What Are We Doing?

Our communities must share an overarching vision of the good

What are we doing? When philosophers ask that question, they’re looking for an act-description. An act-description involves an agent, an act, and (implicitly) the intention in so acting. We can take some act-descriptions at face value. Others we can’t.

Consider two presidential examples. Harry S Truman, pressed to declare a middle name, intended to do the minimalist thing. Hence his “S” was short for nothing. So that’s why there’s no period after it. End of discussion.

The second example takes us from the trivial to the tragic. President Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said that in doing so he acted to shorten the war and save American lives. Maybe that’s what he was thinking at the time. But it wasn’t all that he was doing. To intend the ends is to intend the means. Truman’s intended means? The killing of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. That’s also part of what he did. About that, the moral discussion must continue.

Let’s turn from the past to the present. If we make the present different, the future will be different. We need to think more about what we are doing. If we figure it out, we can think about how to do it. We can develop the strengths of character that help us accomplish “the doable deed.”

Suppose that we’re thinking about transforming “politics as usual.” (Check out the American Solidarity Party.) We’d better think, then, about what we’re doing. We’re not just maintaining the status quo or meeting consumer demands. We’re not just realigning power blocs or polishing tribal identity images.

No, we’re acting to bring a dynamic harmony to our efforts to realize integral human development. That’s what we might call our “genus.” And our “species” of action? We’re putting together a new politics. Now, the aim of politics is to promote the common good. Specifically it is to do so in the sphere of our lives that requires all of us to work together. To succeed in this new politics, we need more than bureaucratic policies and therapeutic modalities. Instead, we need the finest habits of the heart and mind: justice, courage, self-discipline, and practical wisdom.

But we can’t develop these cardinal or “hinge” virtues as solitary selves. They are the fruit of our core communities: our families, our work teams, our associations of artists, and our schools. Our communities, in turn, in order to forge a unity, must share an overarching vision of the good. Authentic democracy, Jacques Maritain contended, is open to the Living Word. With the vision of such a democracy, we can build a Kingdom that starts in time and leads to eternity.


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

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