Sustaining the Common Good

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* Book: Sustaining the Common Good: A Christian Perspective on Global Economy. By John Cobb. (1995).


Almantas Samalavicius:

"It struck me as an unusual book that offered a fresh and challenging view of global development, somewhat outside mainstream (mostly sociological) discussions of the subject at that time. In it you insisted that markets should serve communities instead of destroying them – this was the time when economist neoliberal dogma was winning out all over the world, including in post-communist eastern Europe." (


Excerpts from a 2012 interview conducted by Almantas Samalavicius.

The motivations for writing the book

John Cobb:

"I was awakened to the threat of environmental catastrophe in 1969. Philosophically and theologically I was never a Kantian, and I had long affirmed the reality of the natural world, its importance to human beings, and its value in and for itself and to God. But this had not led me to the sort of study that would have made me aware of the enormous damage human beings were inflicting upon it. Hence, although the message that we were all at risk profoundly shocked me, it was immediately understandable and believable. I already understood human beings as part of the natural world, so that damage to that world was damage to all its inhabitants. Indeed, I was shocked that, given my metaphysical convictions, my own theological work had been so anthropocentric. Both the Bible and Whitehead were concerned with the whole of nature, but I had supposed that nonhuman nature would take care of itself!

Once I was awakened, I set out to write theologically in a different way. In 1970 I wrote Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, which Environmental Ethics still keeps in print. I considered my first responsibility to be to help overcome the anthropocentrism of Christian theology in general and especially of the liberal Protestant tradition that followed Kant. But I also realized that, if the world was to be saved, changing theology could contribute only a little. The world's leaders pay very little attention to Christian theology. Their "theology" is taught in the modern research universities, and especially in departments of economics.

In 1972 I co-organized a conference on "Alternatives to Catastrophe". We wanted to bring together thinkers who took the threat to the Earth seriously and also proposed changes that might ward it off. The two speakers who most fully embodied what we sought were Paolo Soleri and Herman Daly. Daly was writing about shifting from a "growth economy" to a "steady-state economy". I was convinced of the correctness of his judgments, and he led me to see that the issues were not just practical but deeply theoretical. From that time on I have considered economic theory to be a secular "theology" that is the greatest threat both to Christian faith and to the planet.

AS: Do Christians or people who link themselves to the tradition of Christianity tend to see in their religion the basis for a critique of the foundations of the prevailing economic regime? Or is the Christian faith perceived to be extraneous to the sphere of economics? What are the possibilities of bridging Christian and economic thought?

JC: I am not optimistic that many theologians will take on the task that seems so important to me – the detailed engagement with the assumptions and theories that underlie various academic disciplines and, because of its practical importance, especially economics. However, that economics is important is widely recognized among theologians and other Christian leaders. Especially in global Christian organizations, economic issues are intensively discussed. The World Council of Churches has had many studies and conferences dealing with economic issues. In my view, the best statement to date is the Accra Declaration of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches – 2004, "Covenanting for Justice in the Economy of the Earth". This statement declared: "We believe the integrity of our faith is at stake if we remain silent or refuse to act in the face of the current system of neoliberal globalization." The implications of this statement are richly unpacked.

Still, I have to acknowledge that Protestant denominations in the United States pay very little attention to the pronouncements of international bodies, even if they belong to them. Local pastors do not want to introduce such statements to their congregations, even if they personally agree. Whereas during the Thirties, American denominations were prepared to discuss all sorts of issues of this kind, since World War II they have largely accepted the role of relating seriously only to certain aspects of life and thought. They have given a hundred times more attention to matters of sexuality than to the survival of humanity. Their members would not be prepared to understand the attack on neoliberalism as an expression of faith. Obviously I deplore this narrowing of the understanding of the Gospel." (

Towards an Economics of Community

Excerpt from a 2012 interview conducted by Almantas Samalavicius.

John Cobb:

"When we wrote the book, the title in our minds was "Economics for Community". That would express the distinctive feature of the economic thinking for which we called and continue to call. The academic discipline of economics is based on the idea of Homo economicus. This assumes and reaffirms extreme individualism. Members of the species Homo economics compete with one another for scarce resources. Policies based on this understanding of human beings typically result in the destruction of human community. Even if the result is also that there is more consumption of goods and resources per capita, the people involved are, for the most part, not happier or better off. Instead, we advocated that we understand and treat people as persons-in-community. Persons-in-community find that their individual lives improve as the quality of community improves. Competition among them plays some role, but much of it is to see who can contribute most to the life of the community as a whole. This often involves some increase in the production and consumption of goods and services; but "growth" in this limited sense is by no means the goal. Sometimes, improved distribution of products can improve the quality of community life without any such increase. If the increase of production impoverishes the environment of the community, a decrease can be better. The proper role for economists is to discern what kind of economic activity contributes most to the health of the community at the least cost to the environment. Sometimes, regenerating the natural environment can contribute more to the sustainable wellbeing of the people than maintaining even the present level of production.

