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Envisioning Society

by Grant Bartley and Rick Lewis

Disasters and threats of disasters of all kinds, global and local, raise their snarling heads over our societies, casting shadows on the news bulletins and front pages. There’s nothing particularily new about this. But it does demonstrate that society is still liable to change, if only because it must adapt to the world that societies themselves change. This awareness of the inevitability of change, and the nagging awareness of imperfections in the current processes of politics and economics, lead to the questions, “What can we make our world into?” and “What will society become?” Those questions are surely rattling around somewhere inside every curious and intelligent mind. But to discover good answers, we first have to understand what society is, how it works and the possibilities of change it presents given limitations of various kinds.

By ‘society’ I mean a collection of individuals interacting and making a living together. The point of the functioning of any society is therefore surely to benefit the individuals composing it, then other involved parties. So a basic question of humanitarian political philosophy is, what are the best ways for a society to benefit its people, and then the world? Our world currently faces problems of overpopulation, migration, environmental damage, climate instability and terrorism, and new challenges arise all the time. How must society change to deal with these issues?

Such puzzles in turn spawn questions about core values. What values are necessary for human social life? Justice? Beauty? Equality? Truth? Pleasure? What values are not strictly necessary but still desirable? And how do we prioritise our values? Allow me to add as an important but underrated question of social development, how do we best accommodate the fact that values change? A familiar example of the problem of prioritising values is the perennial issue of balancing a person’s rights and their responsibilities – which itself is an aspect of the problem of balancing individual freedoms against wider social benefit.

This sort of social thinking is always in flux. And once reeled in, the answers to such questions can be further questioned, and should be. Yet once we’ve answered all these questions we can finally ask: how could society work so that our necessary values thrive, and our other values too as far as possible?

Such thought experiments could bear fruit. For instance, can we conceive a world that has solved the global migration crisis? What would it look like? Once we’ve imagined it we can start to create it. So it is for all the major social problems we face. Imagining what a society functioning well according to our core values could look like, is certainly a start; and to get a boulder rolling it’s sometimes enough to see that there are possible good ways to nudge it.

Apart from questioning its principles, another good way of deepening our understanding of any society, in terms of both its reality and its potential for change, is by seeking new perspectives on it; by looking at it in different, novel ways. Not only are our horizons expanded by this, but otherwise hidden assumptions about our world may also be brought into the spotlight, sometimes for the first time. The purpose is not to nurture dissatisfaction, but to loosen imagination. Think big, and think deep.

Grant Bartley


“If there were a nation of gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

Three articles in this issue of Philosophy Now are specifically about democracy. This is crucial in an issue about ‘visions of society’ as it is mainly through democracy that competing visions of society can be examined and brought into reality. Matt Qvortrup tells us about the aristocratic Aristotle’s astonishingly prescient advocacy of democracy. Mihail Evans describes a surprising new way to think about the fundamental nature of political representation. And Lorenzo Capitani floats an idea about requiring voters to be qualified by examination to cast their votes on different issues.

This year many people have been fretting about the nature of democracy, with a highly contentious presidential election in the USA, a close-run federal election in Australia and a bruising referendum in Britain. In the last of these the democratic nature or otherwise of the European Union’s decision-making processes was one factor in the debate. What is it for a system of government to be sufficiently democratic? What is it for an election to be sufficiently democratic? Voices are raised complaining that one side or both have lied, or been guilty of scaremongering, unfair campaigning or other failings, and that the legitimacy of the election has therefore been compromised. Pollsters’ estimates of demographics lead to angry claims that some votes should not have counted because those casting them were too old, too poorly-educated, insufficiently able to grasp the complex issues at stake, or insufficiently able to detect and discount lies told by politicians. I believe we should all develop and help others develop the ability to make well-reasoned voting decisions. But a slogan of those campaigning to widen the franchise in the 19th century was “trust the people.” We should. Not because every individual can be confidently trusted to always be an ideally rational voter (if there is any such creature) but because in general and in the long term the consequences of trusting the people tend to be far better than the consequences of not doing so.

Rick Lewis

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