The Common Good in a Postmodern World

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This essay was delivered at St. Paul’s University, Ottawa, November 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Modern economics is not an empirical or historical discipline making globalization of the economy harder and harder to ignore.

A topic of this kind lends itself to discussion at many levels. One is the level of the common good of a national society. The other is the common good of the whole world. In the first instance, Cobb focuses on multiculturalism; in the second, on the economy.


In highly homogeneous societies, the idea that all should strive for the common good is not difficult to understand or promote. There is likely to be a widely shared judgment as to the values that contribute to the common good and even of the means of working for their implementation. Of course, there will be disputes, but the debate can be carried on within a common frame of discourse. There are still countries where this situation obtains.

However, in many countries, such homogeneity has long been lacking. The situation in each of these countries is different; so one cannot say much at a general level of whether the common good is to be sought in all and, if so, by what means. For example, the Canadian situation is different from that in the United States, and I will not address a topic on which most of you are much better informed than I. I know the American situation best, and will limit myself in these initial remarks to that.

The response to a plurality of cultures in the United States has often been the effort of the majority culture to integrate others into that culture or to segregate them from the dominant society. In fact, of course, those it sought to integrate, and even those it sought to segregate, influenced the dominant culture. But the primary force of American policies was to weaken the minority cultures for the sake of greater homogeneity.

This effort to integrate others into the dominant Anglo Protestant culture of the United States was often led by people of good will. The results, nevertheless, were horrendous. The most dramatic case was that of Native Americans. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the United States had reduced the condition of most of the surviving Native Americans to misery, and many people of good will thought the only escape from that misery would be cultural assimilation of the children. They believed that removing them from their families and raising them in a completely Anglo-controlled environment was the only way to achieve this goal. Hence a system of Indian schools was developed. Children were taken from their parents by force, not allowed to speak their native tongues, and systematically socialized into Anglo ways. The pain suffered by those thus treated as well as by their families was incalculable.

The alternative of segregation was, of course, no better. This was the fate suffered by most African Americans. Segregation meant exclusion from the dominant society and systematic economic exploitation. The means of enforcing acceptance were brutal. Even those African Americans who despite segregation succeeded in assimilating culturally were not allowed to integrate.

For many African Americans the goal became integration into the dominant society. Their efforts finally culminated in a change of the political and educational systems that resulted in support of integration instead of segregation. But by the time that goal was achieved, many African Americans recognized its limitations and problems. Integration meant alienation from what was distinctive in the African American culture and heritage. Imposed segregation was replaced, in some cases, by a self-chosen separation from the dominant society.

Meanwhile other ethnic groups experienced varying mixtures of exclusion and assimilation. Neither met their real needs, and there are many stories of the suffering that has resulted. Gradually, a new image of a multicultural society has emerged to guide people of goodwill in their efforts to find a better way. The common good must be the good of all the communities involved.

Our topic is the common good in a postmodern world. "Postmodern" means many things to many people. But one idea common to most forms of postmodernism is an emphasis on openness to, and affirmation of, diversity. This means that the account above locates the "modern" in terms of the efforts either to assimilate or to exclude and the "postmodern" in terms of the recognition and acceptance of cultural diversity.

Beyond this point we come to a parting of the ways among postmodernists. In their reaction against the modern responses to diversity, some resist any effort to identify a common good for the society as a whole. Such a common good, they feel will be defined by those who have the power to do so. Others will be pressed into its service.

Resistance to identifying the common good of the society as a whole finds support among some of the communities I have mentioned. I have personally encountered it especially strongly among Native Americans. The idea that each community should adapt itself to what it determined to be the common good, even if this new definition is worked out in discussions among the many communities, sounds in their ears as if they will be asked to make some further sacrifice. Their task is to seek their own good, and the pursuit of that project means primarily the defense of their land against further encroachments and, where possible, the recovery of lands that have been illegally taken from them. When they do recover land, they recognize the need to disrupt the lives of the inhabitants as little as possible. But whether this serves some larger common good does not currently seem to them to be their concern.

