Back in 2007, I first wrote about those Chinese symbols in the image above. They spell “Ke ji feng gong.” This is an update to that older piece, because it seemed appropriate to raise it in the midst of our current political campaign.
It’s an ancient Chinese saying that means:
“Work Unselfishly for the Common Good.”
An alternate translation, but similar in intent, is
“Self-restraint and devotion to public duties; selfless dedication; to serve the public interest wholeheartedly.”
Typically in the translation of Chinese characters, the phrase has a multitude of shadings. It can also mean,
“Place Strict Standards on Oneself in Public Service.”
I found another reference to it as “shared success.” It is sometimes written as “fèng gong kè ji.”
Regardless of which flavour appeals to you, it defines everything that I believe in about municipal political service: we are here to serve the public good; the greater good.
Every member of council should get this emblazoned on our desks, our computers, and our business cards to remind ourselves that our duty is to the greater good, not to serve friends, colleagues or whatever group you may belong to.
Maybe we should get one of the scrolls placed in our council room as an admonition, too.
I first found it when I was surfing online for some Chinese characters and found an Oriental art site that offers hand-painted Chinese calligraphy with sayings from Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mencius and others. Here’s the story behind the saying from that site:
A man named Cai Zun was born in China a little over 2000 years ago. In 24 AD, he joined an uprising led by Liu Xiu who later became the emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Later, the new emperor put Cai Zun in charge of the military court. Cai Zun exercised his power in strict accordance with military law, regardless of the offender’s rank or background. He even ordered the execution of one of the emperor’s close servants after the servant committed a serious crime.
Cai Zun led a simple life, but put great demands on himself to do all things in an honorable way. The emperor rewarded him for his honest character and honorable nature by promoting him to the rank of General and granting him the title of Marquis.
Whenever Cai Zun would receive an award, he would give credit to his men and share the reward with them.
Cai Zun was always praised by historians who found many examples of his selfless acts that served the public interest.
Sometime, long ago in history, people began to refer to Cai Zun as “Ke Ji Feng Gong”.
Curiously, the arch conservative, Ronald Reagan, said something eerily similar in his 1986 address to the nation:
“…we owe as a simple act of civic stewardship to use our freedom wisely for the common good.”**
If we politicians must be remembered for anything, then ke ji feng gong is a lot better legacy than “he monitored council’s emails” or “she voted for sprawl” or even “he voted for cat tags.” I wonder how many of us at the table will be remembered in the future as having worked tirelessly for the common good and not just for our own agendas?
The common good is a term that was voiced in ancient times by such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, but gained fresh coinage in the 20th century, described as a,
Theory of shared interests: There exists a desirable end for governmental or public policy which is good for the whole society. This ‘common good’ can be discovered by informed and reasoned thought, and though it may overlap with the good of particular groups or individuals, is different from and greater than the interest of any one of them.
Source: Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1982)
The “common good” is always a hot topic among political pundits and nabobs these days.* Santa Clara University reports that Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson once wrote:
“We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where group selfishly protect their own benefits.”
We face those challenges at all political levels, including municipal.
Common good has a wide range of meanings for people, from common sense to ethics (as in Santa Clara University’s ethics course) which defines common good in part as:
The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, and effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, and unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of a society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well these systems and institutions are functioning.
As these examples suggest, the common good does not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good require the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens. But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons, for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society’s other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.
Sometimes “common good” is called “the greater good” but although related, this latter concept is really part of Mills’ Utilitarianism, and is more often associated with altruism, philanthropy, generosity and compassion. See the Greater Good Magazine and Claire Gaudiani’s book, The Greater Good and the Wikipedia entry on Utilitarianism.
As Ethics Ops notes,
Being able to live together in a community requires that we pay attention not just to our individual goods but also to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of us all. This common good includes the social systems, institutions, natural and technological environments, and ways of understanding that we all depend on to pursue our individual goods. For a community to be sustainable, these must work in a manner that benefits all people. Since we all have access to the common good and benefit from it, we all have obligations to establish and maintain it.
Ke ji feng gong: isn’t that what we politicians are always supposed to be pursuing? Isn’t that supposed to be the reason we run for office?
Or perhaps it’s “da gong wu si” which can be translated as a “wholehearted devotion to the public good” or “‘to be fair and not favour anyone.” And that is also at the core of my political beliefs. There’s a story about da gong wu si:
One day an official named Jin Ping Gong asked his employee, Qi Huang Yang, to recommend a man suitable for a job as a magistrate in a nearby state. Qi Huang Yang replied Xie Hu was the best candidate for the job.
Jin Ping Gong was shocked: Xie Hu was Qi Huang Yang’s enemy. He asked, “He is your enemy, why did you recommend him for this job?”
Qi Huang Yang replied, “You only asked me who was the best candidate for this job, but did not ask me whether Xie Hu was my enemy or not.”
So Jin Ping Gong hired Xie Hu, who did his duties diligently and won the people’s respects.
Some time later, Jin Ping Gong asked Qi Huang Yang again. “The Imperial Court has one judge less, who do you recommend for the job?”
Qi Huang Yang replied, “Qi Wu is suitable.”
Jin Ping Gong was surprised and asked, “Isn’t Qi Wu your son? How can you choose your son for this job? After all, aren’t you scared that people will gossip about you being unfair?”
Qi Huang Yang replied, ” You only asked me who was suitable for the job, not asked me if Qi Wu was my son or not.”
So Jin Ping Gong hired Qi Wu, who practiced fairness with no bias, and earned the people’s respects.
When Confucius heard about this matter, he was very impressed with Qi Huang Yang. Confucius said, “Qi Huang Yang only took notice of other people’s talents in recommending them, and not because one person is his enemy, he chose not to recommend him and also not because one person is his son, and he is scared of other people accusing him of being bias and chose not to recommend him. He is really Da Gong Wu Si!”
Working for the common good means doing what is best, not what is politically expedient, is the most cautious, not that which will garner the least criticism or the most votes. It means doing what you honestly and sincerely feel is best for everyone.
And it means working with everyone else at the table for those goals – something a few of of the current crop of candidates may find difficult to do after being so vocally negative and critical about some incumbents.
Perhaps they do not have ke ji feng gong in their hearts. How, then, will their council decisions fare in the common good test?***
* Who can ever forget VP Spiro Agnew’s infamously delightful turn of phrase, “Nattering nabobs of negativism” he used to describe the press. He also called them “an effete corps of impudent snobs” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Agnew was a fount of memorable quotes…
** Chairman Mao Zedong said something similar:
“Be resourceful, look at all sides of a problem, test ideas by experiment, and work hard for the common good.”
That’s an interesting mix of Confucianism and Buddhism (the Kalamas Sutra is echoed here in his exhortation to test ideas by experimentation). Must have been written when Mao was still an idealist, before he became a dictator. But still a pithy statement, although it may not be politically wise to go around quoting Mao in a discussion of democratic politics.
*** One wonders what choice they would make when faced with the trolley problem?