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The Culture of Encounter, Global Governance, and the Common Good

By: Johannes Wallacher

August 22, 2022

Challenges of Global Governance: Responses to Archbishop Gallagher

Both keynotes at the conference, by Archbishop Paul Gallagher and Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., vividly illustrated how much the shortcomings of current socioeconomic and political relations lead, once again, to multiple structural injustices and the exclusion of the poorest and most vulnerable. This not only fosters “dis-encounter,” as obvious injustices lead to suspicion, mistrust, and even violent confrontation and war. It also damages all values, norms, and mentalities that promote solidarity and fair cooperation in and between societies. Ultimately, this also undermines the ability of societies to build reliable and trusting relationships. In this sense, a culture of encounter must be considered a social potential—some speak of a social capital—that is not consumed by its use, but is at risk of dissolution if it is not constantly activated and cultivated.

Encounter as an Expression of Being a Person

Archbishop Gallagher, as well as Fr. Sosa, also rightly emphasizes that true encounter is inseparably linked to the Christian concept of the human person and their inalienable dignity. Humans are indeed social beings, for whom relationships in mutually supplementary dimensions are significant. We discover our own identity, the relation to oneself, not only in relation to other human beings, but also in relation to our natural environment, (for the faithful, to God’s creation) and also in relation to God (at least in the recognition of an openness to transcendence). Therefore, encounter is much more than cooperation for the sake of mutual personal advantage (which corresponds to the widely used mode of Pareto efficiency) and therefore it is not sufficient to shape societal relationships and corresponding institutions on the basis of purely legal categories, especially if those are a matter of purely positive law. Both keynote speakers correctly pointed out that societal relationships must satisfy the criterion of justice, but that a culture of encounter also depends on virtues such as charity or mercy, for which personal engagement and empathy are necessary in addition to purely rational considerations. As far as justice is concerned, due to the multidimensionality of human relationships, various aspects have to be taken into account. If we understand human persons as active beings, it is not sufficient to limit social justice to the satisfaction of basic needs. Fair opportunities for action and just procedures are as important as the need to ensure conditions for a decent life for future generations. Thus, we must respect the planetary boundaries and shape all our social relations accordingly.

The Relevance of the Common Good for Encounter

If we want to use the powerful idea of a culture of encounter for the necessary reforms of global governance, I would like to supplement Archbishop Gallagher’s remarks by making the connection to the principle of the common good even clearer. This seems important to me because, on the one hand, the principle of the common good makes it possible to integrate the various normative claims mentioned above—especially through pioneering developments regarding future generations and the ecological dimension of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. It also makes it easier to establish a stronger connection to secular academic and political debates, for example those surrounding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this context, common good framing is particularly significant, since all of these 17 SDGs might be interpreted as global commons.

The holistic and inclusive idea behind the common good is that it is meant to benefit all humankind and every single person alike. It is mindful of all people, especially those whose well-being is particularly endangered or those who are not able to speak for themselves: the poor, the voiceless, and future generations. It advocates for adequate economic well-being, health, and access to education and information; the ability to express one’s thoughts, religious beliefs, and ideals; to forge relations and form families; and to love and care for one’s relatives, for nature, and for one’s cultural heritage.

Overcoming Social Dilemmas

In economic theory and practice, producing or protecting commons is often considered a social dilemma. The dilemma arises from two incompatible propositions. First, self-seeking actors behave uncooperatively, although efforts to serve the common good would actually be in their interest, because they fear that “free riders” might exploit this cooperation for their greater personal advantage. These free riders can be individuals or collectives like transnational corporations, but also nation states, who increasingly act as free riders in international relations. Second, if everyone refuses to cooperate out of fear of free riders, social relations atrophy and no commons are provided or protected (as we unfortunately see in the case of combating climate change or protecting biodiversity). 

A culture of encounter with the common good in mind enables the necessary change of perspective on these so-called social dilemma situations. The holistic view of man’s nature, which combines scientific, religious, and cultural sources of knowledge as well as personal empathy, leads to the idea of a common good, which offers a vision of wholeness and interconnectedness. In a first step, it acknowledges that persons, who have the skills and capabilities to plan their futures and to care for themselves and their families, have the natural (individual) right to create and possess the goods that are necessary for that purpose. In a second step, it also becomes obvious that all persons do not create themselves, and are therefore at the same time part of a larger family and society that needs, creates, uses or guards a joint “common-wealth” or common good that is just as essential to the individual person’s well-being as private goods. This common good can only be sustained and enjoyed by all parts of the group if both the individual and the common rights and duties and various aspects of justice are well understood and wisely balanced against each other.

Change Agents as Role Models for a Culture of Encounter

In order to overcome the above-mentioned inertia often generated by social dilemmas, we need change actors who are not affected by the fear of free riders and have the courage and confidence to bring forward fair agreements and structural reforms. The multi-stage process described by Fr. Sosa, from inculturation to multiculturalism to intercultural encounter, as “reciprocal exchange between cultures that leads to the transformation and enrichment of all those involved” provides valuable impulses for such a dynamic. If a critical mass of individuals, above all decision-makers in business and politics, engage in such a process, they can become ambassadors for a culture of encounter—by making a valuable contribution to the greater common good with their respective talents and skills and their sense of empathy and justice, while encouraging others to follow their example.