Civic membership, the Commons and Justice
As members of the civic we have much in common. We live in the same time. We live on the same planet. All our grandchildren will inherit the future we leave them. Still, if we switch our view from the civic to the social, we see great differences. Some have much more than they need and others have much less. This contrast between the civic and the social raises issues of fairness or justice. So what should we have in common and when should we allow some to have more than others?
Of course we cannot and never will want to all have the same amount of all the same things. Still, from a civic perspective, private ownership would be a good idea only if it promotes the just distribution of provisions better, or at least as good, as other means of allocating resources. Civic justice is grounded in the notion of our common civic membership. To begin our reflections on justice from a civic perspective is to begin not with what people have but with what people share, or the commons.
We live in a historical context that has been enriched by the contributions of previous generations. We are the benefactors of previous creations in music, dance, literature, architecture, technology, and knowledge. We can enjoy this common resource in public libraries, museums, and parks as well as on the Internet. Contemporary musicians bring forth the legacy of music in new and creative ways, but they do it by accessing a common tradition and rendering it for our time and place. When you listen to “world music” that relies on African tribal rituals, who owns this music? How should it be distributed? Should it be available for all to enjoy? Who should pay the studio that made the production? What is fair here?
There is not only a cultural or knowledge commons, but also a planetary commons. We all live on the same planet, and we have common needs for its resources such as water, fertile soil, clean air, and most importantly, the sun—the ultimate source of all energy. How should we share these resources?
One way of thinking about this is that of a “fair share.” A fair share would be when people get enough, not too much and not too little. This is actually Aristotle’s idea of justice as a virtue. Justice, for him, lies between the excess of too much and the deficiency of not enough. So what is a fair share of things for all civic members?
A Fair Share
Suppose you had a large plate of spaghetti for a group of eight. At first thought, a fair share would be to give everyone the same amount. What if some were hungry and some were not? Then a fair share might be to give each person what he or she wanted. What if some had prepared the spaghetti while others watched TV? Should the providers get what they want and then the others divide the rest? Or, what if some were to leave for work after the meal? Would their fair share be more than the share for the others? It seems like a fair share depends on the circumstances. At the same time, we all need to eat. We are all members of the civic and civic justice would require that everyone has enough, even though some may get more than others if that would be fair.