For many other groups, as well, the priority remains defending themselves and gaining greater access to the resources of the nation. Nevertheless, many of them recognize that the health of the nation as a whole is important for their future well being. Also, they do not want to be in the position primarily of competing with one another for a place in the dominant society. Hence, the idea of thinking together about the kind of society that would enable them to flourish without harming other groups makes sense. This is a second form of postmodernism, one that emphasizes the need to construct new models and visions to replace the modern ones that still need deconstruction.

This is the form of postmodernism to which I subscribe. It is sometimes named "constructive" or "reconstructive" postmodernism. For us constructive postmodernists, although it is important to recognize and affirm differences, it is also important to think through how different groups can live together in a way that is mutually satisfactory, and even, hopefully, mutually beneficial.

We have a long way to go to develop a vision of the common good for pluralistic American society. Nevertheless, constructive postmodernists believe that we have some clues as to how the process can be initiated. Since I have been involved in one such effort, I will describe what we did and how far we have come. There is, I think, some value in using examples.

Some of us "constructive postmodernists" at the Center for Process Studies thought we observed an emerging interest among some leaders in ethnic minority cultures in finding ways to live together for the benefit of all. For some time this had seemed important to us. But we were predominantly Anglo and, hence, in a poor position to give leadership. Nevertheless, we broached the idea to some of our ethnic friends and colleagues, and a Korean-American professor agreed to take the lead in organizing a conference.

One need was to decide the number of ethnic groups to include in the conference. One could identify hundreds of such groups, and in principle all should have a voice. If we limited the conference to twenty people, as we planned, we could have had representatives of twenty cultures. However, it seemed better to have strong teams from a few cultures instead. We settled on five cultures with four representatives of each.

The second question was which cultures to include. Any decision has an arbitrary character; so I will not defend our choices: Native American, African American, Mexican American, Korean American, and European American, which, for convenience, I will call Anglo for short. If we had been planning this after September 11, 2001, we would certainly included Near Easterners, probably Muslim Arabs, but at the time we did not give this group priority. How quickly the scene changes!

The planning group for the conference had representatives of each of these five groups. We at the Center had originally supposed that the conference could deal fairly quickly with the story of past injustices and move on to ideas about the future. We were wrong. The planning committee decided on four presentations from each group, with only the last dealing directly with the question that we had particularly wanted addressed. It became clear that, even though the people we were working with were far more ready to think about the common good than most, there was still a strong need to emphasize who they were in their differences and the suffering they had experienced and still experienced. Only when those matters were fully articulated could the discussion move on to hopeful possibilities. All of this illustrated the fact that Anglos such as myself are in poor position to judge what is desirable and possible in a multicultural situation. We were wise only in having turned planning over to a committee in which the Anglo voice was only one of five. The conference organization was itself an outgrowth of multicultural reflection about what would work best for all concerned. We who had made the initial suggestion were relieved that the planners were willing to include, in the final round, papers dealing with the topic we had had in mind.

One feature of the actual conference that we had not thought about in advance was the way participants experienced a discussion in which Anglos were a small minority. For most of the Anglos this was a new experience, and the same was true for most of the others. The result was considerable pain for the Anglos. Their proposals and suggestions were typically treated with considerable suspicion, and they experienced the give and take as rather harsh and even angry. Some of the others experienced a sense of exhilaration at being part of the overwhelming majority.

One problem, familiar to conference organizers, is that it was late before the final round of papers was presented. In addition, the participants were tired. Hence there was less attention to this set of papers, from my point of view the most important ones, than to earlier presentations, which covered more familiar territory.

The Anglo proposal for moving toward the common good was in terms of finding a common story, or at least common themes in the multiple stories. The author was convinced that a nation requires some commonality among its people in order to fulfill its proper functions. He was not opposed to multiculturalism, but he was convinced that simply breaking up into separate groups is not a real possibility for a nation. A reaction in the dominant community is already setting in against accepting diversity and in favor of making new efforts at assimilating all into the dominant culture. He hoped to deflect that move.

He proposed that what is common to all our stories is the disruption involved in being uprooted from our earlier homes and having to reestablish ourselves in a strange place. He thought that this commonality in our experience could enable us to understand one another and to tell our national history in a way that would draw us together instead of leading us to mutual opposition.

