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Question of the Month

How Should Society Be Organised?

The following answers to this vital question each win a semi-random book.

People love and need to work – not simply being employed in a pointless job they hate, but work that gives them a sense of purpose. Moreover, work ought not to be a systematic way of justifying one’s existence, for then unemployed people like myself would be surplus to requirement and sent to the proverbial gallows. Work also ought not to be based on competition; an ethic we see in both social Darwinism and capitalism. Rather, work should be about mutual aid and societal benefits. Which benefits society more: healthy food, good education and healthcare, or an entertainment industry that’s become a dangerous escapist distraction, and a drug industry producing substances – alcohol and tobacco – abused by children, teenagers and adults alike? (This is not hyperbolic language, but personal experience.)

Community allotments using permaculture would provide both healthy food and education. Children love helping and learning about the garden, and retired elderly people could also generally help here. People also need their own personal time to rest, cultivate their own identity, and enjoy life. Outside of the very specialised areas where simple training does not suffice (as, for example, in medicine) work ought to be shared and rotated. This is practically possible in our societies now. Someone could work three days a week in two different jobs and still easily be a student or pursue other interests.

The aim of this society is twofold: (i) For one to reach one’s potential, and transcend it, in all aspects of personal interest and benefit; and (ii) To feel useful in one’s society and benefit it wholly. This society would be both organised by the citizens and be centred on them.

Shane McDonnell, Navan, Ireland

The primary ethical imperatives for the organisation of any society are that its members’ wellbeing be maximised and their suffering minimised, within the context of a responsibly managed environment. These criteria need implementing via appropriate forms of organisation – political, executive, legal, religious, familial, financial, the press and media, etc. This is a continuous process based on Enlightenment ideals, as listed for example by Mary Midgley in Philosophy Now Issue 103: “toleration, equality, freedom, compassion, fraternity or sisterhood, justice…” Where such forms fail to address the primary imperatives they need modification, and in progressive societies these criteria also undergo refinement in understanding. Where interest is invested in the maintenance of the institutions to the exclusion of the prime imperatives, the institutions need to change or be abandoned. Taken-for-granted, privileged status is not tenable. Recent challenges to institutions include to the Christian church: female bishops, gay marriage; to banks: irresponsible self-serving investment practices, including excessive bonuses; to the press: against invasive and intrusive behaviour spuriously claimed to be in the public interest. The societies most likely to devise and implement ethical policies and practices will be those able to accommodate imperatives not circumscribed by vested interests –vested interests being a typical consequence of free market economics, especially involving multinationals. Their increasing, non-elected power inevitably usurps that of elected, state institutions, thereby emasculating their capacities for pursuing appropriate policies. As Roger Caldwell says in Issue 102, capitalism “transgress[es] national boundaries in its global reach; its relentless pursuit of profit… regardless of the consequences to people or environment.”

Democracy is the least problematic of political means to organise societies fairly and justly; rather than say, autocracy, fascism, monarchy, plutocracy or theocracy. As for global democracy, pluralist and liberal forms of multiculturalism (see Terri Murray, Issue 102) are in conflict. Pluralist multiculturalism tolerates plurality of cultures if practices are acceptable within a cultural group, irrespective of their being abhorrent outside that culture; for example, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, persecution of homosexuals. In contrast, liberal multiculturalism, while tolerant of a wide range of customs, nevertheless requires a universal respect for humanitarian values. Such a view of multiculturalism seems consistent with Derek Parfit’s ‘Kantian Rule Consequentialism’: “Everyone ought to follow [good] principles because these are the only principles that everyone could rationally will to be universal laws” (On What Matters, p.411, 2011).

Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire

Our present system of society is fraught with contradictions. We have the technological potential to adequately feed, clothe, house and provide a decent life for every man, woman and child on Earth, yet instead of abundance for all there exists poverty, insecurity and misery for the vast majority.

At the heart of all these social problems is the conflict between the need to accumulate and reproduce capital on one hand and the need to fulfil human want on the other. Productive activity is mediated through the mechanism of market exchange, so production ceases when profit fails to be realised, not when human need is satisfied. Instead of directly co-ordinating to fulfil its needs, humanity is dominated by the blind imperatives of an economic system. If humanity as a whole were to democratically take control of the productive apparatus of society and free its operations from the constraints of the profit motive, an already existing but as yet untapped potential for abundance could be realised.

This would of course entail a complete transformation in property relations. Instead of a society based on minority control, production for profit, and market exchange, we would have one based on common ownership and production for need. Instead of being mediated through the market system, production decisions would be co-ordinated directly according to the self-defined needs of global society, and the means of production belong to everybody.

Does this mean that I will be forced out of my home, have the clothes taken off my back and the food stolen from my mouth? No. Protection would be invoked – not through the right to property, but directly according the interests of the person involved.

