Balancing Acts

On thinking harder about the common good and the difference between types of goods



Real-world balances have objective measures. Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of The Flying Wallendas, launched the amazing high-wire act as a teenager. He’d seen an ad for a “hand balancer with courage.” Fame and fracture continue to be the consequences.

And then there’s the doctor’s imposing weight scale. It tells no lies. What goes up, our poundage, had best go down, or else.

Real balances can give rise to mostly helpful metaphors. Consider the familiar courthouse statue of Lady Justice. She has a balance scale in one hand. What about consequences? Recall it is a dagger that she holds in the other hand. (So why are her eyes blindfolded? Chalk it up to artistic license. A blindfolded judge can’t see the scale or direct the dagger.)

Another mostly helpful metaphor: the U.S. Constitution, which, it’s often said, provides the checks and balances we need to coordinate the executive, legislative, and judicial balances. Long live the troika, and it’s still hanging in! (Ignore the cringe-worthy joke that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a system of Czechs and balances.)

Next come the many muddles that gain purchase by borrowing against the credit of real balances and helpful metaphors. Such muddles are fictions, and they are anything but helpful.

Some current pretenders come readily to mind. U.S. government policy, we are told, balances competing interests in its vaccine delivery system. Right. But how are we to identify all the relevant interests? Why must they compete? Which take priority and why? Unless we can answer these questions, talk about balancing is mostly just “hand waving.”

Meanwhile, a legion of “thought influencers” urge us to balance work and family, all the while remembering that “we have a life.” No doubt we should do so, that is, if we could do so. But how much weight should we give to work? How much weight should we give to family? And what’s this life that’s separate from both? Unless we can answer these questions, such talk about balancing is pretty much a promissory note that we aren’t likely to meet.

And let’s not forget that back in Washington, D.C., our legislators are at work balancing civil rights and religious freedom. This they do without much clarity about what counts as a civil right or what constitutes religion, much less why they are opposed.

So what gives with the blather about balancing? The balance is imaginary. In practice, it invites us to have recourse to either individual preference or to the utilitarianism that amounts to the conglomerate sum of individual preferences. Golly, why think when you can vote!

We can, gentle reader, do better. For a start, we can think harder about the common good, a good that excludes no one, not even those without political power. Then we can distinguish, and respect the difference, between instrumental goods and basic goods. We can sometimes measure and balance the former; the latter are incommensurable. They are good not just for what they might bring us but rather because they are good in and of themselves.

Here’s a strategy for distinguishing between instrumental and basic goods. Of instrumental goods it makes sense to ask, “So why are you seeking x?” Examples: “Why do you want (more) money, (more) “stuff,” (more) recognition?” Of basic and core goods, that doesn’t make sense. “Why do you want to have friends, a family, meaning in your life?”

To be sure, we cannot equally pursue all the basic goods. For example, we cannot pursue friendship with every person we meet. Recognizing this, we can better appreciate the “logic” of the personal vocation. When each pursues his or her vocation and respects the vocation of others, we come together in advancing the common good. (A caveat: A vocation, unlike a passion, is God’s free gift. The two might converge. Or they might not. Gaugin followed his passion to Tahiti, and in doing so abandoned his family.) As for us, in following Christ there first comes the Cross.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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