Although over time this proposal has received some support from other participants in the conference, within the conference itself the dominant response was critical, even hostile. The paper made an effort to include the Native Americans in the story because they, too, have suffered massive uprooting and disruption. But their spokespersons insisted that this did not characterize them. They feel themselves to be still in their own land, even though they have been deprived of most of it and are now drastically restricted to small patches of what was once theirs. As the indigenous people they do not share the story of the immigrants and do not want to be included in it.

The African American response was also negative. The experience of capture, enslavement, the middle passage, and being sold to Anglo owners is not analogous to that of Europeans leaving their homes for better economic opportunities in the Western Hemisphere. Only the Koreans found it possible to identify somewhat fully with the model proposed.

The African American and Korean American proposals were similar, and they received considerable acceptance in the group. These proposals assumed that all the cultural streams should be affirmed as having their distinctive value and encouraged to maintain themselves. At the same time, they assumed that all are changing and developing. They also assumed that this development is affected, and should be affected, by the multicultural context in the United States.

This means that Korean or African American culture can thrive precisely by adapting to the new context and learning from others. One of the authors was particularly clear that his culture needed to learn new patterns of relating between men and women from developments in the culture that happen to have been initiated primarily by Anglo women. Their proposals, although directed primarily at the Anglo culture, rightly call for changes in all the cultures.

These changes will occur differently in the several cultures. For example, African American women describe themselves as "womanist" and criticize Anglo feminism from that point of view. Korean and Korean-American women are also finding their distinctive voice. Nevertheless, this wider movement of women making their voices heard is an example of the dynamism that characterizes all the cultures involved.

If all the cultures are dynamic and learning from the multicultural situation itself and from one another, then a new situation of mutual support and cooperation can grow out of this creative process. The common good can only be specified through this process of interchange and development. However, the process itself can already be seen as for the common good. The culture that emerges will have more commonality than the present multicultural society can have, but this commonality will have elements contributed by all the particular cultures and other elements that grow out of the multicultural situation itself. It will not be what is now common to all existing cultures, and it certainly will not be the imposition of one existing culture's values on all. As seen in the case of the new audibility of women's voices, it will have elements that none of the historic cultures have had.

The common good, then, is not a particular pattern or condition that can be spelled out as a goal. Only the process of defining and moving toward it can now be affirmed with some clarity. But that does not make the idea irrelevant or ineffective. Cultures that recognize the importance of participating in a society that is good for all of them will develop somewhat differently from those that do not thematize this goal.

Although this idea of multiple dynamic cultures moving in directions that become more overlapping and mutually supportive was generally affirmed, one group rejected it. The Native Americans do not want to be part of this development. Their interest is in recovering their traditional patterns and maintaining them in some purity. They know that they have changed, but they have not experienced this as a dynamic development of learning from others.

Indeed, the Native American presentation, as noted above, rejected the topic as a whole and explained why. The author heard the call to work together for the common good as a demand that each group make some sacrifice so that all would benefit. Native Americans, he argued had already given up almost everything. They have their hands more that full defending themselves against further depredations and seeking to recover some of their ancient land. What they want from the nation as a whole is a little justice and considerable autonomy. Unlike other peoples within the United States, they are recognized as separate nations with complex relations to state and national governments. Although any notion of total independence is irrelevant to the actual situation, and they prize their American citizenship, they do want their separate nationhood respected.

It was apparent that what the Native American heard in "the common good" was not what the Korean and African-American presenters were advocating. Nevertheless, even with this latter understanding, he wanted to opt out. The Native Americans have in fact influenced the dominant culture, but further influence is not their current interest. Many Anglos want to learn from them, but teaching these would-be students is not their interest. On the other side, they have certainly been influenced by the dominant culture. Indeed, as we have seen, many were forcibly socialized into it. But further influence is not what they want. This is true even if the further influence comes from minority communities.

