The power of small acts aimed at the common good

There is no denying that humanity faces a number of existential problems such as economic inequality, environmental degradation and political instability. Therefore, it is necessary for society as a whole to work for the common good. Unfortunately, a sense of despondency prevails as so many people seem to feel powerless in the face of these problems. Yet our contribution to a better world, even if we sometimes think they have little to do with these important challenges, can have an impact. In this article, we explore the power of small actions and how everyone's choices can influence the course of the future.

Two conversations: two problems

I recently spoke to two people about this theme. Both are socially engaged and well-informed individuals. The first person is a social scientist, the other is involved in computer science.
  • The first person signaled that the problems are big and getting bigger and feels that we as humanity are doing far too little to solve them. In fact, he said, "It seems like the majority of people don't even want to fix them." For a moment, his words made me feel as if this situation is also robbing him of the courage to continue his efforts to make the world a better place.
  • The second person also pointed out some interesting issues. He wholeheartedly agreed that we should focus our efforts on the common good (and that this is still too little done). He said he was concerned about three things: 1) the lack of common good in business (which is too one-sidedly focused on making a profit), 2) the lack of a common goodt criterion in algorithms on our computer apps, social media and other websites, 3) the need (and difficulty) to target AI applications to a common good. In his estimation, developing heuristics that are both computationally understandable and an effective measure of the common good is an extremely difficult task, if not impossible. 

Understanding of despondency

It is understandable that people can experience despondency in the face of serious problems such as social injustice, inequality and climate change. These issues are critical and complex, and it often seems that not enough is being done to address them. When you are aware of the seriousness of the situation and discover that humanity is generally not doing enough to tackle the most important problems, I can understand that you feel desperate. In fact, most of the identified problems are, overall, actually getting bigger rather than smaller for the time being.

The importance of small deeds

Albert Schweitzer once made the following statement:
Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind only a small part can manifest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean.
It is true that we often think that large-scale action is necessary to bring about change and realize our ideals. But Schweitzer points out that it's small acts that have the real power and change the world for the better.

Why are small deeds so powerful?

Here are some reasons why small acts are more powerful than we usually realize:
  1. Small deeds often last: Big, dramatic actions can seem impressive, but they don't always last. Small, everyday actions, on the other hand, are often easier to maintain and can lead to bigger changes over time. A few examples of sustainable small acts are reducing food waste, using reusable bags and reducing the use of plastic.
  2. Small deeds can inspire: Small deeds can inspire others to do the same. When people see others taking small steps to improve the world, it can set off a chain reaction and inspire others to do the same. For example, a small gesture, such as sharing an environmentally friendly initiative on social media, can lead to greater awareness and action. 
  3. Small actions can make a big difference: While small actions may seem small in themselves, they can make a big difference in the long run. For example, by eating less meat, people can contribute to reducing the CO2 emissions associated with meat production. By taking the bicycle instead of the car, people can contribute to reducing air pollution and congestion in urban areas. Even small acts of kindness and compassion can make a big difference to those around us.

Attention to the common good

In my conversation with the computer science person, he brought up that in many sectors, such as the business community, there is still too little attention for the common good. This is often due to the focus on profit maximization. In computing science, there is also concern about the lack of a common good criterion in algorithms on our computer apps and websites. It is therefore important that more attention is paid to the common good in all sectors of society.

Businesses should become more focused on the common good

First, it is true that companies are often too one-sidedly focused on making a profit and that this is sometimes to the detriment of the common good. This can lead to environmental damage, inequality and other problems.

► It is important to recognize that businesses play an important role in creating a better world and that profit making and the pursuit of the common good are not mutually exclusive. For example, companies can work on sustainable production, fair trade practices and supporting civil society organizations that work on social and environmental issues.

Algorithms must be given a common good criterion

Second, the lack of a common good criterion in algorithms on our computer apps and websites is a real problem . Algorithms are often designed to meet specific goals, such as maximizing profit or optimizing search results, and can have unintended consequences for the common good. A danger of many algorithms on sites like Facebook is that they can have an addictive effect where you want to see more and more of the same content. As a result, you can end up in so-called echo chambers or rabbit holes, which can contribute to polarization in society and destabilization of the political climate.

► It is important to work on designing algorithms that take into account the common good, such as privacy, security, sustainability and other values ​​that contribute to a better society. Developing heuristics that serve the common good can be a challenging task, but it is not impossible. There are already some examples of companies that use a 'triple bottom line' approach, where profit, people and planet are central to their business operations. Integrating this approach into the DNA of companies is a step in the right direction.

AI applications must be aimed at the common good

Third, it is true that targeting AI applications for the common good is a complex task. Developing heuristics that are both computationally understandable and an effective measure of the common good is indeed difficult, but perhaps not impossible.

► Promising developments are also underway in the field of algorithms and AI, such as the use of 'explainable AI' and 'ethical AI' frameworks. These approaches provide greater transparency and accountability in AI application decision-making and can contribute to a more ethical and responsible approach to these technologies. There are already some examples of AI applications aimed at solving societal problems, such as predicting natural disasters, improving healthcare and reducing waste. More research and development is needed to further improve and expand these applications.

Individual Contributions

While achieving the common good can sometimes seem overwhelmingly difficult, small acts of individuals are invaluable. As an individual you can contribute to the common good by, for example:
  1. conscious use of energy;
  2. vote for a political party that is committed to the climate;
  3. volunteering in healthcare;
  4. use less plastic;
  5. less wasteful handling of food;
  6. supporting companies that adopt sustainable practices;
  7. switching to a plant-based diet;
  8. being considerate of others;
  9. supporting organizations working for social justice and the common good.
These are just a few examples. You can probably think of more yourself.

Do something yourself

If you suspect that what I am saying is roughly true, that small actions can eventually lead to big changes, would you consider what small action you could do today?
Nothing is too small.


Coert Visser said…
Link to paper

► This article examines how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) - in which companies strive to do good things for society and the environment - can influence employees' innovative behavior. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 26 studies and found that companies that engage in CSR activities tend to inspire their employees to think more creatively and come up with innovative ideas. In particular, the study found that CSR had a greater impact on employees' innovative behavior when it was conducted internally, rather than externally. The findings suggest that CSR can serve as an important driver of innovation in organizations and promote cleaner, more sustainable production. The study authors argue that this finding has important implications for senior management, sustainability departments and human resource management, as they can use CSR to foster a culture of innovation within their companies.