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Pathways to Philosophy

On the Notion of a 'Good Society'

by Hubertus Fremerey


Prefatory remarks

Over the last few months there has been a dispute on these pages concerning a paper by Jonathan Wolff, and a reply to this by Anthony Flood. Later Daoud Khashaba, Stuart Burns and myself posted several comments. The topic of this debate was "redistributionism" and it's proposed (Wolff) or denied (Flood) justification. (cf. Philosophy Pathways Nos. 53, 54, 56, 61, 64, and 65).

While the following paper has been stimulated in some way by this dispute, I will not address it again here in any direct way [1]. Instead my very general question is a more fundamental one: "What are we speaking of when we speak of 'a good society'?"

When one year ago I entered this "Philosophers Café", I did so by posting a question on Ask a Philosopher, "What do you think are the most urgent problems posed to today's socio-political philosophy?" (cf. Questions page). I never received an answer to this, only some minor hints from private mails. Maybe this was to be expected. Thus my text below is part of the answer I tried to find out myself.

I have also addressed this topic of "good society" in an answer to Jane in Ask a Philosopher 20th Set of Questions and Answers). But of course I would like to call forth a lively debate and some dissenting and stimulating opinions on all this.

There is also the age old question which has concerned many people since Socrates, of "What would we call a good life?" (cf. Tim LeBon's article 'Practitioners, Not Jumpers', Philosophy Pathways Issue 64, August 10, 2003).

Both questions — "What would we call a good life?" and "What would we call a good society?" — should be seen as related and standing in a context with a third question: "What would we call a good human?".

By using the formula "What would we call a good x?" I try to honour the analytical philosopher's concern with "using concepts" that have grown from ordinary language in the community of thinking and debating and experiencing humans. All three questions are by their nature evaluative and not "positive scientific". All else would be "objectification" in the sense of Hegel and Marx. Humans are not robots. But why is it important and what does it imply to say that?

On the notion of a good society

The text below on first sight may look more like a sermon than like serious philosophy. But my question "What are we speaking of if we are speaking of 'a good society'?" is very much a question of experience, not of concepts and logic alone. The forces attracting and repelling humans in interpersonal relations and in their relations to the world are not of the same sort as those attracting and repelling elementary particles in high-energy physics. I wanted to draw — however sketchy — a frame of reference in which to place any meaningful debate on human society. In my opinion much of what has been written on improving human society lacks a clear understanding of the interplay of systems view including technical, political and economical conditions, culture theory and history, interpersonal and general social relations, and subjective experiences, plans and hopes. All suggestions of improving society have to be seen against this background. Once more "A good society of humans is different from a good society of animals or robots." But in what way?

The view from the inside and the view from the outside

While we do not know "the" truth, we at least know "by experience" the meaning of "truth" as compared to lies and errors. Likewise we all know the MEANING of "a good society" from everyday experience of what can be "a bad society". And starting from this experience even Plato and Aristotle began to think on this problem of "a good society" at least as seriously as they did on what is "truth".

But with good society as with truth there are two quite different approaches: One mainly arguing from personal experience and "looking from the inside", the other starting from methods and looking from the outside, from a systems view or from metaphysics and religion. To look from the inside is like to understand "good eating" the way a gourmet does, which is completely different from the view of a dietician who speaks of vitamins, minerals and nutrients but not of "grand cuisine".

Jesus didn't speak of the state — he was not interested. Cicero, being a jurist in the top ranks of the Roman Empire, naturally was. Jesus was interested in interpersonal behaviour, in mutual love and understanding of "all god's children", not in state-law and economics and systems theory. But he was not teaching "group dynamics" or guiding "encounter groups" and stimulating "good vibes". His setting was of a much greater scale, even greater than the Roman Empire.

Singing in a gospel choir like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles is a very personal and interpersonal thing. But to have a peaceful parish and a gospel choir singing you have to have peace assured by the police and the military and the juridical system too. If you have a mad dictator in place of a "good and wise king" you will know it. Everybody will start to lie or keep silent or hide. The social and mental climate gets rotten, lies and moral corruption and fear become all pervading as in the former Fascist and Stalinist countries. But lies and moral corruption are an interpersonal thing again. Thus you cannot keep the interpersonal view separated from the systems view.