It was clear that when the concerns of Native Americans are included in any approximation to the common good, society would need to advance their claims. Unless Native Americans benefit, the actual result would not be a gain in the common good. Since Native Americans are not seeking to eject those who have taken their land or those who have come subsequently to occupy it, some positive response to their claims should certainly be possible without significantly harming any other group. The difference between the relation of Native Americans to the common good of the nation as a whole and that of other groups can be strongly affirmed. Their position does not in fact preclude a concern for, or efforts to achieve, the common good, but it is a warning against supposing that there is one common way for all groups to relate to the nation and the common good of its people. The acceptance of diversity must go deeper.


The common good is not only a matter of finding a satisfactory common goal for a multicultural society. It also involves economic and political structures. Ideally these will be envisioned and shaped through interaction among multiple cultural groups. But we in the dominant group cannot wait for that to occur before reflecting on the ways in which the current order works against the common good and how that might be changed.

To those postmodernists who emphasize only diversity and privilege local knowledge, discussion of global economics by a member of the dominant culture may seem arrogant. Such reflection is sometimes dismissed as "totalizing." Perhaps it is. One could decide that only by a more precise definition of "totalizing" than is usually provided. However that may be, to fail to consider what is wrong globally, what is assaulting local communities and local knowledge everywhere, seems to constructive postmodernists a still more serious failure.

Fortunately, historic events are narrowing the practical gap between the two forms of postmodernism. The numerous nongovernmental organizations that gather in Porto Alegre annually reflect a great deal of local knowledge. Their slogan is "another world is possible." They call their meetings the World Social Forum to contrast themselves with the World Economic Forum meeting at the same time in Davos, Switzerland. The naming of their movement identifies one of the points that constructive postmodernists have been making for some time. That point is: the economy should serve the society. The current situation, in which societies are restructured in the service of the global economy, is intolerable.

A second point that is widely accepted, almost assumed, at Porto Alegre is that local economies are preferable to the global one. This is in full agreement with the constructive postmodern view. We have emphasized the principle of subsidiarity, that is, that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. This means that local communities should be able to make many of their own decisions. They can do so only if they have control over their own economies. Of course, there are other decisions that can only be made at the global level. With respect to these, the goal is to have as much local participation as possible in making them.

The meetings at Porto Alegre do not issue statements expressing their conclusions. Hence, I cannot proceed to list other areas of agreement, although I believe the congeniality between what I have been writing as a constructive postmodernist and the general consensus at Porto Alegre goes much further. If this turns out not to be the case, that is, if those who are working most closely with people in highly varied situations all over the world come to conclusions in conflict with mine, I am certainly open to revision. I respect their local knowledge.

I differ, however, from those postmodernists who resist all generalizations and inclusive stories. If we do not provide better generalizations than those that now rule the world, local knowledge everywhere will be suppressed. We need to tell better stories about the economy than those that justify present practice. Our generalizations and our stories will certainly be expressive of particular points of view and will be influenced by our position of comfort in the center of empire. No stories are neutral and objective. But we need stories. The stories that now control the course of planetary history are leading us to destruction. Local stories cannot stop this development. We must take the risk.

I like Luther's adage, Sin boldly! The problem arises most acutely if we either refuse to sin at all, which means we commit the sin of omission, or we fail to recognize the sin involved in the arrogance of making general pronouncements. To act in the awareness of the distortions that are inescapable, trying to check ourselves against them, is the best we can do.

Constructive postmodernists affirm the importance of metaphysics, a type of inquiry that has been rejected both by late modernists and by deconstructive postmodernists. Our belief is that modern metaphysics controls much of the thought of those who reject metaphysical discourse. We need to bring this metaphysics to consciousness and discuss it. When we try to replace it by something that is not at the level of metaphysics, we fail. We need to propose a better metaphysics.

Let me illustrate in terms of the economic theory that supports economic globalization. Modern economic theory originated in the late eighteenth century and accepted the metaphysics of the day. When one accepts the basic assumptions of one's culture, one is not pressed to acknowledge, or even to recognize that one's assumptions are metaphysical. When one then proceeds to reject metaphysical inquiry, one closes the door to effective criticism. Thus, in the university, from which metaphysical inquiry is virtually excluded, each academic discipline is allowed its full autonomy, and noone is expected to criticize its assumptions. It is not only economics whose foundations in modern metaphysics are thus secured from criticism.

