Revisiting the Common Good in the Digital Age
In this epochal change that we characterize as the “digital revolution,” not only digital technologies but also physical and biological technologies all converge. This contributes to a cultural transformation of enormous moment. Our ways of life, work and relationships are changing.
The processes underway – let alone their dizzying speed – are probably without parallel in those of other eras. Not that there were fewer problems before, but there were more certainties and interpretative narratives on a global level that today have given way to uncertainty and perplexity. Insecurity and an awareness of vulnerability – both at the macro and micro-personal levels – have increased, and with them temptations, such as those of abandoning oneself to the emotion of the moment or letting oneself be carried away by the potential for growth have escalated. This is demonstrated by the populist and extremist reactions that today can be seen in various forms and in numerous places.
Our technological civilization is crisscrossed by tension and marked by acute ambivalence. It is capable of producing incredible advances in Artificial Intelligence, making impressive diagnoses and curing diseases, or producing driverless vehicles and generating clean energy. At the same time, however, it is incapable of preventing the deaths of thousands of children a day from malnutrition and curable diseases, or preventing millions of refugees from living in subhuman conditions. We have achieved the incredible, but we do not know – or do not want to know – how to resolve fundamental issues in which human dignity is at stake.
We are direct witnesses of a historical era in which no one can predict the extent and depth of economic, political or social changes, how privacy, cyber security and changes in consumer habits will be affected, or how we humans will relate to ourselves or others. Human identity itself is called into question, since today’s acceleration of science and technology in areas such as genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence leads to talk about the advent of “posthumanism,” with its promises to transform the physical and intellectual capacities of human beings, or to exponentially increase the capabilities of certain organs, such as the bionic eye or ear. It is a comprehensive revolution that will exert its influence, using big data, not only on social control and the future of work, but also on the ways of being human. And even if we find it difficult to believe, this does not mean it is a matter of science fiction.
A fundamental ethical question is one that seeks to reconcile the good with freedom, asking whether what we can do (physically or psychologically) should determine what we should actually do. For some, the very fact of daring to curb technical and scientific progress is an affront; for others, it means respecting the rationality and freedom that ultimately define us as human beings. Our thesis is that the criterion of the common good provides the tools necessary to address many of the challenges that concern us, and prevents an instrumental understanding that sees techno-scientific progress as an indisputable fact and considers it morally neutral.
The consequences of the ‘culture of real virtuality’
Today one cannot conceptualize time and space without the virtual and the digital. If it is true that throughout history cultures have been generated by people who shared time and space, today the information paradigm has created a new culture, in which places are replaced by fluid space, and conventional time is replaced by a timeless dimension. This is what is being called the “culture of real virtuality” (M. Castells), which today we cannot ignore when we put the common good on the agenda.
The “culture of real virtuality” means that the symbolic material existence of people is immersed in a scenario of virtual images, in a world of representations where symbols are not mere metaphors, but are rather the foundation of real experience. It is “virtual” because of the way the materials come to us; it is “real” because it actually configures ideas, beliefs, values and behaviors.
The indispensable tools for the expression of the new culture lend themselves equally to fostering “active participation and passive absorption in a world ‘of narcissistic and self-referential stimuli.’” They alter us but paradoxically they do so not by pushing us out of ourselves toward others; rather, they make us introverted and at the same time, paradoxically, they introduce us to innumerable connections that provoke in people an extroversion that is difficult to control; not to mention the wealth of addictions to which they predispose individuals
The digital divide
The iconic expression “digital divide” is used to define and, at the same time, denounce growing inequality and polarization – both within countries and between different areas of the world – regarding access to and use of new technologies, with important consequences when it comes to sharing in the benefits of globalization and development. We are seemingly indifferent to the deepening of inequality in the global village. According to the recent Global Digital 2019 report, 57% of the world’s population habitually use the internet. Europe where about 80% of the population are consumers, is in first place. In Asia the numbers are 44% and in Africa 21%.