Accepting this different view of human beings would require reconstructing economic theory from the ground up. Such a reconstruction has been partially discussed by economists from time to time. Much more has been done, outside the guild, among ecological economists. It is not impossible that the guild will take on this task, but there are few signs that it will do so. Academic disciplines as a whole devote themselves to the socialization of new members of the guild, rather than seeking a broader or deeper truth. The policies of most governments and international economic organizations largely follow from the individualistic economic theory of the professional academics. If the graduate departments of economics changed, there is a good chance that the policies of governments and global economic institutions would change also. But, of course, they might not. Established policies and institutions have powerful constituencies. On the other hand, the increasingly manifest problems generated by the individualistic economic theories might open nations and global institutions to take an interest in human communities and the natural environment. Indeed, some of the problems are so serious that changes in actual policies and programs might proceed even without any theoretical support from professional economists.

If we focus concern on communities, some of these communities will be nations. We will encourage nations to control their own economies so that they will serve the national community rather than only the international economic elite." (

What is the Common Good

Excerpt from a 2012 interview conducted by Almantas Samalavicius.

John Cobb:

"AS: The notion of the "common good" is vague all over eastern Europe – the region that chased the free market economy as a kind of salvation after half-century of the culture of scarcity. Participating in number of discussions on the future of higher education in my country, I was shocked to learn what a limited understanding of common good exists among academics, who are supposed to be gatekeepers to the territory of knowledge and ideas. How do you interpret the common good and its relevance for contemporary society?

JC: The term "the common good" has played its largest role in Roman Catholic ethics. This means that Catholics might well claim a special right to define it. It was not part of my own vocabulary. Accordingly, I can claim no credit for our book having given it some fresh attention in the USA. We wrote the book with the title "economics for community" in mind. But our publisher proposed "The Common Good" instead, and we accepted.

The idea of the common good depends on an understanding of community. If we approach matters individualistically, as standard economic theory does, then the good of a group of people is simply the addition of the good of individuals. But we believe that each persona is largely constituted by her or his relations with other members of their social group, and by the way the group as a whole is structured and relates to other societies. Individuals are much better off if some of the societies to which they inevitably belong are communities in which all feel some responsibility for all. The good of the community involves a pattern of relationships among its members and a concern on their part for how the community as a whole is doing. The wellbeing of the community directly improves the wellbeing of its members.

Much of one's identity comes from the communities of which one is a part. I am a member of the Christian community. I am also an American. And I am a citizen of Claremont, California. My feeling about myself is affected by my sense of pride or embarrassment with respect to these communities. A criticism of American imperialism is felt my many Americans as an attack upon them personally. They are likely to feel good about themselves when the United States has been successful in some venture. None of this reality is well understood by those who think individualistically. Once we do understand how important our communities are to our very identity, we can distinguish the common good from our individual goods. We can then say that economics should serve the common good." (

More Information

Recommended books on Economics

John Cobb:

"At the moment, the two books I would recommend most heartily are Mark Anielski's The Economics of Happiness and Herman E. Daly's and Joshua Farley's Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. The latter is written as a text; if courses on ecological economics were regularly taught in universities using this text, change could be rapid.

In addition, I think that students of economics are not being taught the extent to which finance now dominates national and global economy. One book that I recommend on this topic is Lawrence E. Mitchell's The Speculative Economy: How Finance Triumphed Over Industry. When the primacy of finance is understood, the student is ready to see the extreme importance of money creation. The most comprehensive book on this topic is Stephen Zarlenga's The Lost Science of Money: The Mythology of Money – The Story of Power. However, the basic idea is more accessible, at least for Americans, in Ellen H. Brown's The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth about Our Money System and How We Can Break Free. Finally, for an excellent view of how economies can be, and often are, manipulated for the sake of corporations and especially financial ones, I recommend Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. If these books were digested by economics majors, the change in economic thinking would be fast and dramatic." (