Yet the assumptions of the dominant economic theory are rather obviously false. When social psychologists, political theorists, or historians examine them, they do not stand up. Sadly, this has little effect within the discipline. For the purposes of the discipline, the assumptions are fruitful. The disconnect with the real world is of secondary concern.

I have said the assumptions are rooted in metaphysics. The dominant modern metaphysics affirms that the world is made up of two types of substances. There are mental substances and material substances. Each individual substance is self-contained, relating to other substances only externally. Intrinsic value is located only in the mental substances, and the only mental substances are human minds. The value of other things, including other animals, is their value to human beings. This metaphysics can be supported and developed in very subtle and complex ways. But the outcome, as relevant to economics, is quite simple.

These metaphysical views constitute a large part of the assumptional basis of economic theory. The human beings who are the actors in the economic drama are self-contained, relating to other substances only externally. Intrinsic value is located only in human experience. Everything else has value only as human beings desire it. Economic theory goes on to identify this value with the price paid for such objects in the market place.

Economic theory builds on these assumptions to state that people are fundamentally rational. Each strives to obtain as much as possible of desired commodities or services for as little expenditure as possible. Each strives to work as little as possible for the highest payment possible. Relations between people are essentially competitive. The theory shows that this aim of each individual to get as much s possible for as little as possible stimulates economic activity in such a way that the society as a whole benefits. What is meant by speaking of this general benefit is that there are more goods and services available in the society as a whole.

It can further be shown, within the theory, that the larger the market, the more efficiently resources can be allocated and, therefore, the more rapidly production increases. Originally this point was made in order to expand the market, that is, the region in which goods and investments move freely, from villages and regions to nations. Now, of course, the same argument justifies the global market.

Now consider what this metaphysical vision precludes. Since people are related to one another only externally, there can be no real community. There can only be voluntary associations the members of which calculate that the association is beneficial to them as individuals. Relations among human beings do not contribute to intrinsic value. Hence the destruction of human community and the deterioration of human relations that accompany the expansion of the market are not considered to be losses. Similarly the idea of fairness or justice plays no role in economic theory.

Since the natural world is understood simply as resource for commodities, there is no concern about ecological decay. Since relations to the natural world are purely external, there can be no consideration of how the decay of that world affects the spirits and general well being of its human inhabitants. Since everything except human minds is simply matter, exhaustion of resources does not figure in economic theory. One bit of matter is replaceable by other bits of matter.

Some suppose that as the limitations of economic theory appear, new branches can be developed to deal with them. For example, as economists are forced to recognize that there are costs associated with exhausting resources and polluting the environment, it is possible to tackle these new questions in terms of the existing economic paradigm. That is true. But the results show the effects of the unchanged assumptions. Those who do not share the modern metaphysics find them still profoundly unsatisfactory.

To challenge this extension of the paradigm to new fields, there has arisen, largely outside of economics departments, an international society for ecological economics. There are also national societies, such as the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics. This way of thinking is largely excluded from economics departments because it approaches the question with different assumptions about who human beings are, how they are related to one another, what the natural world is, and how humans are related to it. These different assumptions are not the ones that shaped modernity. Constructive postmodernists call them postmodern.

Here, too, the metaphysics can be developed quite complexly. I am a disciple of Alfred North Whitehead, who did develop a metaphysics able to deal with the complexities of relativity and quantum theory as well as with religious experience. But in order to state the features of this postmodern metaphysics that are relevant for rethinking economic theory, only a few quite simple points are needed.

For Whitehead a human experience is not at all self-contained. It grows out of the immediate past experiences, the body, its near environment, and, ultimately, out of the whole past world.. In other words a human experience is constituted largely by its relations to other entities. These relations are internal to it. They are with other people, other animals, plants, and inorganic things. All these other entities, when fully analyzed, are found to partake of the same character as the experience itself. That is, every actual entity is a coalescence of its whole world. Whitehead's term is concrescence.