In addition to this enormous contrast between rich and poor countries, other gaps are widening within individual nations, and not only in developing countries, but also in highly developed ones. Think of the gap that is being generated between “inter-actors” and “inter-acted-upon,” i.e. between those who are able to select multidirectional communication circuits and those who instead have very limited ability to use the functionalities of the new digital devices, not to mention the gulf that opens up with respect to those who remain completely on the margins of technology.
This gap affects our closest personal relationships, for example, those within families marked by the irruption of multiple electronic devices (often alienating due to the lack of communication they induce). It also affects work, where we are still only just beginning to notice the first signs and effects of the transformations produced by the digital economy.
We no longer have the alibi of ignorance, and yet it is the turn of something more disturbing :“useless knowledge” (J. F. Revel). Paradoxically, data overdose can paralyze understanding, increase “tolerance of the intolerable,” and anesthetize empathy and compassion. Together with the flood of news, we also get related doses of immunization against the ability to react. They are like defensive mechanisms that act according to the model of the “structures of sin,” i.e. “negative factors, working against a true awareness of the universal common good.”
Technological transformation and work
Without fear of exaggeration we can say that a significant number of the tasks people perform today will be automated in the digital economy and replaced by machines, thanks to robotics, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence.
It is true that enormous opportunities are also opening up for the creation of wealth and prosperity with the advent of new occupational roles. However, technological progress not only affects employment structures in terms of numbers and types of jobs, but also involves a change in the nature and cultural significance of those occupations. These are fundamental changes, difficult to predict in their important anthropological implications, because the meaning of work goes beyond its objective and remunerative aspect.
Yet it would seem that most people are still techno-optimistic today, because they believe that this situation will result in an increase in human potential rather than the supplanting of human beings. Prudently, we prefer not to fan the fears of a catastrophe of enormous proportions, but at the same time we fail to be even vaguely confident that commercial interests and markets may be concerned to operate in a way that yields decent social solutions. The most sensible and intelligent thing is to try to rationally anticipate what the new scenarios may be and prepare people to find their way in the new and largely unknown circumstances. Values, transversal skills and ongoing apprenticeship learning should be essential for people guided by a solicitous and sensitive reason.
In order to respond adequately, it will be necessary to stop and think and then dialogue inter(trans)disciplinarily, bearing in mind the various significant voices and data involved in the situation. Good ethics needs good data, because the search for “truth […] is ‘logos’ which creates ‘dia-logos’ and therefore communication and communion.”
Today it is clear that liberal democracy is in crisis on many fronts and that populism (left and right) benefits from it. Instead of simply despising populism, it would be more fruitful to analyze why so many people are being seduced by its proposals and how our ways of relating, informing or involving ourselves are being transformed, and to respond to the challenges that all the structures of intermediation and socialization (including those of the state) are facing today.
While the institutions remain anchored to a territorial logic, the causes, consequences and responses to problems are, to a large extent, “global” and continuously tend to overwhelm the capacities of nation-states when they do not challenge their values. For their part, social networks are capable of fostering decisive changes in the processes of elaboration, formation and activation of power and politics and open up enormous possibilities for participation.
In these contexts, the “new policy” is not primarily identified with new parties, but with a different way of assuming responsibility, on the part of civil society, for the political decisions to be taken, as well as with the claim of its capacity for active participation. The new policy is associated with the new citizenship. This becomes an instrument of the new citizenship in participating and becoming the prime decision-makers within institutions.
In any case, the reason why “technopolitics” can be an extraordinary factor in political renewal lies not only “in the technological power that makes participation and deliberation on a large scale possible and easier, but in the ability to transform militants, sympathizers and voters into activists, in the ability to make it possible to transition through thought – share – action.”
On the other hand, social networks as a place for debate in order to come up with proposals to act in favor of the common good is an idea that is blatantly contradicted by many practices that we are seeing within the new parties. A well known political scientist close to this new policy lucidly recognizes that, although “the new parties have boasted a great transparency and horizontality in their operational processes, in the end, because of the great complexity involved when fixing positions and deciding […], they have returned to hierarchical and charismatic leadership.”