But what about human nature? Deep down, aren’t we all lazy, greedy and aggressive? Firstly, there is no fixed ‘human nature’ independent of society. For example, in a society based on scarcity, the motive is to hoard, since poverty is always around the corner. When society is no longer divided between competing buyers and sellers and labour-power, the motivation to work comes from the satisfaction of fulfilling a need. Instead of an endless drive to accumulate abstract wealth, the guiding principle becomes one of self-mastery and the betterment of society.

Darren Poynton, Norwich, Norfolk

Society should be organized in a manner that accounts for the real characteristics of the population rather than idealistic conceptions of how they should act. From idealist models as far apart as Homo economicus to the ‘new socialist man’, Machiavelli’s shrewd observation holds, that “many [states] have been imagined that were never seen or known to exist in reality.” A second complication is the ‘table of values’ that Nietzsche identified as hanging over all peoples, written from their formative successes and overcomings, and particular to those circumstances, which may or may not be relevant in the best organization of society. Finally, there is usually a gap between espoused theory – what people say they want – and practice – what they actually do – which renders the task of ascertaining the wants and needs of the population difficult. In other words, they may say they want ‘small government’, but they repeatedly vote for social programs or military adventures that make government bigger. Do we listen to their words, or deeds?

The ‘answer’, therefore, varies according to the true views of the population on matters such as safety versus freedom, or the desirability of equality before the law versus equality of results. People’s ideas about territory and property also diverge widely. It is therefore unlikely or even impossible that people can be expected to live happily and with a sense of justice under a single set of rules. Without a shared vision on these perennial questions, consensus cannot be reached on the practical questions of how decisions are made, how problems are solved, how people are protected from aggression, who controls resources, and how justice is administered. When a group advances above the size of a small tribe, consensus seems to become impossible; but small groups are unable develop a complex division of labor or defend themselves from conquest or absorption into larger groups.

Ultimately, then, we have a dialectic between unity and diversity. The proper treatment of a dialectic, as I see it, is not to take one side and freeze it in social stasis, but to provide a robust mechanism to allow for its unfolding. In other words, society is not a contract, but an experiment.

Albert Suckow, Soda Springs, ID

The prickly conundrum is that there are uncountable permutations as to how society might feasibly be organized. Hence, ordering the possibilities – awful, bad, good, better, best – to address the ‘should’ angle becomes an impractical, untenable exercise, whether or not one actually seeks to endorse, or impose, a single social system to the exclusion of all others. Why? Well, these myriad ways to mix and match institutions, laws, constitutions, relationships, authority, order, and systems of governance are energized by the historical, cultural, political, intellectual, ideological, and philosophical dispositions – the complex stew – of a particular society. Accordingly, any single formula would be inherently biased – riven with preferences stemming from historical and cultural influences that mould peoples’ mindsets. The perspective one brings to judge a given social order hinges inextricably on those influences too. Hence how society ‘should’ be organized is too dependent on many conditions to allow any single social formula to rise above the rest.

There’s nothing right or wrong about that dependency. No social formula can be judged outside its own culture and history. So all permutations have comparable legitimacy, even though one may perceive alternative social systems as antithetical to one’s own ideal. Thus one end of the spectrum – strong, central authority – and the other end of the spectrum – extreme liberal freedom, with the decision-making bubbling up from below – have equally legitimate places in the pantheon of possible social systems. Indeed, short of, say, genocidal tyranny, legitimacy remains, even if someone were to perceive another social order as unsavory, oppressive, muddled, illiberal, immoral, inauthentic… or any other pejorative. Yet people still cast a leery look over the fence at the system on the other side, in some cases caving in to the urge to engage in nation-reshaping – ‘social terra-forming’ – on the often ill-informed presumption that they know better (indeed best) for everyone.

Besides, like living organisms, all social systems evolve, their DNA changing over time, for all sorts of reasons.

Keith Tidman, Bethesda, MD

We should be aiming for a utopia: the best of societies, the one that provides in the highest degree all that a society should provide to its citizens. In utopia, the individual is the fundamental reality, not the state. Its fundamental concerns are respecting the natural rights of each person, which entails justice and the happiness of each (as opposed to justice and happiness for classes, averages, or majorities). To achieve this, society should be organized under the governance of robots.

Utopia would require a minute management of its resources whilst maximizing private liberty and the individual pursuit of happiness. In utopia, the heavy hand of the ruler is not felt, for autonomy is a natural desire and the right of individuals; but the minute management of resources requires absolute power. However, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Utopia is therefore a wonderful balancing act.

The most fundamental problem of political philosophy is, ‘Who governs the governors?’ It’s a problem because of the weaknesses of humans: people are too ignorant, too stupid, and too evil to run a utopia. No body of people possesses the requisite vast knowledge and perspective. We cannot think fast enough or rationally enough to make the requisite decisions in a timely way, or perhaps at all. We are too selfish to be trusted to govern others with the requisite altruism. But the problem of who governs the governors disappears when the governors are computers that can be programmed with the requisite knowledge, rationality, and altruism.

So the three sciences most needed to create utopia are computer science, economics, and ethics. We have little cause to doubt the ultimate triumph of computer science. Economics – the science of the management of resources – is more difficult. However, there is hope that the economic principles of centralized resource management would be easier to determine than those of capitalism, founded as that is on human capriciousness.