The implications for economic theory should be clear. Each of us is bound up with others. The well being of others contributes to our well being. This does not exclude competition, but it subordinates it to our relations in community. Without at least a minimal community, we cannot live at all. A community requires some measure of harmony. And there can be no community without some consensus about fairness and justice, whether these terms are used or others. None of these crucial points can arise within modern economic thinking. But nothing is more important than that the economic order serve community instead of, as now occurs, destroying it.

Furthermore, our internal relations are not only with other people. They are with the natural world as well. The health of the biosphere is important to human health. The well being of the other creatures has intrinsic importance and is also important for us. The economy should serve the ecology, not destroy it.

These principles follow quite directly from a postmodern metaphysics. Of course, just as the metaphysics needs, for varying purposes, to be developed further and more complexly, so also the economics needs, for varying purposes, to be developed further and more complexly. But the fundamental understanding of its role as serving community should guide all this development.

Thus far the fundamental purpose of the economy as understood on the basis of modern metaphysics is to increase the total quantity of goods and services available to human beings as individuals. Economic theory has succeeded brilliantly in guiding human development in this direction. Since the theory has no place for justice, the huge growth in production has not benefited the poor. Since the theory has no place for community, this growth has destroyed most traditional communities and many modern ones as well. Since the theory has no place for the natural world, the practice is now clearly unsustainable in physical terms and has already severely degraded the earth.

From the constructive postmodern point of view, the work of building up an alternative body of theory and beginning to implement it is urgent. I hope it can be informed by the many voices that gather at Porto Alegre, but we in the first world also have our responsibility. We Westerners created the modern metaphysics and built our academic disciplines upon it. We need to deconstruct that metaphysics and reconceive the organization of knowledge that is based upon it. But deconstruction will not suffice. The world cannot exist without an economic order. We need an order that supports the local rather than constantly overriding it. We need a theory that both shows the reason for this need and also can be developed in rich detail to deal with the many diverse situations that arise locally as well

as with the ways local economies relate to one another and to the planet as a whole.

When we view the domination of the university by academic disciplines based on modern metaphysics, and the domination of the world by policies that derive from the theories taught there, it is hard not to become deeply discouraged. But there are signs of hope. The demonstrable harm that has been done to so many people by the globalization of the economy is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Sadly, modern economics is a deductive discipline rather than an empirical or historical one. Hence facts play little role in the evaluation of basic theories.

Still, more and more economists are given pause by the vast suffering their theories have engendered and the consistent failure of their predictions that application of their theories will bring prosperity. The kind of confidence they once displayed about the glories of economic globalization has been shaken.

The meetings at Davos and of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also lack the self-assuredness that formerly characterized them. Two of the recent meetings of the World Trade Organization collapsed, and its future is now somewhat in doubt. Meanwhile civil society has become clear that the changes needed are fundamental. And the meetings at Porto Alegre grow dramatically from year to year.

Persons responsible for the environment have found that standard economic theories do not help them. Despite the second-class status of ecological economics, it is beginning to play a role in policy formation. I have hopes that Canada will lead the way.

Although elites in many Third World countries, and in formerly Second World countries as well, have profited from economic globalization and cooperated with it, even they are beginning to recognize its catastrophic consequences. Argentina's paper economy has collapsed as a result of the government's following the teaching of standard economic theory too faithfully. Brazil has elected a president who will not succumb to U.S. pressures. I think there is a chance that South America is ready to turn a corner and build its economy on other principles. It seems to be organizing itself to resist U.S. pressure to go further along the lines of free trade and so-called "liberalization" by refusing to sign onto the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in anything like its present form.

There are stirrings of resistance in East Asia as well. East Asia developed successfully around national economies, just as did the United States and most European countries. Pressures from the Washington Consensus, led by the United States, pushed them in a globalizing direction, with disastrous results in Southeast Asia and South Korea. They may be learning their lesson.

All of this is not to say that a better world will in fact emerge from the decay of the modernist global economy. It is to say that a better world is possible. In a context in which such a possibility is emerging, those who care about the common good of the whole world have every reason to work at many levels. One of these is the theoretical

one. It is not wise for postmodernists to discourage that kind of work.