The logic of the common good
We believe that the conditions exist for the common good, a fundamental category of Christian social thought, to become the central criterion for thinking and practicing politics and for guiding the economy in this technological age, which is as powerful as it is ambiguous. It can act as an antidote to pettiness, electoral tactics and technocracy, as well as a vaccine to prevent both abstract universalism and folkloric localism.
Pope Francis explained before the United States Congress that the raison d’être of politics is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good, that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Speaking in praise of the involvement in much-denigrated politics, the pope calls it “the highest vocation” and “one of the most precious forms of charity,” obviously when it is oriented toward the common good.
What constitutes that common good is the set of conditions that allows everyone to live together in justice and freedom. It begins with not succumbing to the temptation to appropriate goods or money that belong to everyone, and it continues with the search for the most advantageous relationships, alliances and collaborations for the “common good,” and also with the acquisition of the necessary resources and with the provision and maintenance of relevant structures . For a coexistence worthy of the human condition, fundamental freedoms and rights must be guaranteed, as well as relationships fostered that respect people and ensure that the basic needs of health, energy, water, food, urban or natural spaces, education, culture and information are met. Freedom, relationships and essential needs constitute the fabric of human dignity and consequently are integral elements of the common good.
The common good is the “good of that ‘inclusive all’, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who come together in social community. It is not a good sought after for itself, but for the people who are part of the social community and who only in it can really and more effectively achieve their good” (CV 7). In the current situation of globalization – not only of the economy but also of technological and cultural exchanges – we see the inability of the nation state to “procure for itself the common good of its peoples.” This is precisely why we feel that there is a lack of a legally constituted and agreed authority to address problems that transcend national boundaries, such as climate change, hunger, new forms of slavery or what is needed for peace.
The common good is not content with the utilitarian principle of “greater well-being for the greater number,” but requires that no one is forgotten and no one is discarded. It demands that minorities and their community goods be recognized and supported as a valuable part of the diversity of everyone’s society. And in a world where there are so many examples of rejection, inequalities and gaps – certainly not just in the digital world – striving for the common good means solidarity and making inclusive decisions based on “a preferential option for the poor.”
The common good is also incompatible with state-centric ideologies, which entrust the contribution of citizens’ well-being only to public institutions. The Second Vatican Council distinguishes, within the common good, a portion to be promoted and protected that is effectively attributed to the state, such as “public order,” which is like a “subsidiary common good.” If responsibility for the common good lies with society as a whole with all its wealth and diversity of communities and institutions, responsibility for public order lies essentially with the state.
Within this fundamental distinction, appreciation for the “public” does not mean that everything is public or that the conditions of the common good should be entrusted solely to public administrations. Civil society and professional and business organizations also contribute to the general good no less than state organizations.
All this is an expression of the “subjectivity of society” on which the health of a free, fair and open society is based. From all public and private organizations, the criterion of the common good always requires us to look to the higher interest, with a dialogical attitude, respecting the law and the common rules governing behavior.
The good, subsidiarity and contact with reality
The principle of subsidiarity, which is fundamental to the common good, requires the state, as part of a whole, to put itself at the service of society as a whole, in order to guarantee as much freedom as possible. The various groups and associations have the right to function independently and to exist without detriment to their own identity and without interference in their own ends.
Subsidiarity – of Catholic origin and nature, and today the general heritage of public culture – is opposed, on the one hand, to any monistic form of the state aimed at extending control over all areas of society (in the extreme: totalitarianism) and, on the other, to liberal atomism, which eliminates political control from social and economic life, leading to an exaggeration of the individual as the foundation and unity on which social life rests (in the extreme: possessive individualism). Between these two poles, the principle of subsidiarity establishes a pluralist society of free and equal citizens, which sets the conditions so that everyone, participating in freedom, can realize their legitimate aspirations.
In addition, subsidiarity applies at the global level, recognizing that nations can act alone as far as possible and encouraging agreement between nations to strengthen their cooperation through intergovernmental institutions performing certain functions and services to serve common interests.