Spiritual and secular critique

There is not just one way to see society from the outside, say the "systems view", and there is not just one way to "experience" and "know" what is good. St.Augustine set the "visible everyday world of common sense" — which he called "civitas terrena", the earthly state — against an invisible spiritual world experienced and seen by the true believer — which he called "civitas Dei", the state of God. By this he put "common sense" into question. The ways we are accustomed to, this commonsensical world of material values and strivings, of competing and achieving and being a winner or a loser in the lottery of life and in the pursuit of happiness may seem a mindless and unreal world in the light of eternal truth and real insight into the nature of things. It's not all systems theory then.

This dichotomy between what is at hand and is taken for granted and accepted wisdom, and a quite different world as imagined in the Christian "kingdom to come", or in the Socialist "future of a just society", or in the Islamic omnipresence of Allah in all his creation is not to be dismissed as nonsense. It is one of the greatest traits of human thinking and imagining to always set the idea of a better world — religious or socialist or liberal — against the unthinking acceptance of the given. We don't understand human history without seeing it as a constant struggle of dreams against "realities". Even dreams in a certain way are "realities" — and important ones. The life of monks and nuns and priests is as valid, sensible and decent as that of "normal people" and playboys. The tension between "what is at hand and before the eyes" — the materialists reality — and what is dreamt of as an "idealist reality" of hopes and fears and plans is driving human history — whether in the Christian world of St.Augustine or in the socialist world of Marx or in the liberal one of an Amartya Sen.

We should never accept the idea that man is only an intelligent animal trying to make his life as comfortable as possible by applying "science and technology and common sense". To see man in this light not only is disgusting, it is downright stupid since it supposes a very restricted concept of humanity. To live comfortably is not — and never has been in any culture — the greatest ideal of humans. I cannot enter the deep and fascinating question of WHY this is as it is. It is one of the fundamental questions of anthropology. But beware of those "realists" who try to tell us what "sensible" means. They would have locked up Jesus in Bedlam. They fell to a "ratto-morphic image of man" as somebody aptly put it.

The great transformation to "modernity" in 17th century Europe

The great transformation of the world in the name of "progress" originated some 300 years back in Europe. Its origin is an outcome of Christian hopes and "readings" of the world. At about the time the "Mayflower" reached Plymouth in 1620, a great "Methodological Revolution" was brought about in Western thinking by Bacon, Galileo and Descartes. Instead of reading the Bible and "the Fathers" and the works of Aristotle and other authoritative scriptures in the light of the exegesis of the Churches, they began to read "the book of nature — Gods other revelation" by applying mathematics and methodical observation.

This approach was immensely encouraged by Newton's great achievement in 1687 in deriving the elliptical orbit of Mars from the assumption of a new "gravitational force" acting in a very simple way between massive bodies. This success eventually started the "Scientific Revolution" that then transformed into the "Industrial Revolution" some 150 years later.

The important result of the "Methodological Revolution" was the replacement of religious authority by the methodical procedure of "applied science".

Reformation in the wake of the new individualism of the Renaissance had brought down the old order already by binding the human conscience directly to God without intervening authorities of church or state. In many protestant sects of the 16th and 17th centuries there is not a trace of an organized church but only a "pentecostal" assembling of the true believers "under God". This was a precondition of modern democracy and the basis of the political thinking in what was later to become the USA.

The two conflicting aspects of modern "liberalization"

But here the two conflicting principles of "modernity" are to be seen: On the one hand the new "methodology" that lead to an enormous growth of stately power by transforming the older state with its many principalities and local customs into the modern state with its general law and citizenship and its masses of uniformed state-officials and soldiers and workers and specialists. To be uni-formed means to be of a standardized form like a specimen of a car coming from an assembly line. People became in this way "standardized" as "citizens"and alienated from their traditional social backgrounds and connections. And by being standardized in this way people became replaceable. The modern Western state became able to organize millions of workers and soldiers and state-officials and state-employees according to rational principles, and thus became a tremendous and powerful socio-cultural machine that subjugated all premodern and (by this) "inefficient" states elsewhere in the world. This explains the European colonialism and imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But modern individualism as "invented" from the times of the Renaissance and Humanism and Protestantism was not meant to reduce humans to uni-formed, exchangeable and disposable "cogs in the machine of the modern state". On the contrary modern individualism — which resulted from the new city-life of the later Middle-Ages in Europe — was meant to liberate thinking humans, who are responsible only to God and to other free and thinking humans, from false authorities and from restricting traditions, and to enable them to become free persons, thinking and speaking for themselves. This was the idea of Locke, Hume and Kant and the whole liberal tradition.