Ethics is the most difficult of the three sciences. Philosophers have been working on the subject for over two millennia without yet reaching consensus. Furthermore, the principles of ethics must be reduced to programmable form; and of course they must be correct, else our beautiful robots will turn out to be Frankensteins.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC

I recently attended an interview with James Lovelock in Bristol. I am really interested in his Gaia theory – that our planet is a living organism. It’s obvious to me that Gaia is in very deep trouble; and so, when I think about organising society, I think we need to look at the global picture. This tells me that we need to share more. We also need to consume less. To do this we need to become more motivated to learn to live with less – with what we need, not what we want. These changes will be personally challenging and difficult to implement, and many will find them painful. As individuals, families, society, or indeed as a race, we don’t like change.

At the interview with Professor Lovelock I was lucky enough to ask him a question. I asked him what he thought my world would be like when I am his age if we humans do not change our ways? (He is 95, I am much younger.) He said that it is impossible to predict that far into the future. Whatever changes we make to society, there is no crystal ball, and there are no simple solutions: but I sometimes worry that we are like Victorian doctors feeding poison to our sick patient, making the wound worse, and waiting for that inevitable Beeeeeeeeeeep!

Arthur Willis, somewhere in England

A society that does not ensure that all its members have the opportunity, the stimulus, the encouragement and the wherewithal to flourish, is hardly a society at all. A society that is selfishly blind to the environmental consequences of its actions is criminal. As we scrabble around in the Twenty-First Century obsessed by new trinkets, playing virtual games, hoping against hope that a new pill will cure our over-indulgence, prey to the frothy confections of press and television, ignorant of the control of over-mighty corporations and dismissive of democracy, we have turned our eyes from reality, and have either forgotten or have chosen to ignore the benefits that come from co-operative action and the sharing of resources. If we are to create anything like a good society, and combat the rampant individualism and corrosive inequalities eviscerating both our current polity and common decency, then we need to challenge the voracious power of global corporations, of compliant governments, and their allies in the media.

With a self-perpetuating elite now consolidated, any campaign for change will be asymmetrical. We must build our challenges from the bottom up. For all of us who believe in a different future, it is time to show in our attitudes and actions that alternatives are possible. Each of us will contribute in different ways and in different measure. Our choice of lifestyle, our decisions as consumers, our community involvement, our protests, our support of campaigns and causes, will all combine in an assertion of citizenship. In working together, we rediscover the values of good neighbourliness. We find deeper sources of enjoyment and fulfilment.

By reasserting the value of public and democratic conversation, we start to counter disaffection and apathy. By working in a local setting, we make the case for devolved decision-making. By working through our concerns and hopes together, we learn what unites us as human beings, and start to counter the atomisation of public life. By taking steps towards a more co-operative future, we can fashion a new civic identity.

The choice to do nothing is a choice for the increasingly unjustifiable status quo. But we can replace our obsession with economic growth and our greed for more of the world’s resources, and learn to share our riches more equitably, with each person making a fair contribution to a good society. We can do better, and we start by taking small steps.

David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire

My society would (‘should’) be organized around justice and fairness for all; affordable education; citizen participation in decision-making. It would be a society in which a sense of community would be balanced with a right to privacy, and one in which citizens would be sophisticated enough to realize they are on a planet in space (a risky situation indeed) – which realization hopefully would remind them to keep the place tidy.

I know, pie in the sky, right? Everyone knows justice is meted out unfairly (“Them who has, gets”, as my father-in-law liked to say). Here in the States, even among the non-profits, education has evolved into a for-profit enterprise. A sense of community is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain; more citizens participating in decision-making too often results in more uninformed decisions; and understanding privacy as a right is, well, almost quaint. Still, justice, access to education, community participation, privacy, and the like, hopefully will remain touchstones for a liberal democracy (“Reach for the top to gain the middle” – an old Chinese saying, I’m told).

But there’s something else – something rarely taken into account in these matters. Humans were organizing themselves millennia before social, political, and economic theory became difficult subjects for scholars to opine over. They lived in small communities that melded easily into the landscape among the other creatures who had their own projects, organized according to their own needs. But over time, we humans managed to muscle our way into their domains with relative impunity, and with stunning success. Yet now we are at a watershed moment, and if we continue structuring our societies from the narrowly-crafted templates that have rewarded this success, we will not only continue to foul nests, but endanger nestbuilding altogether. If we cannot change old habits, and persuade the powers that be to do likewise, how we organize ourselves will be a moot point. The ideals of justice, the rights of citizenship, privacy, and community must now, and most seriously, incorporate considerations of the wider environment – and fast. Will this happen? Stay tuned.

Roger Tripp, San Antonio, Texas

Next Question of the Month

The next question is a two-parter, What Is Art? and/or What is Beauty? Please give and justify your aesthetic understanding in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 19th January. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. We would greatly welcome some answers from women too.

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