An African story tells of a man who was invited to a banquet where each person was asked to bring a jug of wine. The jug of wine would be added to a large bowl of wine and shared by guests. The man realized that if he were to bring water in his jug and add water to the bowl, the difference might go unnoticed. The man brought his jug and poured water into the bowl. When he went to get his share of the wine, he discovered that everyone else had brought water too.
This African story illustrates what’s sometimes called the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy of the commons involves a common land for grazing being destroyed by people allowing their animals to take more than a fair share. “Looking out for number one” creates a loss for all in some situations.
Much of our society appears to be operating on a faith that “looking out for number one” will result in the well-being of all. But the drive toward power and profit and resulting inability to trust others leave many people questioning the value their lives and relationships, according to clinical psychologist Michael Lerner. And as a result, many search for meaningful purpose and solidarity in religions. What principles might encourage wholesome purposes and relationships?
Hillel the Elder frames the situation this way, “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?” Humanists see that “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals” and realize that “Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.” Encouraging our society to consider people and the planet rather than just profits and power may not always seem realistic. But realistically, as the “tragedy of the commons” shows, our survival depends on respectful relationships among people and with the planet. We need to grow from “greed is good” to considering the common good.
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