For the common good to act as a criterion, it is necessary that our politicians put “reality above the idea” and come into contact with people’s lives; that they feel real sorrow for the fractures of life, for the deterioration of our common home and for the living conditions of the poor. If they are sensitive to such situations, they will want to commit the best of themselves to the task.
But the call of the common good is not only addressed to politicians. It reaches all citizens, each according to his or her personal vocation and real possibilities; we are all thus called to collaborate in the life of the polis. If the members of a society consider themselves to be only particular individuals with responsibilities exclusively in the private sphere, if they disregard general concerns and even see the state as an obstacle that must be somehow circumvented they will hardly act as citizens, and a break between society and the state will easily occur. Confining citizens to the purely private sphere is harmful because, among other things, it makes them incapable of grasping the importance of the common good.
Justice as participation of all in the life of the community
Social justice enters into the rationale of the common good with the mandate to establish minimum levels of participation in community life for all people. Today we do not doubt that justice must be socio-environmental with both local and global projection. In such a horizon, the intent to put technology at the service of all, and not just a few, must become a powerful tool to create the conditions for the active participation of all in the new parameters of life, and certainly not to interfere in personal matters or to ensure the well-being of only a privileged part of humanity.
In this regard we want to recall how the North American bishops, in an important document, linked social justice with participation: “Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons. The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were non-members of the human race. To treat people this way is effectively to say that they simply do not count as human beings. (cf. EJA 77). The common good requires justice for all and the protection of the human rights of all (cf. EJA 85), because these are the minimum conditions for participation in the life of the community (cf. EJA 79). This way of considering social justice demands a preferential option for the poor and the most vulnerable: the rights of the poor to participate have priority over the rights of the rich to multiply their opportunities and their wealth.”
This perspective on justice is very close to the one centered on the development of “capabilities” that are transformed into “real freedoms” (A. Sen), and less similar to the one characterized by decisional “processes” that produce “fairness” (J. Rawls). We need to examine what emerges in society, including the kind of life that people can actually lead, taking into account institutions and rules, as well as other influences that are necessarily present.
Participation in the digital culture society
The incredible possibilities opened up by digital communication do not always translate into real participation. In fact it is not enough to circulate in the “digital streets,” that is, to be connected: it is necessary that the connection is accompanied by a real meeting, and this requires time, disposition and listening skills. The mere fact of being interconnected does not, in itself, solve the challenge of communication, which remains “a more human than technological achievement.”
Pope Francis invites us to build a culture of encounter, demanding new and responsible practices in the use of technological means and in the cultivation of relationships, claiming an education that does not only train in techno-scientific expertise, but in values, attitudinal skills and humanistic ideals, as well as in the ability and dynamism of continuous learning. In the culture of encounter, education takes on a prominent role.
Putting ourselves on the path to inclusive prosperity (sustainable development without waste) requires a deep dialogue between business and political leaders, representatives of workers and various civil society groups, educators, researchers and thinkers from different areas, which allows for the development of new models of organization and focuses on prospects for raising productivity, generating wealth and creating opportunities for the broad social base, without leaving the excluded on the margins.
There must be a plural dialogue about visions, perspectives and disciplines, because reality is interconnected and if we do not access it from different perspectives and fronts, we end up masking the problems (cf. LS 111). Instead of passively waiting for reality to force us to act, we must take the initiative, put ourselves at its helm in an active and service-minded attitude, fulfilling in this spirit the unavoidable obligation to reflect on the future, not to stop scientific and technological progress, but to “discern” these new and unknown scenarios as human beings.
The social question relates to the anthropological question
If Benedict XVI affirms that “the social question has become radically anthropological” (CV 75), Francis maintains that “there can be no ecology without adequate anthropology” (LS 118). In order to establish the ethical values necessary for the development of people and society, an adequate anthropology is needed that provides the basis for understanding the relationships between human beings, and between them and technology, and between them and other creatures. Indeed, this in-depth factor should be essential to the contribution of “integral ecology” to Agenda 2030: it can give it the shape of an anthropological itinerary capable of penetrating the terrain of an integral humanism adequate to the 21st century.
