“We’re All in This Together”: On the Erosion of Our Capacity to Cooperate

(Second in a series that explores the implications of Michael Sandel’s work: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?)

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The Denial of Interdependence

The Erie Canal was one of the largest public works projects ever attempted when digging began on July 4, 1817.

There is nothing intrinsically problematic about attempts to select meritorious individuals for positions that allow them to deploy exceptional abilities. Variation in talent and skills among individuals is inevitable, and a level of “sorting” that is informed by an awareness of such variation is necessary for any group or society to function effectively. Some individuals will display exceptional potential or ability in a particular functional domain, such that it would be a disservice to both the individual and group not to recognize the individual’s merit and to place the individual in a position where both she and her society benefits. Conversely, not all individuals are “cut out” for certain types of work. Some individuals will be less suited to perform some occupations than others, and some occupations for which an individual may not be well suited are highly rewarded.

Although some sorting and striving may be necessary for a society to function, Meritocracy will be harmful to the extent that those deemed meritorious believe that their success is entirely attributable to their own individual endowments or efforts.

A tendency to ignore our interdependence is “corrosive of civic sensibilities. The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.” 1

The tendency to deny interdependence is also divisive. While winners regard their success as their own doing, those who are left behind are likely to feel “that those on top look down on them with disdain.” Abdication of a sense of responsibility for Americans left behind by globalization “helps explain why those left behind … would become angry and resentful, and why they would be drawn to authoritarian populists who rail against elites and promise to reassert national borders with a vengeance.” 2

What Does a Functional Community Require?

Only when our dependence on one another is acknowledged can we appreciate the contribution that each of us makes to our collective well-being. Our loss of a sense of community is linked to the devaluation of work because our appreciation of contributions to the common good is contingent upon acknowledgement of a common life we share. There is no inclination to value another’s work if one sees it as irrelevant to one’s own situation. Restoring the dignity of work requires acknowledgement of our interdependence:

“(Appreciating the value of work) requires a sense of community sufficiently robust to enable citizens to say, and to believe, that ‘we are all in this together’, not as a ritual incantation in times of crisis but as a plausible description of everyday lives.” 3

Repetition of the truism ‘we are all in this together’ may have rung hollow during the pandemic because it “did not describe a sense of community embodied in an ongoing practice of mutual obligation and shared sacrifice.” 4

Work and the Common Good

“Meritocratic sorting taught us that our success is our own doing, and so eroded our sense of indebtedness. We are now in the midst of the angry whirlwind this unraveling has produced. To renew the dignity of work, we must repair the social bonds the age of merit has undone.” 5

There are three sets of questions we must ask ourselves to take stock of our present cultural situation:

  1. Can the efforts of those who “sort and strive” be informed by an awareness of our interdependence such that the efforts of the meritorious are not only rewarded but also rendered more compatible with the common good?
  2. What “counts as a truly valuable contribution to common good”? “Where (do) market verdicts miss the mark?” 6
  3. Can we change our culture and economic system to correct for – or at least ameliorate – a market that, in many cases, rewards destructiveness and antisociality?
    Can we create a culture that encourages activities that are productive, prosocial, and that serve the common good?


  1. Sandel, Michael. The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York. 2020. Page 7 and 14.
  2. Sandel, page 4.
  3. Sandel, page 121-122.
  4. Sandel, page 4.
  5. Sandel, page 122.
  6. Sandel, page 15.

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