This year, a global survey across 28 countries called the Edelman Trust Barometer, showed that trust in each of Australia’s four key institutions – government, business in general, the media and not-for-profit organizations – has fallen. Since 2017, trust in government has fallen from 37% to 35%; business from 48% to 45%, media from 32% to 31% and NGOs from 52% to 48%. These were not great figures to begin with, but the slide, which is all in one direction, should give us cause for alarm.
The most recent causes for this include the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; the Royal Commission into the Financial Services (that has brought to public attention examples of the unconscionable behaviour of Australia’s banking and financial service sector); and the outrageous behaviour of our political leaders securing their hold on power and position.
As our trust in institutions declines, so too does our commitment to them. Our relationship with the political system and its parties, our economic institutions and even our Churches has become detached. The salacious reporting of the countless examples of wrongdoing has, for many Australians, extinguished the fire of outrage that would demand change. Instead, these scandals of self-interest have increased antipathy towards the very institutions that we have created to support and be part of our society.
The excessive pursuit of self-interest, whether it be for the accumulation of wealth or preservation of power or reputation, can lead to actions that set aside our moral code of fairness and justice. The excessive pursuit of self-interest is in many ways key to the current state of affairs that dogs our political, economic, social and charitable institutions. It is a condition that goes beyond our institutions and has embedded itself in the community at large. In short, as a society, we are becoming more focused on self-interest over the common good.
Self-interest is, in reality, our instinct for self-preservation. The more fearful we become the more focused on self-interest we get. Gaudium et Spes, one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, expressed the common good as the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.
So the common good holds in tension the fulfilment of an individual’s interest and the interest of the whole.
In 1992, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s document, “The Common Wealth for the Common Good,” said: “Commonly, the greedy grip of consumerism and what we see as our own needs blind us to a wider view of what it takes to make and equitable society where the needs of all are addressed.”
There is a tension within us as a human species – an evolutionary tension – between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group. Charles Darwin noticed this paradox in evolution – that if evolution is the struggle to survive, if life is a competition for scarce resources, if the strong win and the weak die, then everywhere ruthlessness should prevail. But it does not. All societies value altruism. People esteem those who make sacrifices for the sake of others. This, in Darwinian terms, does not seem to make sense at all, and Darwin was honest enough to admit it.
The bravest, most sacrificial people, he wrote, ‘would on average perish in larger number that other men.’ If evolution is driven by the selfish instinct of self preservation, a noble man ‘would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.’ It seems scarcely possible, he wrote, that virtue ‘could be increased through natural selection, that is, by survival of the fittest.’
Even though it contradicted his general thesis, Darwin acknowledged that while natural selection operates at the level of the individual – it is individual men and women who pass on their genes to the next generation – civilizations work at the level of the group. As Darwin put it:
“A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (‘The Decent of Man,’ by Charles Darwin, p.166)
So yes, we have evolved a strong instinct for self-preservation. If it were not strong, we would have died out as a species a long time ago. But for our species to survive, evolution has found the need for an alternative tool, and that is an altruistic concern for the common good. This happens when our minds create an identification with the concerns for the group as a whole so strong that it defeats the constant temptation to be solely concerned about my own self-interest. Any group in which all the members can trust one another is at a massive advantage to others.
This, as evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has argued, is what religion does more powerfully than any other system. It is God who teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, heed the unheeded, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and temper justice with compassion.
This is the central drama of civilisation. Biological evolution favours individuals, but cultural evolution favours groups. There is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-interest or concern for others. Selfishness benefits individuals but is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.
When the media constantly bombards us with the moral failure and betrayal of trust of our key institutes, we lose confidence that working for the good of the whole will in fact benefit us individually. When that happens individuals turn back to putting greater trust in self-interest. As a society we grow more selfish and as stated above, in the end this is disastrous to the group.
When, on the other hand we see an altruistic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, like the national apology by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to the indigenous people for the stolen generation, or the recent apology by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse, the opposite takes place. Trust and concern for the good of the whole group increases and we let go of our focus on self-interest.
So there is hope. Clearly institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good. The common good is fundamental to the functioning of our society. Being attentive to the common good, we need to renew our commitment to sound institutions and to judgements based on more than individual self-interest.