sense of common purpose—a sense of a common good.

Much of my own work [at the intersection of political and environmental philosophy] attempts to show that this sense of a shared common good is rational—that it cannot be easily dismissed as mere and irrational sentiment—as many tend to do.

This sense of solidarity and common purpose, sense of common good is currently under attack.

We are told daily that public institutions are corrupt and must be eliminated or replaced with private institutions. Today, one often hears that liberty means the pursuit of the private good and any pursuit of the public good is a threat to that liberty. Advocates for the primacy of the private good often point to the work of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman as providing support.

Ideas attacking the notion of the common good have also emerged from some serious environmental thinking.

Most people are familiar with

Garrett Hardin’s Malthusian morality tale known as the Tragedy of the Commons—it’s a classic piece of environmental analysis that has been influential in shaping the way people think about policies on shared resources and population.

Hardin imagines the plausible case of herders sharing a common pasture who inevitably pursue their own self-interest by grazing as many cows as possible even if the result destroys the common pasture and ends in destruction and tragedy for all.

Very often the Tragedy of the Commons is used to support the idea that we can only save the grasslands, the forests, mountains, and oceans by private ownership as the pursuit of private good is always more efficient in guarding and protecting resources than the pursuit of public good.

G Hardin writes "freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all"

After the 1968 publication of the To C, people everywhere began to see all sorts of commons on the brink of tragedy.

Contemporary examples of commons typically include atmosphere and oceans—where fish populations steadily decline due to industrial fishing fleets and lack of regulations, our atmosphere is treated as an unregulated dump for carbon dioxide.


Other examples are human-created commons such as Public schools, Social Security retirement system, Public libraries, police and fire departments. And of course, the Internet.

  • The pressure to privatize or enclose these and others commons is now immense as the dynamic between the pursuit of the private and the public good is too often seen as a zero sum game.

In recent years the proposal that the commons must be privatized in order to save them has drawn sharp criticism. Public intellectual Noam Chomsky claims that privatization is the tragedy of the commons as we can now see that when you privatize the commons; it too often gets destroyed for private profit. Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work, which in some ways transcends the public-private dichotomy, shows that communities have generally developed creative strategies for managing shared resources in order to safeguard their value for all.


One of the more underappreciated parts of the commons is our collective knowledge and shared intellectual heritage making possible both public and private good.

  • Unlike pastures and ponds this common knowledge and intellectual heritage is open to anyone but not diminished by overuse.
  • But like ponds and pastures, this common knowledge must be preserved and passed on by society.


Traditionally: the University has been the guardian of this collective resource—


Today the current ideology of the primacy of self interest and the private good threatens to undermine the traditional role of the university as an institution devoted to the public good. We see this as the university is reshaped to resemble the current configurations of private institutions devoted to private good. We see the university increasingly restructured to serve the private goods of individual consumers of economic skills. Faculty salaries stagnate while executive salaries climb. Tenured faculty are replaced by adjunct professors working at multiple institutions for minimal wage. State support for universities steadily contracts.


Energetic and critical dialogue of how best to pursue both the common and private good requires the protection and guarantee of free speech and the expression of conscience.  And yet, just as the moment arrives when university faculty are encouraged to engage students through trendy social media traditional guarantees of academic freedom are rescinded in those very forms of speech.


Whatever else the university may be it must also be a public trust and a social good. To be so it must work to foster intellectual insight, imagination, social responsibility, and the struggle for justice. Universities must promote responsible and enlightened public discourse and citizen involvement in the defining issues of our times.


So, what should the university prepare its graduates for? You already know my answer:

  • To effectively pursue their own private good and the good of their families—and to be wise partners in the shared pursuit of the common good. University graduates must have the ability to understand the great issues of our times from a variety of perspectives and disciplines,
    • They must have the wisdom and imagination to forge constructive responses to those issues,
    • They must have the courage and skill to motivate others to join with them.

The university should prepare its graduates to live wisely and effectively in the real world. The real world consists of many wonderful and many terrible things.

If the anthropocene advocates are correct that it is the evolutionary destiny of humans to transform the planet’s eco-systems we must also recognize that is the evolutionary destiny of our species to care for others, to imagine a better world, and work to transform human social systems. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela clearly saw both the horrors and the promises of the real world. They each left the real world a better place by cultivating the common good. The real world is structured by both the actual and the possible.

We have always been told that the task of determining the curriculum belongs to the faculty. We can only hope that university faculty  (this includes all of us—students, professors, deans, provosts, and presidents)      We can only hope that we will demonstrate the required wisdom, courage, and leadership for our moment in history.

So, let me leave you, with what I hope is an uplifting note, with a misquote from the poet laureate of my generation

May your heart always be joyful

And may your song always be sung

May you always do for others

And let others do for you


And may you too work for the common good


OK, I made up that last part


Thank you and have a great day