The libertarian, totalitarian, and communitarian reactions

The "modern" individual on the one hand is freed from traditions to begin his private "pursuit of happiness", but on the other hand he is isolated and lost and full of fears of freedom. While those who feel strong and daring became libertarians and even anarchists, those who — from other experiences — felt weak and lost, tried to cuddle under a new leader and his clear directives as under a Lenin or Stalin or Mao Zedong or Hitler.

To like freedom is not at all natural. For many if not most people freedom means disorder and disorientation and social chaos and fear of all sorts of gangsters and villains. This explains why libertarians and totalitarians have about the same number of followers even today. People need the experience that liberty "works". Democracy should not be experienced as a failure and as the reign of irresponsible power-networks. Only then will people trust in liberty and find it attractive. They see the gains of liberty — but they see the costs and dangers too.

Against the contrasting models of libertarians and totalitarians stood the older conservative model of "a good order of society". This "conservative" ideal — which could be called "Aristotelian" and from this "Thomistic" and then even "Lutheran" and "Hegelian" — has been brought back since about the 1970s by the "communitarians". In their opinion neither the libertarians nor the totalitarians have a good idea of what a society of free humans interacting in the context of a decent and sensible moral order could be. Stalinism and Fascism and Nazism likewise had failed and turned out to be false and bad dreams, while the modern liberal "capitalist" state seemed immoral in a different way by creating and nurturing greedy, reckless, egotistic and neurotic sorts of people.

The revolt of the human subject against being "a cog in the machine"

This was the charge of Rousseau around 1750 against the modern state: that it alienated humans from their true and good nature "given by God" to make them fit for "the requirements of civility". "What bribe can corrupt a man into slavery who wants nothing?" he asked — and by this addressed all vanities of "advanced" culture. In a similar sense some 200 years later Herbert Marcuse depicted modern "consumer-society" as consisting of people alienated by capitalists from their true feelings and natural needs to become "good consumers". In the Marcusean picture capitalists were like drug-dealers making people dependent on worthless consumer goods for the dealers' profit.

While the critique of Rousseau and Marcuse is a half-truth at best — as was the critique of Marx — it is a critique of real importance and contains some deep insight to be pondered.

The ambivalent promises of "modernity"

Liberty was shown above to be an ambivalent good, since people need orientation and safety and trust to make good use of liberty. By this libertarianism and totalitarianism create each other. It was shown too that modern individualism not only created free and responsible people but also uniformed ones and rootless "masses" prone to irresponsible leaders and "intelligentsias".

While the fear of Marcuse has been that "the Marcusean drug-addict", the alienated consumer, lost his soul to consumerism, the great fear of Max Weber was, that the modern "rational state" would lead to a regime of bureaucrats and technocrats. Thus there is "a Weberian drug addict" too, the alienated manager and expert and engineer, who like a Speer or Dr.Strangelove interprets all social problems as managerial and technical problems and not as human ones.

This was the situation as seen by Romanticism and Post-modernism when both tried desperately to gain a new distance by religion, play, and the arts, and by what Marcuse called "the great denial" to stop this mad "irrational rationality".

But the modern state is not only powerful in a military sense, it is powerful also in reducing many of the traditional evils such as poverty and hunger and epidemics and superstition and robbery and warring etc.. While those evils are still impressive on a global scale, they are greatly reduced in the modern welfare state if compared to the reality of the times only some 200 years back. Thus the promises of Enlightenment to reduce all those evils "by science and technology" have been fulfilled to a large extent.

Exactly from this the argument gains weight that people should heed the advice of the "well-meaning experts" and "benevolent dictators". This is what could be called "the paradox of freedom". By this argument all dictators justified their regime as being "in the best interest of the people". And by a tragical "fit" the leaders and the led sought and needed each other, since both feared freedom and called it nonsense.