The well formulated anthropological question is neither sectarian nor colonizing, nor does it lack in commitment to social justice. It makes no sense to convey it through regrets about an abstract and static human nature that does not exist, and if it did, would not be shareable. Any anthropological investigation must be respectful of cultural diversity, although no apology for multiculturalism should take away the possibility of affirming something as valid for all human beings. The anthropological question is one that, in questioning the world we want to leave to future generations, manifests the awareness of being at the level of the meaning of existence and values (cf. LS 160).
A change in the model of global development and a redefinition of progress through growth will neither be conceivable nor feasible unless we deepen our understanding of the human being, both in terms of what makes us grow in humanity and freedom and what prevents us from doing so. This means overcoming ideologies, politically correct fashions and various prejudices.
Here it should be made clear that Christian anthropology, when it speaks of “person,” refers “both to the irreducible identity and interiority that make up the individual and to the fundamental relationship with others that is the basis of the human community.” In this sense, the good of the person and that of the community should not be understood as opposing principles or ones that obey separable logical dynamics, but as convergent objectives of ethical commitment and human development.
The biblical account of the origins of the human being establishes for the person three types of relationship that express human dignity: the relationship with God, who is the author of our dignity; the relationship with other people, as brothers and sisters; and the relationship with the “garden,” the earth, as our natural environment. The person is a being in-relation, and for him or her justice consists in living a life which respects the demands of those constitutive relationships, while injustice coincides with a lack of respect and rejecting the demands of those fundamental relationships. “(Re)establishing just relationships with God, with one’s neighbor and with nature” is reconciliation, one of the great missions that await us and of which the common good constitutes the horizon.
We can rethink, in the context of Catholic social doctrine, the meaning of technology, work, communication, economics and politics according to the new parameters of the world, within which respect and the promotion of human dignity must become real in the concrete and dynamic nature of existence.
Under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church interprets “human experience in the light of the Gospel,” and in this process of openness to reality she can share with the whole of society the wisdom accumulated over time in dealing with the category of the common good and promote with humility and truth those spiritual attitudes that are pre-political conditions for shedding light on it.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 8, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.8
. See M. Castells, L’età dell’informazione: economia, società e cultura, Milan, Bocconi University, 2004.
. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in Internet, February 22, 2002, in www.vatican.va/pccs/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20020228_ethics-internet_en/ The documents of the popes that will be mentioned later in the article can also be found in w2.vatican.va
. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 36.
. Francis, Laudato Si’ (LS), Nos. 125; 127; 128.
. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (CV), No. 4.
. A. Gutiérrez-Rubí, “La generación Millennials y la nueva política”, in Revista de Estudios de la Juventud, No. 108, 2015, 161-169.
. J. Subirats, “¿Nueva política? Argumentos a favor y dudas razonable”, in Informe España 2015, 450.
. See LS 108-109.
. Francis, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the United States Congress of America, September 24, 2015.
. Id. Address to the participants at the Plenary of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, May 2, 2019.
. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, No. 13.
. Cf. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Nos. 231-233.
. Cf. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All (EJA), Washington D.C., 1986, in http://www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf
. On this subject see D. Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
. Francis, Message for the 48th World Communications Day. Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter, June 1, 2014.
. Cf. J. L. Martínez, La cultura del encuentro. Desafío e interpelación para Europa, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2017.
. The culture of encounter is opposed to the culture of rejection, “which affects excluded human beings just as quickly as it reduces things to rubbish” (LS 22).
. International Theological Commission, Communion and Service. The human person created in God’s image, July 2014, in www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents
. Cf. C. M. Martini, Sulla giustizia, Milan, Mondadori, 2002; J. Moltmann, La dignidad humana, Salamanca, Sígueme, 1983, 27f.
. This is how the 35th and 36th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus (held in 2008 and 2016 respectively) presented reconciliation, inspired by the foundational call to “reconcile dissidents”, expressed in the Formula of the Institute (1550).