This even is seen by many as the subtle danger of the modern welfare state: That is lures people into trading liberty for safety and comfort and thus nourishing an army of little "well meaning dictators" degrading humans to happy domestic animals.

Thus the theoretical problem in all these cases derives from the fact that the "enslaving rationality" like the "enslaving wealth" seems promising even for the slaves, and that "free responsible persons and subjects" get transformed under arguments of "modern rationality" and "progress" into "unfree, irresponsible, and replaceable objects" of planners and leaders.

Why "expertocracy" and modern dictatorship did not work

Why is it that we today are no longer convinced that the claims of the "Great Helmsmen" of the 20th century were justified? Why is it, that — contrary to the fears of Weber and Marcuse — the bureaucrats and technocrats and experts did not take over? Why is it that the models of people like Gandhi and Schweitzer and Dr. Martin Luther King still seem more promising as guides to a better world and society? This in my opinion is "the most urgent problem posed to todays socio-political philosophy". And I will try a first answer.

Look at Hitler, Stalin, and their likes again: They were all just the opposite to those saintly ones. They were corrupted by power and arrogance. They despised humans, being great killers and torturers and shouters. To be "honest and humble and respecting and loving all creatures" surely would not characterize their thinking and behaving. They wanted to be dominant and commanders of the world, not humble servants to establish a lighthouse of hope and orientation for the wretched of the earth — and for the rich and beautiful likewise. They only were vain, stupid moral monsters.

In a changing world we all have to learn by debating and experimenting and by liberal contest. This is the true message of "Enlightenment" and modernity. People that are always shouting and teaching are not hearing and learning. This explains why the liberal and learning and contesting USA have overcome the shouting and obeying Nazis and Imperial Japanese and Stalinists and have become the leading world-power today — while for the USA just this of course could mean the end of learning openness and the beginning of decline by arrogance and "false certainties".

It is the contrast between scornful arrogance and learning humility, between lying and being honest, between hating closeness and loving openness that makes the difference. Thus "All you need is love" as John Lennon sang? No, that would be too simple. But it could be a starting point to approach the very idea of a good society.

Since what does "love" mean? It means to accept and to respect and to support another being for its own sake — which includes humility and excludes arrogance. And being accepted by other humans is one of the greatest experiences of all humans — even Hitler and Stalin included.

But the problem may be in our genes: We naturally prefer "winners" to "losers" and by this get seduced to vain arrogance and to simplistic answers that are no solutions but only seem to be on first sight.

Why love is essential — even today

The tone of 1 Corinthians 13 is unknown and unheard in "classical" Antiquity. This was new, a new way of seeing humans, as was the "Sermon on the Mount" [2]. And the great "I have a dream" speech of Pastor King comes from the same source of spiritual strength [3]. Against this background even all Neo-liberal and Neo-Marxist models of a good society (Marcuse, Habermas, Rawls etc.) seem deficient, lacking an essential sense of love. No socialism or libertarianism nor any other form of "secular humanism" — no Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire or Kant — ever could bring this tone to our ears. We have to think this over.

Socrates and Plato at least had a great idea of humankind, and so had Jesus, St.Augustine, Luther and many others. But when Jefferson called it "self evident that all men are born free and equal" he had not in mind the slaves and the poor and maybe not even the women. And neither had Locke. But the saints had. This is a question of honesty.

Once more: We never should accept the idea that man is only an intelligent animal trying to make his life as comfortable as possible by applying "science and technology and common sense". The human quest for meaning is much more than a mere quest for practical orientation in a disturbing world as in a rat-maze.

We have to decide who belongs to "humankind". Should we have "gated communities" for the achievers, for the "rich and beautiful" [4]? Should we have people "removed" or "excluded" for not keeping up with our standards of "being fit and achieving" [5]?

It is not "the system" that defines who is included and who is not. It is us. And there is no rational argument to decide. Here we are to respond as humans, not as "experts". Here we have to decide by honesty and decency and experience, not by looking up theories. It is like deciding whom to invite to our party. No theory will tell us. We decide. This is the true meaning of liberty. This is the crucial difference between art and science. Good togetherness and good society is a work of art and experience — like good cooking is. The advice of the dietician and the moralist — while not without value — misses the point. Those are not the right persons to give a great party.

On being on a spaceship-team

A good garden-party is not a team. But where are the kings and the slaves in a racing-yacht going for the Americas Cup? Or where are the kings and the slaves in a jazz band? There are none. All members of the team have to work hard, all have to be very disciplined and adapt to each other. But at the same time all are playful and singular personalities.

To play is not in conflict with hard working here, and to carefully adapt to each others requirements is not in conflict with every member of the team being a singular and free person. Thus the marching column under the leadership of a shouting sergeant is the exact opposite of a good team.

The modern version of the idea of a good society then would be one that takes seriously material needs ("bread"), social needs ("love"), and spiritual needs ("meaning") alike without asking for a "system of estates" or a "great leader". People have to learn teamwork again. They have to understand in what way working and playing, or being equal and being free go together, and in what way being factual and being loving and caring are not contradicting each other.

This all is not new, we all know it from daily experience, but we tend to forget and obscure it in our theories that seem to put robots in place of true humans.

Think of humankind some time in the future living on a vast spaceship, a future "Mayflower". That requires team-work like on a big racing yacht. But why wait: We all are living on a vast space-ship already, called "Earth". And this too requires team-work.

There is no reason to object to mankind pursuing a great future including all technical possibilities, including even genetic engineering and cyborgs or "androids". Modern industrial and post-industrial society is not "wrong" or "inhumane". We need not go back to "the ways of our ancestors" to be true loving humans as some people seem to believe. And we need not sit idle and await the Second Coming of any god. That was the outcry of Nietzsche: Stop praising patience and obsequiousness like to prisoners or slaves, start praising freedom and daring self-realization like to free proud creative humans. It is OUR world and future after all, it is all OUR responsibility.

"Ideally" I really would prefer a mankind without anybody shouting around and even would agree to a "stateless society" — but this is a technical question and can only be a vision this moment. Even on a racing yacht or in the jazz band, while there is no "shouting sergeant", members need much cooperative discipline and understanding of the task at hand. Thus mankind will need some formal organizations for the time being for practical reasons. People need justifications and directions and standards to keep to. It is a practical matter — even with teams.

And while we need not be happy with all aspects of globalization, there is no alternative. We are but one mankind — and people everywhere begin to see and to accept it — even with joy as when watching the Olympics on TV.

Love and decency and mutual understanding in England or the USA is not different from love and decency and mutual understanding in Africa or in China or wherever else. Thus the "bad" aspects of globalization don't invalidate the "good" ones. The idea of "a good society" from experience — while not always from theory — is similar all over the globe. [6]

HUMANS SHOULD BUILD UP THEIR FUTURE WORLD LIKE A HOUSE OR A CITY OR A SPACE-SHIP AND BE PROUD OF IT — BUT

THEY SHOULD THINK CAREFULLY ON WHAT TO BE PROUD OF AS TRUE HUMANS — AND WHY!


Footnotes

1. The most charming comment on this debate I found cited elsewhere. It reads: "Politics is the art of getting votes from the poor and money from the rich to protect the one from the other." In my opinion — as I said before — the whole debate springs from a misunderstanding on what a good society should be. In a good society the rich and the poor need not be protected from each other. Libertarians stress the "natural" right of "private moral ownership". But Rousseau and some of his followers called private property "theft" — and this idea is just as "natural" as the first one. But I will not expand on this debate here.

2. The text of the Bible (King James Version) can be found on: http://www.cforc.com/kjv/index.html

3. For the "I have a dream" speech of pastor King see: http://odur.let.rug.nl/usanew/D/1951-1975/mlk/dream.htm

4. On "Gated Communities" see: http://www.nindy.com/chw/oppose.html and http://www.csir.com/akani/print/2001/nov/print06.html

5. On the great encyclical of Pope John Paul II "The Gospel of Life" (Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995) see http://www.newadvent.org/docs/jp02ev.htm

6. For some different views on "future society" see f.i.: http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0448.html and http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1570627444/qid=1061416901/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/ 103-1873683-0504617

Compared to those grandiose visions my text tries to be "sober and conservative".


© Hubertus Fremerey 2003

E-mail: hubertus@fremerey.net